Canadian Mennonites behind the scenes of ‘Women Talking’

Women Talking director Sarah Polley, right, with actors Rooney Mara, Judith Ivey and Claire Foy. — Michael Gibson/Orion Pictures Women Talking director Sarah Polley, right, with actors Rooney Mara, Judith Ivey and Claire Foy. — Michael Gibson/Orion Pictures

Not many farmers walk out of a movie theater and say, “It’s a lot of fun seeing our farm on the big screen.” But that’s what Chris Burkholder thought after he watched Women Talking at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall.

Burkholder and his brothers Rich and Ryan own the farm site in Clare­mont, Ont., where the movie was filmed in the summer of 2021. It’s one of a handful of locations on the nearly 3,000 acres of farmland the brothers own that they rent to film and TV production companies.

“We have a lot of fun doing it,” said Burkholder, who lives in Stouffville, Ont., and attends Community Mennonite Church there. “It fills in some of the less busy times when we’re not farming . . . so it works out well for us.”

In addition to the Burkholders’ farm, director Sarah Polley and her cast and crew shot parts of the film on a soundstage at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

To recreate the barn from the Burkholders’ property, production designer Peter Cosco turned to set designer Andrew Redekop, who has Mennonite ancestry.

Redekop produced the architectural drawings that were used to build the soundstage version of the barn, and he helped ensure that it matched the real-life barn as closely as possible.

“I really like getting into the nitty-gritty of the details of the location,” said Redekop, who has worked in the film industry for 25 years. “Most of what I do is episodic TV, which is a hectic schedule, so it’s nice to have time to finesse a set and extract all the detail you can from the existing location and incorporate it into the set.”

Redekop introduced Cosco to ­Making Believe: Questions About Mennonites and Art, a book his aunt, retired University of Toronto professor Magdalene Redekop, published in 2020.

“I wouldn’t have stumbled on that on my own,” Cosco said. “It was great having that inside line that [Andrew was] able to provide.”

Although the characters in the film are never identified as Mennonite, the filmmakers took their inspiration from Mennonite communities when creating the film’s aesthetic.

“[Sarah Polley] wanted to not be specific about where this was and who these people were,” Cosco said. “That freed us up a little bit because we were able to draw on a lot of research from Mennonite colonies in Belize, in Mexico, in Bolivia, in Uruguay.”

For the costume designer, Quita Alfred, creating clothing that wouldn’t look out of place in a conservative Mennonite community meant turning to Mary Anne Hildebrand of Winkler, Man., and Esther Janzen of St. Clements, Ont.

Both Hildebrand and Janzen have experience working with conservative Mennonite communities. They helped Alfred research the costuming and introduced her to vendors and makers who assisted with everything from fabric choices to putting ribbons on the hats the actors wore.

Hildebrand and Janzen are named as consultants in the film’s credits.

“One of the most important aspects of the help Mary Anne and Esther gave me was cultural sensitivity and helping me navigate dealing with the more traditional Mennonite communities in a culturally sensitive way,” Alfred said.

Hildebrand, who attends Pembina Mennonite Fellowship in Morden, Man., had reservations about getting involved with the film at first. She was concerned that it would create a permanent association between Bolivian Mennonites and sexual abuse.

In the end, she was pleased with her contributions to the film and the way it turned out.

“It’s fantastic that the women are portrayed as so powerful in those mundane clothes,” she said. “[The filmmakers] have brought something to light in this movie [sexual abuse] for us Mennonites that we need to talk about much more.”

On March 12, Women Talking won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. It was nominated for Best Picture. Director Sarah Polley wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Miriam Toews. The story of women deciding how to respond to rapes in their community is based on actual events at a Mennonite colony in Bolivia.

“Miriam Toews wrote an essential novel about a radical act of democracy in which people who don’t agree on ­every single issue manage to sit together in a room and carve out a way forward together, free of violence,” Polley said onstage at the Oscars.

Aaron Epp is senior writer for Canadian Mennonite.

Aaron Epp

Aaron Epp is the online media manager at Canadian Mennonite.

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!