Girls on Film: Why the Toronto International Film Festival is the best platform for female filmmakers
The Toronto International Film Festival is huge. While most film festivals offer 50 to 100 films, TIFF offers hundreds of selections, ranging from mainstream Hollywood fare to obscure foreign films that you pretty much can't see anywhere else.
By sheer virtue of the festival's size, the usual stats regarding women in film take on a new dimension. As a percentage, female directors make up only 19 percent of the 284 features shown at the 2014 Toronto festival — a number much lower than this year's Cannes festival, which boasted 30 percent. But while 30 percent means just 15 female directors at Cannes, it means a whopping 58 female directors showed up in Toronto — a rise from the 50 women in 2011 (which included both feature and short films).
Through sheer volume and reach, TIFF has become an ongoing reminder of the talent Hollywood is failing to capture — changing the question from "Where are the women?" to "Why aren't you hiring any of these women?"
This year, women offered an unprecedented slate of films rich in thematic and visual diversity. Meet some of them below.
Dukhtar | (Courtesy of TIFF)
Overseas, female filmmakers are overcoming rigid, gendered law to tell stories of women and children living under oppression.
In 2012, Haifaa al-Mansour offered Wadjda, the first full-length feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. In a region where the director couldn't even publicly mix with her male crew and had to direct from a van, she made a critically acclaimed foundation for the country's cinema — one about a little girl with a green bicycle hoping for a slice of freedom.
This year, Afia Nathaniel continues the trend with the moving TIFF film Dukhtar, the first feature filmed in the mountains of Pakistan. Nathaniel overcame bombs, murder, and extreme weather in the region to capture the story of a mother disgusted to learn that her 10-year-old daughter Zainab will be married to an old tribal leader to end an ongoing feud. She escapes with her daughter, determined to save her by reuniting with the mother she hasn't seen since her own planned marriage.
This year, 82-year-old documentarian Alanis Obomsawin made history by becoming the first indigenous Canadian filmmaker to be part of TIFF's Masters program. Her latest, Trick or Treaty?, follows indigenous people peacefully protesting the Canadian government to stand by a 1905 treaty between the government and the First Nations of Canada.
In an entirely different vein, Wet Bum, the feature debut from writer/director Lindsay McKay, is a thoughtful look at girlhood, focusing on the tumultuous world of 14-year-old Sam (Julia Sarah Stone). McKay juxtaposes Sam's job at a retirement home with her experiences as a kid bullied by her classmates and flirtatiously targeted by her older swim instructor.
Oscar-winning short filmmaker Torill Kove has made another sweet, funny, and women-centric short animation at the fest, Me and My Moulton (which will be released online later this year). Where her previous The Danish Poet is a romance, Moulton follows a Norwegian girl and her sisters who must suffer the embarrassment of architect parents who always buy the kids their own version of the kids' childish desires.
It has become abundantly clear in recent years that people of color have to be given the reins of films about race, a theme that's playing out at this year's festival with white American filmmaker Mike Binder's controversial film Black and White.
Fortunately, there are two films that offer far more nuance and perspective.
Maya Forbes makes her directorial debut with Infinitely Polar Bear, a story of her own history of dealing with a black mother who leaves to get an MBA, and a manic-depressive white father who must become the responsible provider. It's a humorous and thoughtful reflection on growing up in the '70s, one that manages to address racial identity without the usual tiresome tropes.
TIFF is also boasting Gina Prince-Bythewood's latest, Beyond the Lights, which focuses on a young British singer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) as she struggles on the brink of stardom. It's a straightforward self-realization narrative, but one that also speaks to race, the expectations of fame, and the sexism women in the spotlight face.
The Riot Club | (Courtesy of TIFF)
Director Lone Scherfig is one of many filmmakers this year reminding audiences that there are female directors who shouldn't be marginalized into a genre or conceit. Scherfig's offering is The Riot Club, a look at privilege and patriarchy through the lens of an elite group at a boys' school. (Our capsule review here.)
In October Gale, Ruba Nadda has eschewed her usual focus on Islam and interracial connection to tell a quiet and pensive thriller about a widow (Patricia Clarkson) who comes across a bleeding stranger in her cottage wilderness (Scott Speedman), and the man who wants to kill him (Tim Roth). Nadda has given Clarkson two of her most compelling, non-Hollywood-mom roles in recent years.
Marjane Satrapi, of Persepolis fame, has also done a career twist with The Voices, a bubblegum-colored horror movie about a seemingly sweet man with a murderous dark side (Ryan Reynolds) who routinely has conversations with his passive dog and vicious cat.
On Suffering and Connection
Welcome to Me | (Courtesy of TIFF)
Welcome to Me juxtaposes comedy with empathy to unsettling but worthwhile effect. Shira Piven's film stars Kristen Wiig as Alice Klieg, a woman with Borderline Personality Disorder who wins the Mega Millions lottery, quits her meds, and decides to buy her own talk show to finally be heard. It is both funny and heartbreaking as Alice publicly works through her angst and tries to fit into society in her own idiosyncratic way.
In Respire, actress/director Melanie Laurent (Inglorious Basterds) takes a harrowing look at an intense friendship between a solitary girl (Josephine Japy) and a vivacious and secretive new friend (Lou de Laage). Like Wet Bum, it looks at the insidiousness of teen manipulation and bullying, but to darker and more breathtaking ends.
This is the year of Madame Bovary, starting with the Posy Simmonds graphic novel adaptation, Gemma Bovery, which follows a man who becomes fixated on a neighbor who bears a resemblance to Flaubert's tragic heroine (capsule review here). More conventionally, Sophie Barthes' new adaptation of Madame Bovary eschews the greater narrative to focus on the life of its heroine (Mia Wasikowska), depicting her as a woman isolated, with no one to intellectually connect with, who tries anything and everything to break out of her restrictions.
Of course, to explore the wild skill of female filmmakers, one has to look no further than one of cinema's most undervalued female eyes — Julie Taymor. Alongside her two previous takes on Shakespeare with Titus and The Tempest, Taymor produced a short-lived reproduction of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which she then filmed. Though it takes place on a stage, Taymor surprise with her continued inventiveness, using projected images and a large white tarp to make a stage production pop like a cinematic feature.