To say that in recent years that broader amorphous beast loosely called “the film industry” has been the centre of often high-profile discourse about gender inequality is an understatement. Beginning in 2017, the Toronto International Film Festival put its money where its mouth is with the launch of its Share Her Journey campaign, “a five-year commitment to increasing participation, skills, and opportunities for women behind and in front of the camera”.1

A widely publicised fundraising campaign, money raised through the program has a clear mandate in terms of the practical ways it seeks to achieve this goal including the 10-week Micki Moore residency mentorship for emerging women screenwriters; THE RBC Female Creator Initiative; the Heggie Family Speaker Series which focuses on issues pertaining to gender in screen culture; the creation of educational materials for use in schools on the role of women and gender in film; the practical application of industry data to further opportunities for women in the industry, all with an explicit vision to “Champion diversity of gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and physical and cognitive ability within gender equity initiatives.”2

What this formal PR-toned spiel doesn’t reveal, however, is what this means in terms of the individual experience of those of us for whom the Share Her Journey campaign has assisted. In both the spirit of transparency and as the explicit subjective core of this report, 2019 marked the second year that my opportunity to cover the festival as an Australian woman film critic was partially supported by the campaign.

Meryl Streep at the TIFF Tribute Gala (Getty Wire Images for TIFF – Matt Winkelmeyer)

Simply put, without this support, I would never have imagined such an opportunity would be available to me. When my invitation arrived in 2018, it took me a few moments to realise I wasn’t being trolled, when a sense of seemingly built-in doubt morphed slowly into the sensation that I had somehow fluked the film critic equivalent of the magical golden ticket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It took some time for me to mentally digest the significance of the invitation on a more objective level; while I have always had a passion for cinema in its broadest terms, my area of specific expertise has lay in the distinctly lowbrow terrain of cult, horror and exploitation cinema, with a focus on gender politics. In recent years, my attention has also turned towards women’s filmmaking, with a particular interest on women in the horror genre. To say this is niche in general terms is a given, but in Australia I often felt like a straight-up oddball. Added to this the fact that the bulk of my non-writing life was dedicated to being a mum, in my most critical moments of self-reflection I frequently saw myself as little more than a glorified hobbyist.

The support of the Share Her Journey campaign and its providing me the opportunity to cover TIFF gave me a sense of professional validation I was until then unaware I was missing. In Australia at least, film criticism is often felt to lie in the blurry outskirts of the lines between audience and industry, and to have my role as a part of the latter formally acknowledged to be honest at first came as something of a shock.

This is, of course, about more than just me. Statistics from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative for film critics cited on the Times Up Critical website lays out inclusion goals for entertainment reporters and critics in response to data that in 2017, in terms of the top 100 grossing films of the year, 78% of critics were male and 22% were women.3

Atlantics (Atlantique, Mati Diop)

In 2015, Meryl Streep famously called out the gender bias on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes in particular, describing the imbalance as “infuriating”. Claiming that at the time there were 168 women critics, (in contrast to 760 men) Streep was unequivocal in her conclusions; “I submit to you that men and women are not the same, they like different things. Sometimes they like the same thing but sometimes their tastes diverge. If the Tomatometer is slighted so completely to one set of tastes, that drives box office in the United States, absolutely”.4

Rotten Tomatoes read the room and took action; in August 2019, for example, they announced they had added “600 independently verified critics” in the previous twelve months as part of a widespread inclusion initiative that focused not only on gender but race, ethnicity and alternate platforms (podcasts, YouTube, etc). Of the 600 critics, 55% were women, and 60% were freelancers.5

For women film critics covering TIFF in 2019 like myself, of course, the significance of Streep as an important voice in publicly addressing questions of film criticism and gender inequality was not lost as she was awarded the TIFF Tribute Actor Award, marking her decades-long work in the industry. But the spirit of diversity on a more intersectional level could also be felt through these formal accolades. Mati Diop, the Senegalese-French director of the breathtakingly haunting Atlantics (Atlantique), which had its North American premiere at the festival, was awarded the inaugural Mary Pickford Award for Outstanding Talent.

