By Anna Vogt
Almost the whole movie Women Talking takes place in a barn. Women, sitting on hay bales, talk about how to respond to terrible violence.
When I enthusiastically describe the film’s premise to my friends, they roll their eyes. Director Sarah Polley calls Women Talking a “fable” or an imaginary response to real incidents of sexual violence in Low German Mennonite colonies in Bolivia. Why would we want to watch something that seems to be equal parts boring and horrific?
When I saw the film, I didn’t see a fable. To me, it was far from imaginary. Rather, I saw the story of countless communities and groups I have been honoured to know, coming together to decide how to respond after unimaginable violence—not only imagined, but real and enacted. I walked out of the theatre mulling about themes of forgiveness, faith and nonviolence, and how those themes show up in my own life.
My mind wandered back to the years I spent in Mampuján, Colombia. On occasional lazy days, when it was too hot to do anything but chat, I would sit under a shade tree with my neighbours and community leaders, talking about life. Most of the time, it was about the ordinary stuff that consumed our days: how the crops were doing, the latest church gossip, a funny anecdote about someone’s kid.
Every so often people would talk about the past: the horrors of la violencia and the agonizing choice about whether or not they would forgive the men who had ordered their displacement. Many of those conversations happened as the women of the community gathered to talk and share their stories.
“As Afro-Colombian pueblos, we share the tradition of oral history,” community leader Juana Alicia Ruiz told me. As community members dug deeper into that history, they discovered something that surprised them. “We learned that violence is cyclical. So, we started to tell the entire story. Because, by telling it, we could work to stop the cycle of violence.”
The desire to break the cycle of violence moved the conversation away from what had happened toward what the community most deeply desired: peace. And not simply an absence of violence, but a life of flourishing and dignity where everyone had enough for themselves and enough to share with others.
For those who chose to forgive (not everyone did), the decision was closely tied to a desire to create something new. My friends described forgiveness as a gift they gave themselves, emerging from their faith, rather than something they were offering to those who had harmed them. By forgiving, they were able to see themselves as people with agency to make choices and create new futures.
“You have to be willing to forgive, and to work hard to achieve real healing, independent of state justice toward victimizers. Although, of course, it helps if there is justice,” Juana said. “In Colombia, we need reconciliation and the willingness to forgive, to move forward.”
One of the central tenets of the Christian faith is to love both our neighbour and our enemy. But how? That is the question the characters in Women Talking wrestle with. It is also the question I face. How do we love ourselves, our neighbours and God, even in the face of incredible harm? What does that challenge mean for our lives, here and now?
While forgiveness isn’t the only element necessary for change, talking about it can help create a space where something new is possible. In both Women Talking and Mampuján, talking about forgiveness meant making hard decisions about how to move forward so that violence was no longer allowed to happen. In the case of Mampuján, forgiveness involved direct advocacy to the Colombian government, calling for reparations and truth-telling, even in the face of death threats.
Forgiveness, when it is a choice made freely, can be an opening for agency. And for more than just agency, for love.
Because we love ourselves, we forgive. Because we love our community, we forgive. Because we need our country to be founded on something other than hate, we forgive. Because we have the power to break a cycle of violence, we forgive. Because our faith in God demands it of us, we forgive. Because we have dignity in the face of violence, we forgive.
After watching Women Talking, I left the theatre missing those moments of sitting under a tree in Colombia, together. Life in Canada often feels less inspiring and much more challenging, trying to live well in the relationships I currently hold. Yet real life is not a fable. It’s not about creating imaginary responses to things that happen to us. It takes real action. And hard work. And authentic conversations. Come, pull up a chair next to me. Let’s talk.
Mennonite Central Committee: Relief, development and peace in the name of Christ
Anna Vogt is co-director of MCC Canada Peace & Justice Office. She writes a monthly blog, including this one, on “Peace is more than a wish,” mcccanada.ca/peace-more-wish.
If you have seen the film, what was your reaction? What issues did it bring up for you in relation to your experiences of harm? What did you find empowering?
How can we see different kinds of violence and recognize this as “our issue” in “our communities,” not just “their problem in those colonies or in other countries?”
Where are spaces in your life to talk together about what it could mean to move forward after violence or conflict? What does it mean to support each other after harm?
In Mampuján, community leaders talk about forgiveness as a gift they give themselves. How is that understanding of forgiveness different or similar to your current understanding of forgiveness?