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TIFF: The Women of the Toronto Film Festival

Anyone attending this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is unavoidably reminded that TIFF has taken gender equality to heart. Reminders that sexual harassment, discrimination, or bullying of any kind will not be tolerated are included in attendees’ literature, online reminders, on prominently displayed posters at all film venues, and on the festival’s web page. The festival headquarters provides a representative, specifically to accept and deal with complaints of discrimination or harassment during the course of the event.

Moreover, TIFF has taken great pains to not merely include, but actively seek out members of the press and film industry from under-represented groups, including but not limited to women. Incoming artistic director and co-head of the festival, Cameron Bailey, comments that “access is the first step” toward greater inclusion in all areas of filmmaking. While pleased with the decision to target more women and other under-represented groups for press accreditation, Bailey allows that more needs to be done, although it’s necessary to “start with the door you hold the keys to.” TIFF’s efforts in this area, designated the Media Inclusion Initiative, has received financial aid and media support from such well known entities as Netflix, Twentieth Century Fox, Rotten Tomatoes, and Annapurna Pictures, to name a few.

These efforts at inclusion extend to the actual selection of festival submissions. In Hollywood, women filmmakers are struggling to get a place at the table, whether in the form of studio backing or recognition. Even the formerly inflexible Academy of Motion Pictures has acknowledged a problem – only five female directors have ever been nominated for an Oscar – and made efforts to include women (at least in their jury selection) as have a number of larger international film festivals. The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has taken up the challenge. This year, 36% of the films being presented are made by a woman director or co-director – up more than 2% from last year and higher than the already increased average of 29% at North American film festivals (according to the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and FIlm, May 2018). In addition, the festival has launched an initiative, Share Her Journey, which is intended to provide options for women in all aspects of filmmaking and increase female participation.

The new initiative, and the film festival itself, launches with a rally for Share Her Journey on the opening weekend, led by representatives from related organisations, including ReFrame, Time’s Up, and #AfterMeToo. The rally will be hosted by an array of celebrities, most prominently actress Geena Davis (founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media); Mia Kirshner (co-founder of #AfterMeToo); filmmaker Amma Asante (director of 2016’s A United Kingdom); Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute; and actress Amanda Brugel (The Handmaid’s Tale). Speakers include Dr Stacy Smith of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, described as a global think tank studying issues of inequality in entertainment. The rally concludes with an outdoor concert.

TIFF’s efforts do not end with a rally. Also well represented at the festival are films written by women, and those relating to women’s issues in a significant way. A particularly timely item in that category is the documentary Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, directed and produced by Alexis Bloom, a mainly documentary filmmaker best known for We Steal Secrets, a documentary about Wikileaks. Divide and Conquer deals with the career and ultimate downfall of the wealthy and powerful Roger Ailes (d May 2017) who founded a television empire but was brought down by charges of sexual discrimination and harassment on a grand scale, by female employees and associates.

On a similar theme is the Israeli feature drama Working Woman, which has its international premiere at this year’s TIFF. The plot deals with a young married mother of three who returns to work, only to be faced with ongoing sexual harassment by her boss. The film is written and directed by Michal Aviad, a filmmaker who is almost exclusively referred to as ‘feminist director Michal Aviad,’ a title more than justified by her many documentaries on women’s history and her 2011 drama, Invisible, which deals with two women’s recovery from rape.

Two films deal with the actual subject of women’s place in film. TIFF is taking on the challenging sixteen-hour documentary by Mark Cousins, Women Make Film – although only the first four hours will be screened. Somewhat more accessible, and with the draw of appearances by multiple movie stars, is This Changes Everything, Tom Donahue’s exploration of sexism in Hollywood, with appearances by high-level Hollywood talent, including Meryl Streep, Jessica Chastain, and Geena Davis. Is it a problem that the film is directed by a man? Tom Donahue has been a longtime promoter of women in film, and the director of Casting By, which explores the one position in film predominated by women, that of casting director; and Meryl Streep has remarked, “Progress will happen when men take a stand,” which makes Donahue’s involvement a positive sign by any criteria.

In the feature film category, there are some prominent submissions by women directors. Some which are drawing particular attention:

•Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher is a psychological thriller about a teacher (Maggie Gyllenhall) who becomes obsessed with one of her students.

High Life, Claire Denis’ science fiction adventure, is also getting attention. Denis, best known for war drama Beau Travail and last year’s Let The Sunshine In starring Juliette Binoche, was less recognised as assistant director to Wim Wenders on the brilliant Paris, Texas.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an unusual project by widely praised young director Marielle Heller, the true story of celebrity biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy is a rare dramatic role), who went on to a career of stealing and forging celebrity correspondence.

Maya, a tale of redemption filmed mainly in India, is the latest from esteemed French director Mia Hansen-Love (Things to Come, Goodbye First Love, Eden).

Red Joan intriguingly casts Dame Judy Dench as a physicist and Soviet spy Joan Stanley.

Lesser known films also represent the female voice, from a chronicle of the first all-female crew to enter a race around the world (Alex Holmes’ Maiden) to a war film about a band of Kurdish women fighting to take back their village from ISIS extremists (Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun), to many smaller-scale films from around the world that focus on ordinary women’s lives and struggles.

Tiff is also proud of this year’s extensive roster of short films, of which 54% are directed by women; and the 48% female representation among selections in their Discovery category, which introduces new filmmakers.