This week’s post comes from Anabaptist Historians’ contributor Rebecca Janzen. She is Associate Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Dr. Janzen is a scholar of gender, disability and religious studies in Mexican literature and culture whose research focuses on excluded populations in Mexico.
This blog post will contextualize Women Talking by examining the events on which it is based and alluding to the history of the portrayals of Old Colony Mennonites across the Americas. Women Talking (dir. Sarah Polley, 2022) is based on Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel of the same name.
Both the film and the book bring events from 2005 to 2011 to life. Between 2005 and 2009, women in the Manitoba Colony of Old Colony Mennonites in Bolivia reported waking up after experiencing various forms of sexualized violence, including rape, and not having any memory of what had happened. Others in their community accused them of fabricating the events from what was called a “wild female imagination.”
This is a common accusation levied against victims of sexualized violence and rape, and, as experts in trauma have demonstrated, survivors typically do not have memories of the events that can be shared in a logical, narrative order, that would satisfy the demands of any legal system. In 2009, the Bolivian authorities arrested nine men, and in 2011, it convicted seven of them for the crimes of rendering women unconscious via horse tranquilizer and raping them. These events reached international attention.
The events were covered by international news media in English, as well as national and international news in Spanish, and I believe it was so well reported because Mennonites (like Amish people) often attract attention when the community deviates from the idealized portrayals that I believe are rooted in problematic white supremacist ideas. Films like Silent Light have reached international acclaim for similar reasons (see my discussion of this on the Just Plain Wrong podcast). As I have shown in my previous academic work, when Old Colony Mennonites (and related groups) in Mexico and in Bolivia, are portrayed either as too perfect, or prone to crime or other questionable behavior, this says more about the surrounding culture and how it conceives of nationhood than of the particular group in question (listen to a brief summary of the book here).
The film, I think, tries to use these events to comment on the universal experience of sexualized violence and rape – the many positive reviews of the film focus on how this rings true, and I would emphasize that the film’s comments on the criminal legal system are true in Bolivia and anywhere else. Unfortunately, much like the novel, and most reporting, it is not based on women’s versions of events. Indeed, as I noted in a 2016 article that I wrote about Bolivian reporting on the events, I could not find recordings or statements of or by women affected by the events. I hope that Kerry Fast’s post in this series will give us more of that perspective.
The problem with this is that it has stopped being a story about these Old Colony Women. The maps in the film were based either on allusions to place in the book (rather than the well-known street village pattern of settlement) or to an otherworldly place that is no place, a Foucauldian heterotopia of horrors. And yet there are some very Bolivia elements to the story. First of all, the community was isolated on purpose. Mennonites migrated from Mexico to Bolivia between 1967 and 1969 in order to preserve the most traditional elements of their way of life, away from encroaching ideas of progress and larger urban centers. They joined a smaller group of Paraguayan Mennonites who had already established themselves there. The Bolivian government wanted to populate a strategically important region of the country with people who would be loyal to them, and who would, in their estimation, improve its economy. As Ben Nobbs-Thiessen’s analysis of the press from that time shows, the group was welcomed because of their perceived expertise in farming, although there were some concerns regarding language, dress, and religious beliefs.
The film removes this group of people from this place and this makes its discussion of the issues that face women who would like to leave a high demand religious community after experiences of violence general, rather than specifically focusing on issues that Old Colony Mennonite women in Bolivia would face, and extrapolating from there. The discussion of the issue of forgiveness, for instance, relies more on prevailing evangelical ideas of forgiveness and of the Kingdom of God than on the Old Colony Mennonite understanding of salvation as a communal enterprise that is never assured. This would undoubtedly make anyone’s decision to leave the community more difficult. The film also focuses on the colony’s purported pacifism. In my opinion it is extremely unlikely that an Old Colony Mennonite would use that word – while Mennonites in Bolivia have continually negotiated with the Bolivian government to ensure that men are exempted from military service (see Nobbs Thiessen), it is in order to preserve a separation from the broader world rather than articulated pacifism – the way Mennonites in my own background would discuss our aversion or resistance to military service.
I would add that the issues of education and language are also not addressed in the film. The film portrays what appears to be much like the inside of Old Colony Mennonite schools that I visited during my research in Mexico, it fails to mention that girls are educated. While they may receive fewer years of schooling than boys, in both cases, this is an education designed to prepare people to participate in the religious life of the community. Moreover, there are efforts in several Old Colony Mennonite communities to improve education while allowing people to stay in their own communities (see for example Abe Wall’s work in the Thames Valley District School Board in Ontario in Low German, summary of project here, or Amish teachers in Mexico, which I wrote about in the Journal of Mennonite Studies).
This education, moreover, is in German, and the community’s language is Low German. I suspect that the women I spoke with during my research knew more Spanish or English than they claimed, but they thought that because my father is fluent in Low German I should be able to speak it as well, and, according to my casual observations, they seemed to be able to conduct business with non-Mennonite people. I would emphasize that it is different to be able to conduct business than to establish oneself in a new community in a new culture and a new language. The line of buggies leaving the community at the end is a beautiful act of sorority, but, when we think about the women in Bolivia, and people everywhere who have survived sexualized violence, how can you leave when you have no education, no language to speak to anyone outside of your community? How could you leave everything behind?
I appreciate your reminder of the events behind both the book and the movie, and alerting us to the lives of Mennonite women of Bolivia. You are also correct to note that the portrayal is not a story about these Old Colony women, and that it “removes” them from a specific place into a more universal one. And for sure the conclusion of the film would be unlikely, both in a Bolivian Mennonite setting, or perhaps many a general one as well. I find myself pushing back on the implied critique, however, by reminding of the movie’s opening line: “What follows is an act of female imagination.” I would argue that the very notion of “imagination” involves, even requires, moving out of or beyond place. That line invites us to suspend disbelief and enter the core of the story, which gains power by its stark setting but is not intended to enact verisimilitude with original events. So can we call an act of imagination displaced?
I too was surprised to hear the woman say they are “pacifists.” It’s unlikely that such Mennonites would know or use the term. But no one then commented on how the violence they suffer is the opposite of “pacifism.” It seems a very intrusive moment in the script.