Atlantics was one of many films which drew large audiences for women-directed features at the festival, and actively directing audiences to see women-made films was explicitly encouraged by the Festival (the first entry of the 2019 edition of the official “TIFF Bingo” card, for instance, was to see “3 films directed by women”.6 There were, of course, the big names; Lorene Scafaria’s star-studded pro-sex worker heist film Hustlers made its world premiere, as did a number of high-profile women-directed biopics: Marielle Heller’s Tom Hanks-fronted Mr Rogers feature A Beautiful Day in Your Neighborhood, Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet (her portrait of legendary abolitionist Harriet Tubman), Unjoo Moon’s Helen Reddy film I Am Woman, and perhaps most impressively Marjane Satrapi’s extraordinarily moving and politically complex movie about Marie Curie, Radioactive, starring Rosamund Pike.

Male directors also turned to profiles of two famously troubled women actors in Australian director Benedict Andrews’ Seberg (starring a perfectly cast Kristen Stewart in the title role) and of course Rupert Goold’s much-hyped Judy, Renée Zellweger’s performance as Judy Garland already the recipient of that much-desired TIFF “Oscar buzz”. The first four hours of Mark Cousins’ epic 14-hour-long Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema also made its world premiere, a sample from an ambitious documentary project with 1000 clips from 183 women-directed films from around the world, encompassing 13 decades and including narration from icons including Jane Fonda, Debra Winger, Thandie Newton and Adjoa Andoh.

My Zoe (Julie Delpy)

Elsewhere, with its Canadian premiere Céline Sciamma’s exquisite Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) also met with enthusiastic audiences, following on from its Cannes successes where it won both the Best Screenplay and Queer Palm awards. Other notable women-directed highlights from around the globe included the world premieres of Julie Delpy’s My Zoe, Mattie Do’s Bor Mi Vanh Chark (The Long Walk), Mahnaz Mohammadi’s Son-Mother, Alice Winocour’s Proxima, Coky Giedroyc’s How to Build a Girl, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s The Friend, Małgorzata Szumowska’s first English-language feature The Other Lamb, as well as the North American premiere of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate, Katrin Gebbe’s Pelicanblut (Pelican Blood) starring Christian Petzold collaborator Nina Hoss, and Maryam Touzani’s Adam.

The only woman-directed feature in the beloved cult Midnight Madness program, Rose Glass’s debut Saint Maud, revealed a filmmaker already punching well above her weight as well as the power of women directors in the particularly male-dominated realm of horror cinema. The gender breakdown of other programs was perhaps more representative of TIFF’s commitment to gender imbalances; in the press-magnet Gala program, for instance, nine of its 18 films were directed or co-directed by women.

Saint Maud (Rose Glass)

Recently appointed Contemporary World Cinema Lead Programmer Kiva Reardon presented a strand which included movies from 48 countries, 21 of which were directed or co-directed by women including world premieres of Louise Archambault’s Il pleuvait les oiseaux (And the Birds Rained Down), Sophie Deraspe’s Antigone, Amy Jo Johnson’s Tammy’s Always Dying and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn’s The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open. The Masters program (which included five first-time filmmakers) included Alanis Obomsawin’s Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger, Angela Schanelec’s Ich war zuhause, aber… (I Was at Home, But…) and the latest Arturo Ripstein film El Diablo entre las Piernas (Devil Between The Legs), written by his long-term collaborator (and wife) Paz Alicia Garciadiego.

Once again, however, the festival highlights came from the Platform and Discovery programs, the former which included 40% of films directed by women. Of these, the world premiere of Rocks, from Sarah Gavron of Suffragette (2015) and Brick Lane (2007) fame, created much audience buzz with its unconventional approach to collaborating with its cast made up primarily of young women as it focussed on the experience of modern-day adolescence. The TIFF Docs strand is no stranger to big-name women filmmakers, this year’s world premieres including Ellen Page and Ian Daniel’s There’s Something in the Water, Eva Orner’s Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, Bryce Dallas Howard’s Dads, Eva Mulvad’s Love Child, and Desert One from the legendary Barbara Kopple.

The stand-out Discovery program was made up of 37 films from 25 countries, and exceeded parity with 54% of its films directed by women. Alongside world premieres including Kim Seung-woo’s Bring Me Home, Nicole Dorsey’s Black Conflux, Sanja Zivkovic’s Easy Land, and Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever and the international premiere of Klaudia Reynicke’s Love Me Tender, the unquestioning highlights of this strand was Chiara Malta’s fictional behind the scenes making of a film about the real life of cult icon Elina Löwensohn (a re-enactment of her performance in the Sonic Youth “Kool Thing” dance sequence from Hal Hartley’s 1992 Simple Men an undoubtable festival highlight), and Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s powerhouse sophomore feature Disco, starring TIFF19 Rising Star Josefine Frida as a young woman struggling to find practical help in the superficial world of Norway’s splintered evangelical Christian scene.

