It’s time to start making your film lists. Today marks the “official” start of the Toronto International Film Festival’s 40th Anniversary with the announcement of the Gala and Special Presentations films.
The press conference began on a nostalgic note, with TIFF CEO Piers Handling showing off one of the original programs from 1976, back when TIFF was the Festival of Festivals and held at Ontario Place. To put things in perspective, that first program was a single piece of paper. Today the official program is over 400 pages long.
There was a lot of talk of great moments from festivals past at the press conference, from supporting emerging filmmakers to a story of one director stripping down to nothing in his introduction. There was also a lot of talk of look forward to the future, but looking at the films announced so far, TIFF appears to be in a bit of a holding pattern.
As is usual, the Gala and Special Presentations programs are full of highly anticipated big name premieres, such as Ridley Scott’s The Martian (which looks fantastic) and Brian Helgeland’s Legend (which looks a tad gimmicky). Most of the films will be getting released in cinemas before the month of September is over and the rest will be hitting our screens in time for the Oscars. The selection also includes a few picks from Cannes, including the highly regarded Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve.
There has been a fair bit of criticism in past years for the fact that it has been quite some time since a Canadian film opened the festival (the last time was in 2010, when Score: A Hockey Musical took the opening night spot) and as a result, a big deal was made over the fact that this year, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition will be opening the festival. (“We are thrilled to be kicking it off our 40th festival with a Canadian filmmaker.”)
Now, Vallée is a Canadian filmmaker, but Demolition is not a Canadian film. It is American according to both the official TIFF press release and the internet. This isn’t necessarily a problem in itself, but it is a bit disingenuous to be promoting Canadian content when it’s really just a Canadian director heading a studio film.
The other expected, but ultimately disappointing fact is that there is, once again, a lack of female driven films. Of the fifteen Gala Presentations, only three are directed by women and only four feature women in a central role. (Although The Martian looks to have a few very strong female characters.)
However, there are a couple of films to get excited about. Deepa Mehta’s new film about an Indo-Canadian gang in Vancouver Beeba Boys will have its world premiere at the festival, as will The Dressmaker from Australian filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse. Julie Delpy will be bringing her new film Lolo to the festival, which she wrote, directed, and starred in. Also looking to bring a strong female voice to the festival is Peter Sollett’s Freeheld, staring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page as a couple fighting for same-sex partners to receive their deceased partner’s pension.
The Special Presentations program has an even more bleak outlook for women behind the camera. Of the thirty four films named, once again only three are directed by women: Summertime by Catherine Corsini, Parched by Leena Yadav and Maggie’s Plan by Rebecca Miller. This program has even less of an excuse than the Gala program for having such a lack of female film making talent because it is not sold for the red carpet and big stars in the way that the Galas are. Special Presentations would be the perfect place to promote female filmmakers because it gives them a high profile platform to exhibit their work. I’m not asking for a 50/50 split, but is 30/70 too much to ask instead of the pathetic 8/92 we’re currently at?
There are a few promising female centric films in the program. Brooklyn starring Saoirse Ronan as an Irish immigrant to the US looks fantastic, as does I Smile Back starring Sarah Silverman. Sicario has already received a lot of press for the fact that the studios wanted Emily Blunt’s character to be changed to a man, which bodes well for the presence of a strong woman onscreen. The Danish Girl starring Eddie Redmayne as one of the first transgender women to receive sexual reassignment surgery also holds promise for starting some very timely and important conversations about gender and identity. (Although it would have been nice to have an actual transgender actress in the title role.)
Now this isn’t even close to all that TIFF will have to offer this year. We’re still waiting on about 150-200 more titles, but it’s a bit depressing that the glitziest and highest profile programs at TIFF seem to be unable to find a great number of female filmmakers to showcase. We know they’re out there and exposure from an organization like TIFF would go a long way to promoting equality in the industry.
TIFF is used as a barometer by the major studios for what films will do well with a North American audience. Good buzz at TIFF usually equals distribution and that’s is something that female filmmakers desperately need. There are those that argue that selection to prestigious events like TIFF should be based on merit and, in principle, I agree. This is not a slight at the films that have been chosen. Most of them are probably solid, a few are probably phenomenal (I don’t know, I haven’t seen them yet).
The fact is, regulations need to recognize the talent of women in film, who are so often overlooked. There are studios in Toronto who have started taking steps in this direction and it’s time for TIFF to follow suit.