In 2016, the 5050×2020 campaign was launched by the Swedish Film Institute at the Cannes Film Festival, and big names were there to share in the announcement including the Swedish Minister for Culture and Democracy Alice Bah Kuhnke and the French Minister for Culture, Audrey Auzolay. Telefilm Canada, Screen Australia, the British Film Institute, the Austrian Film Institute, Creative Scotland, Screen Ireland and the Council of Europe’s Eurimages all jumped on board the idea of aiming for gender parity in the film industry by 2020. They were joined by film festivals including Locarno Film Festival, Sarajevo Film Festival, San Sebastián International Film Festival, Annecy International Animation Film Festival, Göteborg Film Festival, Venice Film Festival and Berlin International Film Festival, who all likewise made public commitments to focus on boosting gender equality – with a particular emphasis on women directors – that became synonymous with the 5050×2020 campaign.

Well, it’s 2020, and while the year is hardly rainbows and sunbeams and endless popping of champagne corks for women in film, it would be somewhat mean-spirited to deny that on some fronts progress has been made. But let’s get real here: things are still not great. Announced on 10 September this year, the annual report from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative under the firm hand of Professor Stacy L. Smith revealed their findings not just on the representation of girls and women in Hollywood cinema, but also other minority groups we don’t see enough of on screen because of racial or ethnic differences, disabilities, or sexuality. With their data drawn from an examination of 57,629 characters from the top 1,300 movies from the period 2007 – 2019, in the case of women specifically, they noted a slight increase of female central characters from 39 of the top 100 films in 2018 to 43 in 2019. Of these, one was a woman of colour, and only three were women over the age of 45. More brutal, however, are the findings that there was virtually no shift at all across the entire 13 years of the project’s time frame in terms of women’s speaking parts on screen – in 2019, these were a mere 34%. As Professor Smith noted, “Despite public statements, the data reveal that there is still apathy and ambivalence to increasing representation of speaking characters overall in popular films. This is both the easiest representational gap to address and one that is essential to strengthen the pipeline to more prominent roles.”1

Wildfire

When it comes to women directors – frequently privileged in campaigns like 5050×2020 and the broader discourse surrounding inclusivity in cinema – one fact from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative is notable; when assessing the 1447 directors whose films were in their study across the period 2007 to 2019, of the 4.8% who were women, that number reached a high in 2019 (sadly, the same advances have not been made in other unrepresented categories). There is, curiously enough, one area where this trend has been significantly bucked: as Smith notes, “in contrast to our findings on top-grossing films, 20.7% of Netflix directors of U.S. based films in 2019 were women…The legacy studios may want to take a note out of the streaming giant’s playbook on how to hire more inclusively behind the camera.”2

Preparations to Be Together For an Unknown Period of Time

This leads us somewhat neatly to the radically altered terrain of film festival culture in 2020 in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic where streaming has now become a major issue as film festivals around the world were often cancelled, shifted completely online, or opted for an amalgam of both on-site and streaming events. There are far too many moving parts both socially, economically and culturally here to boil things down to a simple victory/failure binary when assessing the much-hyped deadline of 5050×2020 of course, but for whatever reasons it is worth flagging a number of significant achievements. Some of the most high-profile festivals to run unimpeded before pandemic restrictions kicked in already revealed signs of some significant movement in a positive direction. The Göteborg Festival in Sweden in January hit gender parity.3 Also at Sundance, of the 56 films to play in competition, 46% were directed by women,4 while at Berlin in February, although only 37.9% of films screening were helmed by women directors, the Festival boasted gender parity when it came to diversity data surrounding festival directorship and their executive board.5 The wholly online Melbourne International Film Festival in August hit exactly 50% of women directed or co-directed films,6 and even Venice – which has for many years been a sore point regarding its seeming refusal to read the room on the gender disparity front – boasted close to 44% women directed films in their September 2020 competition.7

180° Rule

Which all leads us to the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, with screenings and events simultaneously running online and in a scaled back on-site capacity from 10 – 20 September. Unlike Venice, TIFF has comparatively put in the much harder yards with things like the Share Her Journey campaign which began in 2017 as a way of amplifying access and visibility of women in the film industry. Last year, 36% of all films shown at TIFF were directed by women, making it then the closest the festival achieved to parity since it began 45 years ago.8 2020 topped that number – and slightly topped Venice – by hitting the new high of 46%. As TIFF co-head/artistic director Cameron Bailey noted, “We’ve reached a watershed moment where the entire film world is embracing the fact that women’s voices have been underrepresented for too long… Now is the time where we can bring more of these films to the fore.”9

Ammonite

Women were certainly not ignored when it came to TIFF’s highly visible Awards events; Kate Winslet won a TIFF Tribute Actor Award (starring in this year’s much-hyped festival film Ammonite, directed by Francis Lee and co-starring Saoirse Ronan), Nomadland director Chloé Zhao received the ​TIFF Ebert Director Award​, Mira Nair ​who was at the festival with her mini-series adaptation of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, was honoured with the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media, and Canadian filmmaker Tracey Deer, whose film Beans premiered at the festival, was awarded the Emerging Talent Award. Zhao also received the TIFF People’s Choice Awards for Nomadland, with the TIFF 2020 People’s Choice Documentary Award going to Michelle Latimer for Inconvenient Indian, and the TIFF 2020 People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award to Chinese-New Zealander filmmaker Roseanne Liang for her WWII feminist monster movie Shadow in the Cloud. Not only were all People’s Choice Awards won by women but – just as, if not more, importantly – they are all women of colour.

