Listening to A Talented Woman Talk About Women Talking

Women’s dresses fill this poster advertising the Oscar-nominated film Women Talking. On Wednesday night after seeing the film for the first time at Steinbach’s Keystone Cinema I was privileged to attend a special event featuring Quita Alfred the talented woman from Winnipeg who designed the dresses on the poster.

The movie’s script is based on the book Women Talking by celebrated Canadian author Miriam Toews who grew up in Steinbach.

On March 8th film fans packed The Public a brewhouse and art gallery just a few minutes walk from the Steinbach theatre where a sold-out audience had just watched Women Talking.

Quita Alfred with Stephanie Klassen representing The Public and Erin and Andrew Unger- photo from Quita Alfred’s Instagram page

As we sipped on cold glasses of beer and enjoyed pieces of delicious platz from the huge pan on the bar, local writers Erin and Andrew Unger interviewed Quita about her experience as the head costume designer for the film.

I had read articles about Quita and her work on Women Talking in the Winnipeg Free Press on Erin Unger’s Mennotoba blog and on the CBC website but hearing Quita talk in person in her passionate, utterly engaging and enthusiastic way about her experience creating the movie’s costumes was certainly a treat for everyone in attendance on Wednesday evening.

I volunteer at an MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) Thrift store so it was neat to learn that some of the film’s costumes had been purchased at MCC shops in southern Manitoba. Quita said that in particular many of the actors’ shoes worn in the film were bought at thrift stores.

In this photo by Michael Gibson, Sarah Polley the director of Women Talking is in discussion with the actors whose footwear is visible.

We don’t see the feet of the actors for long periods of time in the film save for a moving scene of the spiritual practice of foot-washing. But when their feet are in view you notice most of the female actors are wearing socks and sandals. Although Quita said not all the actors were keen about this unique footwear author Miriam Toews told Quita she LOVED it.

I was so intrigued when Quita described how there needed to be seven or eight ABSOLUTELY identical dresses for all the main actors since their outfits could be damaged by the heat, stunts and just general wear and tear.

Quita also described all the hard work that went into ‘breaking down’ the denim for the overalls we see on the screen so the material didn’t look so new. Two women sewed hundreds of pairs of overalls for the movie even though many scenes that were filmed with men and boys wearing those overalls eventually ended up on the cutting room floor as the film was edited.

The Women Talking cast in their dresses. Photo from the Women Talking Twitter account.

Most of the women’s dresses in the film were made of polyester and Quita wore dresses made of the material herself so she could figure out how the material felt and moved with her body. She realized why women living in colonies like the one in the film would wear polyester because it was affordable and practical and comfortable and kept its shape when laundered.

Quita and Women Talking Director Sarah Polley at the Costume Designer Guild Awards where Quita was a nominee. Quita told us she first got to know Sarah when the director was just a child and Quita was an assistant costume designer on the set of a television show called Road to Avonlea in which Sarah was a star. – photo from Quita’s Instagram page

Quita described the material she had purchased to create the dress she would wear at an awards ceremony. She wanted it to be true to the style and look of the dresses in the film. The pictures she posted of herself in that dress on her Instagram page certainly illustrate just how gorgeous it was and how perfectly it suited Quita.

Quita paid special tribute to the generosity and knowledge of MaryAnn Hildebrand from Manitoba and Esther Janzen from Ontario two Mennonite women who helped her do research, source materials and make the connections she needed to create authentic plain dress outfits for the actors.

I was fascinated by the way Quita talked about how she had designed the dresses for the movie characters based on their personality traits and also the families they were a part of in the film. She carefully considered the nature of each family and chose fabrics that aligned with their family dynamic.

Quita said there was some discussion about whether as filmmakers they had the right to tell the story in Women Talking since it was inspired by a horrific true incident of rape and abuse that happened to women in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia. But Quita said everyone involved in making Women Talking was committed to telling the women’s story with respect and without any voyeurism.

It was clear that Quita was delighted and moved to be in Steinbach seeing the film in a packed theatre with a Mennonite audience and then having such a large group turn out to hear her talk about the movie. She said it was better than being in Hollywood. She also mentioned that both movie director Sarah Polley and author Miriam Toews had sent their best wishes for the success of the evening.

Quita feels the message of Women Talking is so important. She hopes the movie will keep on generating meaningful conversations between the people who see it.

The conversation with her last Wednesday evening was certainly a meaningful one. I’m glad I was there.

Other posts………..

Elvira’s Mantra

All My Puny Sorrows- The Movie

A Mennonite on a Motorcycle

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