Over the last couple of years, the Toronto International Film Festival has aimed to shine a brighter spotlight on women.
When the initiative Share Her Journey launched in 2017, the festival made a five-year commitment to increase participation, skills, and opportunities for women behind and in front of the camera.
According to TIFF, opportunities for women are improving and 36 per cent of the festival’s films this year are directed, co-directed or created by women.
But women in the industry say they are still facing challenges.
Five years ago, Katie Bird Nolan and Lindsay Tapscott launched the female-driven production company Babe Nation. This year, they have two titles screening at TIFF, including White Lie and The Rest of Us.
Nolan is grateful for Share Her Journey, and was part of an accelerator program sponsored by the initiative.
She says her company not only aims to get more women in the forefront in the industry, but also to shift story narratives.
“We’ve seen a lot more female creators coming into themselves, and being more forward and bold, and saying, ‘These are the stories we want to tell, these are the stories we want to see told,'” Nolan said.
The producer describes The Rest of Us, directed by Aisling Chin-Yee, as a film that avoids leaning into the tropes of “the other woman” or the ex wife. It’s about a woman who invites her ex-partner’s wife and daughter into her life.
Overall, she says, she sees the landscape shifting.
“Just in TIFF this year alone, we’ve noticed our cohort of producers, writers, directors and talent, everyone we’ve been coming up with, are having these break-out moments.”
Tapscott, her business partner, says she would like to see the industry take more risks on unknown voices.
“Historically, the industry is unable to take a chance on you unless you’ve already proven yourself.” She says despite their success so far, she and Nolan still face challenges being young women in the industry.
“Because we’re younger and we’re female, we have definitely experienced some people who think they can take advantage of our youth or our inexperience,” she said.
“We’ve learned a lot of lessons.”
Women of colour in film
Frances-Anne Solomon, the CEO of CaribeanTales Media Group, was invited this year to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and will have a say in who is recognized at next year’s Oscars ceremony. But despite her success, the filmmaker says she’s still facing barriers as a woman of colour in the film industry.
“There’s one thing, which is women, then there’s the ratio of women of colour who get into the industry, it’s even tougher.”
Solomon says the responsibility is at “every point in the pipeline” including those making hires, distributors and directors. She would also like to see more films made by women of colour being shown at TIFF.
“Quite often we are invisible in the industry even though we’ve been working for years and years and years.” she said.
“I’m not sure why then there’s still so much discrimination, I feel it as a filmmaker of colour. I feel like my films don’t get the kind of attention that films by white men get. I think that comes from the top.”
She attributes part of women’s growth in the industry to changing times and women refusing to be silenced anymore, but also credits TIFF for addressing equality.
“I think it’s getting better, I also think it has a very long way to go,” she said.
Promises made and kept
Last year, TIFF committed to a pledge titled 50/50 by 2020, which aimed to make their programming team 50 per cent women.
“We’re at it already,” Cameron Bailey, the artistic director of TIFF, told CBC Toronto back in August.
However, Bailey acknowledges as progress is being made, it’s still not equal, noting that the same number of women graduate from film school as men but have a hard time attaining financing.
“Making movies is expensive,” he said.
“You find that the higher the budgets go, the harder it is for women to get equal access. And so that’s the thing that really needs to change the most.”
According to TIFF, 9 out of 20 films in the 2019 Gala category are directed, co-directed or created by women.
Not all categories are equal, retired professor says
When it comes to how many women’s films are showing at TIFF, Kay Armatage crunches her own numbers.
“I just go through the book and count. I’ve done so year after year after year,” the retired University of Toronto professor said.
Armatage taught cinema studies and women’s studies and was also a programmer with TIFF for years. She commends TIFF for the improvements made so far.
“The number of films directed by women in the festival is higher than it’s ever been,” she said.
But there are still categories where she wants to see more women’s names, such as Special Presentations and Masters.
According to her numbers and the TIFF website, two out of 11 films in the Masters category appear to be directed by women and nine out of 55 films name female directors in the Special Presentations category.
CBC Toronto reached out to TIFF to confirm those numbers but did not receive a response. The festival did say that their filmmakers confidentially identify their gender.
Still, as a former programmer herself, Armatage wants to see people in that role take the lead.
“I think they should have a seminar, some kind of training session for their programmers and say, ‘Go after films by women and that’s your job.'”
Armatage adds that perhaps the goal shouldn’t just be to get to the halfway point, but potentially exceed it.
“If one day, they step over the 50 per cent, what would be terrible about that?”