Gender Parity at TIFF 2019

The Toronto International Film Festival is one of Toronto’s biggest annual events. Cultivated around the celebration of new and ambitious cinema, TIFF is a prestigious endeavour. When a film debuts at TIFF, you know it will get attention and more often than not, award nominations. Now, you’ve likely noticed a pattern within award-winning films. With the exception of 2009, every year, a male director snags the esteemed award of Best Director. And while many of them are masterful in technique and execution and do, in fact, merit these nominations, this is a problem. 

In recent years, representation, be that gender or racial, has become a pressing issue within Hollywood. And within the last two years specifically, with the emergence of the ‘Me Too’ and ‘Time’s Up’ movements, the push for representation for women within such a poisoned industry is imperative. Not just for female-centric narratives, but for female written and directed content. Frankly, women are so deeply accustomed to how men see and depict the world, we often forget that their experiences are not universal. 

Back in 2017, while the whole Harvey Weinstein debacle was unravelling, many found this a fitting time to examine the discrepancies in power in the film industry. Cameron Bailey, the current artistic director of TIFF, was one of them. Researchers came to the conclusion that of the top 250 films of 2017, only 11% were directed and 16% written by women. Bailey realized that something needed to change at the crossroads of gender parity and cinema. It was here that the ‘Share Her Journey’ movement was birthed. 

Share Her Journey is a five-year commitment to increasing opportunity for women behind and in front of the camera. What does this mean? Well, for starters, 45% of this year’s gala films debuting at the festival had female directors. It also means that minority-driven narratives are prioritized; now, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ films can stand at the forefront. This shift has been subject to scrutiny but truly, who cares? Intersectionality within film means broadening our expectations, seeing as the bulk of cinema we’ve consumed in our lifetime is backed by men.  

Now, you may be wondering whether this is merely a performative action or a “damn-we’re-sorry-even-though-a-majority-of-these-allegations-were-public-record-decades-ago” apology, but the fact of the matter is, TIFF is increasing the distribution of female-driven narratives and that’s what matters. 50/50 by 2020 is not an inherently unrealistic goal, so long as distribution companies and festival heads want it to happen. 

I had the privilege of attending TIFF as a critic this year, and was pleasantly surprised at the number of female directed films. From Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire to Kasi Lemmons’s Harriet, many of the festival’s most acclaimed flicks offered up beautiful narratives driven by the long-repressed female gaze (not that anybody asked but my personal favourite was Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy). 

But what can we, broke college students do, for the sake of this cause? Support the films upon their release. So here are some to look out for: 




1. How to Build a Girl

Coky Giedroyc’s newest film stars Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart, Lady Bird) as Johanna Morrigan, a young woman who rebrands herself as an underground music critic under the alias ‘Dolly Wilde’. The film is based on Caitlin Moran’s semi autobiographical novel of the same name and has an all-star cast. Seeing as Feldstein has been killing it in the coming-of-age genre as of late, this sounds pretty great. 




2. Honey Boy

My favourite of the festival. Honey Boy grapples with Shia LaBeouf’s early years as a child actor as well as the anger issues and drug addiction that stemmed from them. It is directed by Alma Har’el, who tells a hyper-masculine story in a compassionate and loving way. At the festival, Har’el asserted that tackling male stories from the female gaze is what makes Honey Boy so pertinent, now more than ever. 




3. Hustlers

Lorene Scafaria’s latest flick is equipped with a star-studded cast (Constance Wu! Jennifer Lopez! Keke Palmer! Cardi B! LIZZO!) and a whole lot of compassion and sex appeal. Based on the real life scandal of four New York women who drugged and stole from Wall Street brokers, Hustlers handles some pretty sensitive material, all from the point of view of the women in question. Depicting the humanity of sex workers, who find themselves either villainized or satirized in mainstream media, makes this a standout watch. 




4. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

After securing the Best Screenplay prize and the Queer Palm at Cannes Film Festival, Céline Sciamma brought her acclaimed film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, to TIFF. The film centres around a budding romance between an artist and a noble woman who she is commissioned to paint a portrait of. The film takes place in the 18th century, something that Sciamma really wanted to highlight. At the premiere, she stated her intent was “to go back and look at history through a female lens and tell stories about women who never made it into history books”. Queer narratives between women have been either excluded or fetishized within Hollywood, so naturally, Portait is a must-watch. 




5. Proxima

Let’s go FSL221 students! Proxima is a Frenglish film with plenty to offer its audience. Alice Winocaur creates a silently brilliant film about Sarah, an astronaut training at the European Space Agency for her upcoming mission. The catch, however, is that she is leaving her seven year old daughter, Stella, behind. Sarah is shown to have to work harder than all of her misogynistic male counterparts and is burdened with guilt about her motherhood. Given the stark imagery, it’s hard to imagine Proxima as a warm film but it is packed with love and the intricacies of mother-daughter relationships. Winocaur truly redefines the traditional space flick. I can’t wait to see this one again.