Women Filmmakers Are Dominating The Fall Film Festivals, And It’s Time We Notice

‘Joker’ might be getting the most write-ups out of Venice, but women are reigning supreme at Canada’s premier film festival.
Women Filmmakers Fall Festivals
By  · Published on September 7th, 2019

In May 2018, 82 women, including Cate Blanchett, Kristen Stewart, Léa Seydoux, Ava DuVernay, Marion Cotillard, Salma Hayek, and Agnès Varda, participated in a silent protest on the Cannes red carpet. Their goal: gender parity at the prestigious film festival by 2020. As we near that deadline, film festivals around the world are making positive strides, but are they enough? And is the rest of the industry catching up fast enough?

This year marked a steady improvement from the five largest film festivals: Cannes, Sundance, Venice, Berlin, and Toronto. Of those, Sundance earned the most positive media attention for its high percentage of women-directed films. But as the 44th annual Toronto International Film Festival begins, it’s important for film fans, industry insiders, and journalists to look beyond the most buzzed-about titles and explore the wide variety of women-directed features available to view.

While movies like Todd Phillips’ Joker and Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat have been dominating the trades since their Venice premieres, TIFF programmed a record-setting 78 feature films directed by women, a fact that has largely gone unnoticed or unmentioned by most publications.

Among these are new movies by old favorites (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood by Marielle Heller, Harriet by Kasi Lemmons, and Radioactive by Marjane Satrapi), directorial debuts from a new crop of talent (Saint Maud by Rose Glass, The Rest of Us by Aisling Chin-Yee, and Instinct by Halina Reijn), and breakthroughs by numerous women who have been making films for years to little critical or commercial attention (Proxima by Alice Winocour, Hustlers by Lorene Scafaria, The Sleepwalkers by Paula Hernández, and How to Build a Girl by Coky Giedroyc).

While every other film festival fulfills certain roles in a movie’s success or failure, TIFF is a critical stop on the way to awards season. The past seven winners of their People’s Choice Award have been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (including eventual winners 12 Years a Slave and Green Book). Of these five festivals, TIFF is distinctly the largest — this year, the lineup comprises 240 new features — and arguably the most influential. In recent years, it’s also become one of the most progressive.

While some might see film festivals as secondary battlegrounds for gender equity in the film industry, they’re critical in ensuring lasting progress. Financing is the first hurdle in getting a project off the ground — and it’s an area rife with sexism — but, once your film has been produced, what matters most is being noticed among a crowded field. Thousands of feature films are made every year, and yet only a few dozen are financially successful.

Supply is steamrolling demand. The film industry, as it stands today, is churning out an overwhelming number of features for an increasingly disinterested audience. “Film is dead” has been said for years now, and yet it’s still trudging onwards as if nothing has changed. There are numerous explanations for this phenomenon (streaming services provide an alternative to moviegoing, our attention spans are decreasing, the price of tickets are increasing, studios are investing in less original content, etc.), but I’m less interested in why and more focused on how to move forward from here in a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable way.

Film and television have historically both been boys’ clubs, but recent events like the Cannes protest and the New York Times Magazine piece “The Women of Hollywood Speak Out” have spotlighted the deeply entrenched culture of explicit and implicit misogyny in this industry. While things are shifting more rapidly in the realm of television, film has been moving at a much slower pace.

This is why it’s so thrilling to see such a steep increase in the number of women directors at these five festivals. In the span of one year, TIFF’s programming team upped their number of women-directed features by 20, an astonishing spike. From 2018 to 2019, the other four festivals also made advancements — Sundance by six women-directed films, Cannes by three, Berlin by three, and Venice by 15 — making up for their abysmal efforts in years prior. But, nonetheless, all of their improvements have been overshadowed by TIFF.

Much of the credit for this must go to Joana Vicente, the festival’s new Executive Director and Co-Head. Hired in 2018, Vicente has already made an indelible mark on the festival’s history and, by doing so, pressured her peers to meet TIFF’s standard for inclusivity. She and Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s other Co-Head and Artistic Director, have already signed the same 50/50 by 2020 pledge as Cannes, and, of all the major film festivals, TIFF and Sundance are the closest to achieving that goal.

Vicente and Kim Yutani, Sundance’s director of programming, have spoken openly about their goals of parity, but both have also stressed the organic nature of this progression. Neither are programming films solely for the sake of diversity but, rather, in response to a higher number of strong submissions from women filmmakers who are bringing a more unique point of view to their projects.

Witnessing such progressive momentum in these two film festivals is inspiring and comforting, but financiers, distributors, and journalists must also pay close attention to these pivotal shifts. The responsibility to achieve gender parity in the industry must be shared among all of us. Otherwise, these efforts will not have a lasting impact. As Vicente stresses, “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” in the same way their male counterparts do. It’s a multi-pronged issue, but it’s one we’re finally beginning to understand, discuss, and work toward.

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