Talking About ‘Women Talking’ in Steinbach

Right now, Quita Alfred is at the Academy Awards with Sarah Polley and Miriam Toews. And Rooney Mara. And Claire Foy. And Jessie Buckley. (I could go on. And probably should.) But this past Wednesday evening, she was nestled between Andrew and I at Keystone Cinema in Steinbach, watching Women Talking.

The very film she created Mennonite-style dresses for.

The very film that is up for an Oscar for Best Picture tonight.



Look. I’ve seen the film five times now. Each time it was a different experience. A magnificent experience. Culminating in the most extraordinary experience of them all – watching it in Steinbach while sitting next to Quita.

So let me tell you exactly what happened on Wednesday night, according to me.

First, Andrew and I, together with Stephanie Klassen, one of the owners of The Public Brewhouse and Gallery (Steinbach’s first and thus far only brewery), met Quita at MJ’s Kafe for a very fun early supper of vereniki and schmauntfatt.

I left this phenomenal crew early because I was the self-appointed movie-theatre-seat-saver. (That’s how it works in this small town, anyway.) Meanwhile, Quita, Steph, and Andrew went over to The Public to relax with a pre-show pint and more excellent conversation.

posters advertising the event, outside The Public (photo by Andrew Unger)

It’s a good thing I showed up early because that night the movie was completely sold out. I knew the theatre had been pretty full for the film’s run in Steinbach, but a very long line and sold out showing? A fantastic spectacle for Quita to witness!

It was surreal to watch the film with one of its creators. She knew of all the processes and background stories and info because she was there. But on Wednesday night, Quita was simply seeking to see the movie in Miriam Toews’ hometown of Steinbach, surrounded by Mennonites. (Probably. Many of us are incognito by this point so it can be tough to tell for sure, but given the location and circumstances it’s a safe assumption…)

After the movie, I could see that Quita was incredibly moved. We saw Miriam Toews’ name on the big screen and applauded. We saw Quita Alfred’s name on the big screen and applauded yet again. It was so special to applaud the artist who was sitting right there with us all.

We walked out into the bracing cold and crunched our way across the parking lot to The Public. We admired the feed mill, Steinbach’s main street centerpiece, as we walked. Stepping into the pub, it was full to the brim with many familiar, kind, intelligent faces. I knew for sure I was outclassed by the attendees and was concerned about my involvement in the Q&A, honestly. But I wasn’t actually nervous because I knew Quita is well-spoken and fascinating and doesn’t need anyone there facilitating a Q&A really.

Stephanie Klassen introducing Quita, Andrew, and I.

Sitting there “hosting” the Q&A on International Women’s Day was an amazing opportunity and I don’t think I did a very good job at all. Every single person in that room was more articulate than I, and once again I benefited from surrounding myself by extraordinarily kind smart people. I tell folks it was an amazing evening in spite of me. Andrew will make me delete this paragraph.

To cram ourselves into The Public to hear Quita speak (with no need of a mic, I might add, thanks to the design of this intimate space) felt like a dream. A dream filled with dear faces, people, voices, thoughts. Everyone paying rapt attention to this extraordinary artist who felt it was such a special experience to be in our midst.

And she explained why. Why it was important for her to be here, now, in this moment. What it meant to her. I cannot repeat what she said, I didn’t take notes, I didn’t want to take my eyes off her. I felt so lucky to sit so near to her and take in her aura of adventure and gratitude and joy. Sheer joy.

Part of the reason she was delighted, was the element of surprise. Surprise to see clear evidence, here in Steinbach, of enthusiastic support for Miriam Toews’ work.

Why surprise? Andrew examined this question in an article he posted yesterday.

Because when you create art, you don’t know what the reception will be, really. And to all the creators of Women Talking, Sarah Polley and Miriam Toews specifically, what Mennonites think matters deeply. Quita has spent so much time with Miriam and Sarah over the past few years working on this project, and because this is the week of the Oscars they were already in Hollywood attending Oscar-related events and could not be here now to experience seeing the film in Steinbach, come what may. Quita was almost like their emissary. Not that they assigned this to her. This was Quita’s idea, and when we realized she intended to see the film in Steinbach, we introduced her to Steph of The Public and the idea of this evening grew from there. Because when you have someone so special in your midst, you want to acknowledge and honour her and hear what she has to say. You want to linger and enjoy her company, if she is so willing. And she was. We were beyond thrilled!

Now, as a Steinbach-based Mennonite, it seems to me that the costumes worn by the actresses were incredibly familiar. I feel I’ve seen them a lot over the course of my lifetime. But I myself have never been in the group of Mennonites that actually wears these kinds of dresses or head coverings so I may not be qualified to say that yes this was definitely completely accurate. But, I have heard from others who are more intimately acquainted with such garments that yep, Quita’s creations were indeed exactly right. And not just accurate, but the love and care and detailed passionate research she put into interpreting and realizing each garment came through. So much respectful detail is embedded into each dress. I’ve learned to be in awe of these dresses, thanks to Quita. They are indestructible. They are practical. They are comfortable. And, thanks to cottagecore trends, they are in fashion. (An unexpected surprise, but its lack of connection to the history and meaning of the dress makes its sudden trendiness feel bizarre and hollow.)

I love hearing Quita talk about her research. She dove enthusiastically into the world of Mennonites. Being from Winnipeg herself, she’s friends with many Mennonites, and knew just where to find even more Mennonites. We listened with rapt attention to her stories of connections that led to more connections, and her love of southern Manitoba-based MCC thrift shops. (Just think of it! Over the past few years, some of us may have unknowingly rubbed shoulders with Quita at the MCC as she sought costumes for the film adaptation of Women Talking! I love just sitting with that thought for a moment.)

She told us about what it’s like working for Sarah Polley – the incredible collaborative process and its unusual outcome – that in the end, all the actors liked each other. I loved the story she told us about the Hollywood Escalades – how there was one for each of them to shuttle them from one location to another and it just didn’t make sense to them. Turns out it’s generally assumed that actors ought to be kept away from each other, as many do not like each other. But those who worked on this film wanted to be together, not kept apart. The fact this is unusual also blows me away. This sense of camaraderie that Sarah Polley so obviously fostered in the making of this film warms my heart and just sits right.

The questions from the audience at The Public were fantastic. Some fascinating observations and thoughts were shared, all of which affirmed the entirety of the story and film of Women Talking and Quita’s work.

The conversations continued after the formal portion was over, as we all mixed and mingled and clinked glasses and savoured the best platz I have ever tasted (created by phenomenal culinary genius Julie of Bloom).

We concluded the evening lingering at the bar with Quita ‘til midnight, basking in the glow of the entire evening.

Taken after midnight, as we were about to leave. We are glowing! (And maybe a little tired as well 🙂

Yet as Miriam had mentioned in an email, reflecting on all the pre-Oscar Hollywood hoopla, may we not lose sight of the women on that Mennonite colony in Bolivia. The victims. There is much sadness in all of this.

We are grateful to our friends at The Public for organizing and hosting this incredible event in their beautiful space. We are grateful to the people of Keystone Cinema for bringing this movie here (we weren’t sure they would, in the beginning) and allowing Steph to introduce Quita to the theatre-going audience. We are grateful to Miriam Toews for writing this book. We are grateful to Sarah Polley for writing this screenplay and directing this film in such an extraordinary way. And we are grateful to Quita for making the journey to Steinbach to generously spend the evening with us all.

Perspectives are important, so I want to share a link to MaryLou Driedger’s blog post about her experience at this event as well. With gratefulness.

Feature photo courtesy of Katrina Sergeevna and Ashley Booth-Gingras.