Sea Fever (Neasa Hardiman)

Other women-directed strand-specific highlights included Miryam Charles’s short but powerful Second Generation and Jessica Sarah Rinland’s immersive reflection on the relationship between original and replica in Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Another in the Wavelengths program, and while the Short Cuts strand had no lack of women filmmakers work to showcase, stand-outs included Sonia K. Hadad’s Exam and Karen Moore’s Volcano. Finally, as one of the six forthcoming television series showcased in the Primetime program that highlights the most exciting work on the small screen, Rachel Perkins represented Australia with Black Bitch starring Deborah Mailman and Rachel Griffiths. Of these, 64% of the episodes were both directed and created by women.

As demonstrated with this brief program overview, to say that 2019 was a big year for women at TIFF is no understatement; in total, 36% of all films shown were directed by women, the highest percentage in the festival’s 44-year history. But as festival co-head Joana Vicente has noted, there is still much room for improvement, noting that “There’s a lot of work to be done on the pipeline side…We need to work on getting equal opportunities, making sure women get the mentorship and the connections to really be able to put their films together”7

Behind the screening program, significant work is being done on this front also; aside from a number of gender- and diversity- focussed sessions in the Industry Conference component of the festival, for instance, an even more practical addition in 2019 has been the introduction of the “Childcare for Professionals” initiative to allow primary carers to participate when they otherwise may have been prevented from doing so. Young people were also involved in the Festival in a more hands-on way with the Next Wave committee that consisted of 12 high school students who curated a program of ten films selected for their perceived relevance to other young people. Of this committee, 83% were women or gender non-conforming, and half of the films they selected were either directed or co-directed by women.

Volcano (Karen Moore)

But perhaps for all the activity behind closed doors – be it in cinemas, conference rooms, or childcare facilities – TIFF’s commitment to the ethos of their Share Her Journey campaign spread outside with the free public screenings of Lone Scherfig’s An Education and Drew Barrymore’s Whip It to celebrate their 10th anniversaries, Gurinder Chada’s Bride and Prejudice to mark its 15th anniversary, and Amy Heckerling’s Look Who’s Talking to make its 30th anniversary, all part of the “Screenings on the Street” program. For me, this spirit of sharing the accomplishments of women in the film industry took a more specific form in the experience of just seeing so many film critic peers – women I know already, and those I met for the first time – out in the muck of it all, sleeves rolled up and tired eyes hungry for more and more, just like mine. This was my journey, and for myself both personally and professionally, it’s one worth sharing.

Toronto International Film Festival
5-15 September 2019
Festival website: https://www.tiff.net/

Endnotes:

  1. Share Her Journey: About“, TIFF website.
  2. Share Her Journey: The Plan“, TIFF website.
  3. Times Up Critical https://timesupcritical.com/.
  4. Jessica Lachenal, “Meryl Streep Reveals an ‘Infuriating’ Gender Imbalance in Rotten Tomatoes Reviews“, The Mary Sue, 9 October 2015.
  5. Dade Hayes, “Rotten Tomatoes Reports Adding 600 Critics to Tomatometer In Diversity Push“, Deadline, 28 August 2019. (I myself was one of these 600, and tick both of these boxes).
  6. TIFF Bingo“, TIFF website.
  7. Etan Vlessing, “Toronto Fest Co-Head Joana Vicente Urges Gender Equality for Women Directors“, The Hollywood Reporter, 20 August 2019.

About The Author

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas has published five books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with a particular focus on gender politics. Her books include Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Film: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2014), a 2016 monograph on Dario Argento’s Suspiria (part of Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series), a 2017 book on Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 as part of Wallflower/Columbia University Press’s Cultographies series, and in 2018, a book on Robert Harmon's 1986 film The Hitcher, published by Arrow Books. She is currently working on books including 1000 Women in Horror, a book on art and intertextuality in giallo cinema, and co-editing a collection about the film work of Elaine May for Edinburgh University Press's ReFocus series. Alexandra was an editor at Senses of Cinema until March 2018.