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. Why watch something that sounds both boring and horrific?
Director Sarah Polley calls Women Talking a fable — an imaginary response to real incidents of sexual violence in a Low German Mennonite colony in Bolivia.
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 honored to know, coming together to decide how to respond after unimaginable violence — not only imagined, but real and enacted. I walked out of the theater thinking about 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, and sat under a shade tree with neighbors talking about life.
Every so often people would talk about the past: the horrors of la violencia and the agonizing choice about whether they would forgive the men who had ordered their displacement. Many of those conversations happened as women gathered to talk.
“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 desired: peace and a life of dignity, where everyone had enough for themselves and enough to share.
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 offered to those who had harmed them. By forgiving, they were able to see themselves as people with agency to 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 neighbor 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 neighbors and God, even in the face of incredible harm? What does that challenge mean for our lives?
While forgiveness isn’t the only thing 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 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, is an opening for agency. And 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, we forgive. Because we have dignity in the face of violence, we forgive.
After watching Women Talking, I left the theater missing those moments of sitting under a tree in Colombia. Life in Canada often feels less inspiring and much more challenging.
Yet real life is not a fable. It takes real action. And hard work. And authentic conversations. Come, pull up a chair next to me. Let’s talk.
Anna Vogt co-directs Mennonite Central Committee Canada’s Peace & Justice Office. She blogs on “Peace is more than a wish” at mcccanada.ca/peace-more-wish.