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How the festival hopes to fix a broken industry

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Saturday, September 8, 2018 – Page R1

It's September and Hollywood has come to town. The stars dutifully twinkle at the parties celebrating their premieres. At the Thompson, Nicole Kidman is spotted with George Clooney; at the Citizen, Jessica Chastain appears with celebrated screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. And at the Cactus Club, Benedict Cumberbatch, star of a new movie called The Current War, is photographed alongside his producer, super mogul Harvey Weinstein.

That was TIFF 2017. A year later, a new crop of actors is promoting a new crop of films but Weinstein, who now faces six sexual-assault charges in New York, will not be in attendance. Meanwhile, celebrity hunters debate whether actors Casey Affleck, who settled two sexual-harassment claims out of court in 2010, or Emile Hirsch, convicted of attacking a woman at party in 2015, will show their faces on the red carpet when their new films are unveiled.

Their names did not appear on a guest list released to media last week.

It has been 11 months since The New York Times and The New Yorker outed Weinstein as an alleged sexual predator, unleashing hundreds of similar accusations that used the social-media hashtag #MeToo to tear the veil off widespread sexual harassment in the entertainment and media industries.

And there are still many days when sexism in the film business seems intractable. Every other film with a female lead or a female director refers to #MeToo in its media material, but male characters still account for most protagonists in big-budget Hollywood movies, while less than a quarter of those productions employ female directors, writers, or cinematographers - a number that hasn't changed since the 1990s.

TIFF is an organization caught in the middle of this turbulent social moment, an event both dedicated to celebrating a broken industry - and to fixing it. As the new festival unspools, TIFF has just appointed a woman, the American indie-film champion Joana Vicente, as its co-director; it can report another increase in female directors on its program and it is continuing a new initiative promoting women's careers in film: In 2018, the festival is a more female-centric organization offering an increasingly diverse lineup. So, TIFF has the #MeToo wind in its sails, but is the voyage ahead just a late-summer pleasure cruise, or a long trip to different shores?

One clear achievement of the past six months is that advocates for increased female participation in the screen industries have successfully linked the routine abuse of women in film and television to a lack of female power: Finally, the shocking gender imbalance in the directors' chairs, behind the cameras and in the writing rooms is getting the attention it deserves. For their part, film festivals are being asked to release their programming numbers - and to explain them. This year, 36 per cent of the 340 films (full-length features and shorts) being shown at TIFF were directed by women, an increase of three percentage points from last year, while women also account for about a third of the features in the 12-title Platform competition that the festival launched in 2015.

That's a long way from gender parity, but it makes TIFF look more progressive than the Venice Film Festival, where only one title in a 21-film competition was directed by a woman, or the Cannes Film Festival, where only three works by female directors appeared in the 21-film main competition this year (although Cannes did achieve gender parity in its Un Certain Regard side program).

If film festivals could once argue that the female talent simply wasn't out there, that position is becoming harder to maintain.

Hollywood's commercial product remains heavily dominated by male directors and screenwriters, but outside the United States, national film industries are being pushed hard to be more inclusive by the government agencies that fund them. In Canada, for example, Telefilm recently revealed that 29 per cent of the larger-budget films it supported in 2017-18 had a female director, a big increase over single-digit numbers only a few years ago. Those movies are still in production, but at TIFF this year, Canadian films directed by women include Patricia Rozema's Mouthpiece, Darlene Naponse's Falls Around Her and Miranda de Pencier's The Grizzlies.

Telefilm, pushed by advocates in the industry, set a gender-parity goal for itself and applicants to its funds have clearly got the message to include women in their projects. Meanwhile, the Ontario Media Development Corp., which concentrates on the marketability and economic impact of the projects it funds, found that all it had to do was to discuss the issue with the industry and encourage more applications to its film fund to see marked improvements.

"From our perspective, the industry generally will be strong if it's more representative," OMDC president Karen Thorne-Stone said, adding that seven of the nine Ontario-supported films at TIFF this year have women in key creative roles.

TIFF is also doing its own work at the pipeline end of the industry. Its Share Her Journey initiative is busy investing in female careers, offering networking opportunities, fellowships and professional placements to women in film. The program was launched last year before the Weinstein scandal hit but has perversely benefited from it.

"We were ahead of the pack, but obviously it was the right time," said TIFF vice-president of advancement Maxine Bailey, who heads up Share Her Journey. "All the activity that happened later in the year, which was horrible, just confirmed for us we were on the right path; there needed to be more women in positions of power." As it launches its second year, the campaign is already almost halfway to its five-year, $3-million fundraising goal.

The festival has also started an initiative to attract more diverse media to the event, accrediting more women and minority critics. Recent research has revealed the preponderance of white, male film reviewers which advocates identify as another way the industry indirectly favours men's stories.

All these developments suggest progress is being made, but the dangers of window-dressing and tokenism are still very real. In May, Cannes executives publicly signed an equity pledge presented to them by a French lobby for gender parity at festivals by 2020 and TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey is set to do the same before a Share Her Journey rally the morning of Sept. 8. But the pledge does not actually call for gender parity in programming; it simply asks festivals to balance their boards and make their decision-making more transparent - gently nudging programmers to examine their own biases.

"Is it really just because the [female-directed] movies are not good enough, as most programmers like to casually imply?" asked Eva Husson, one of the three female directors in competition at Cannes this year. "Let's look at it from a different perspective. Could it be that their committee selection is mainly composed of men? That their critical reception has been so infused by the male gaze over the past decades that it fails to recognize the relevance of the female gaze?

Maybe? I can only rejoice in the fact that the conversation is getting started [in Toronto.]" Husson's film Girls of the Sun will also play TIFF but its experience at Cannes sounds a cautionary note. Husson charmed the festival in 2015 with a small contemporary romance entitled Bang Gang, but returned with a big war movie about the female battalions in Kurdistan that appeared to have been picked for its subject rather than its artistry.

French critics savaged the film while some argued the choice did damage to the reputation of women's cinema.

"I am a woman filmmaker, and I dared touch one of the last bastions reserved for men: the war movie, and an ongoing conflict," Husson wrote in a recent e-mail.

"I got mansplained in every possible way."

If the scrutiny Husson faced proved anything, it's that women in film still haven't got the equal right to fail: A movie directed by a man is just a movie, but one directed by a woman is a cultural symbol.

"We feel the more female-driven films there are, the less it will feel like an anomaly," Bailey said.

She'll be welcoming a posse of high-profile speakers to the Sept.

8 rally, including Canadian actress Mia Kirshner, co-founder of the #AfterMeToo movement, Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam and Stacy Smith, the leading academic researcher on inequality in entertainment.

As for the bad actors lurking in the shadows - or striding the red carpet, Maxine Bailey points out TIFF picks films but doesn't dictate to distributors what talent they choose to send to Toronto to support their titles. She adds that the festival has a clear code of conduct for staff, volunteers, moviegoers and industry participants alike, and that code will be posted with more prominence than ever before.

Weinstein won't be there to read it.

Associated Graphic


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