Beans

Women were also at the centre of some of the most highly anticipated In Conversation events at TIFF this year, which featured iconic figures such as Ava DuVernay, Saoirse Ronan, Claire Denis, and Halle Berry (the latter whose feature debut Bruised premiered at the festival). The Industry programs included a masterclass with Viola Davis and dream hampton, and panel discussions addressing gender issues, such as the April Wolfe-helmed Sorority Row: Women in Genre Filmmaking, which had an emphasis on horror and included filmmakers Amy Seimetz, Veena Sud and Roseanne Liang; the Spotlight on Women in Cinema India panel moderated by Naman Ramachandran and featuring Indian filmmakers Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, Leena Yadav and Tannishtha Chatterjee; and the Women on the Rise: 2020 TIFF Rising Stars panel with Sheila Atim, Rainbow Dickerson, Tanya Maniktala, and Madeleine Sims-Fewer, hosted by TIFF programmer Ravi Srinivasan. Outside of the main public screening program, some of the hidden treasures of the festival were kept for the virtual market, including Nicole Riegel’s Holler, Zaida Bergroth’s Tove about the creator of the beloved children’s Moomin characters, Tove Jansson, Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar’s A Good Man, Julia Von Heinz’s And Tomorrow the Entire World, Nicole Garcia’s Lovers, Urszula Antoniak’s Magic Mountains and Danielle Arbid’s Passion Simple.

A Suitable Boy

Men were hardly in the shadows, of course, and some of the biggest names at the festival this year were linked to male-directed movies: François Ozon’s Summer of 85, Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, Spike Lee’s David Byrne’s American Utopia, Michel Franco’s New Order, and actor Viggo Mortenson’s directorial debut Falling all garnering a great deal of attention. Male directed also obviously directed largely women-centred films, such as Australian filmmaker Glendyn Ivin’s dismal boomer-baiting Penguin Bloom with Naomi Watts and Jacki Weaver, J Blakeson’s thriller I Care a Lot which starred Rosamund Pike and Eiza González, and of course Francis Lee’s Ammonite, the queer period romance with Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan.

Penguin Bloom

But alongside these, the directorial debuts of both Halle Berry and Regina King respectively, Bruised and One Night in Miami were perhaps the most anticipated. While Netflix almost automatically picked up Berry’s well-received film, it is One Night in Miami that might remain the biggest stunner of the festival, making it feel like a no-brainer for the 2020 awards circuit – whatever shape that will take – in King’s extraordinary adaptation of Kemp Powers’ 2013 play of the same name pivoting around a fictional retelling of a night spent with four real life friends – Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cook – in a hotel room in Miami in early 1964. The Contemporary World Cinema program included Manijeh Hekmat’s Bandar Band and Miwa Nishikawa’s slightly overwrought Under the Open Sky, with women-directed highlights being Lili Horvát’s brilliant Preparations to Be Together For an Unknown Period of Time, and of course Jasmila Žbanic’s harrowing, unflinching examination of the Srebrenica massacre, Quo Vadis, Aïda?.

One Night In Miami

As is now almost tradition, the Discovery program is a treasure-trove for women-directed films, this year including Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, Tracey Deer’s Beans, Farnoosh Samadi’s 180° Rule, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, Cathy Brady’s Wildfire, and cult-film-in-the-making, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby. Similarly, women show no signs of slowing down in the area of documentary, with highlights including a Special Event screening of Dawn Porter’s The Way I See It, Sonia Kennebeck’s Enemies of the State, Michelle Latimer’s Inconvenient Indian, Mayye Zayed’s Lift Like a Girl, Joel Bakan and Jennifer Abbott’s The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel, and Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt’s No Ordinary Man.

Enemies of the State

The TIFF’s shorts program is another area where women’s filmmaking has traditionally flourished, maintaining its global focus this year with work from filmmakers such as Elinor Nechemya from Israel; Alexandra Ramires from Portugal; Remi Itani from Lebanon; Marie-Ève Juste and Renee Zahn from the United Kingdom; Naïla Guiguet from France; Amina Sutton and Maya Tanaka from the United States; and Sofia Bohdanowicz, Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, Tiffany Hsiung, and Hannah Cheesman from Canada. The Primetime stream’s attention on the small screen which featured Mira Nair’s highly anticipated 6-part miniseries A Suitable Boy was also joined by a preview of Michelle Latimer’s series Trickster, already picked up for international distribution including by SBS On Demand in Australia.

Trickster

Perhaps most significantly, however – and I may admit a certain taste bias here – most surprising was the traditionally dudebro heavy terrain of cult and horror film championed in TIFF’s Midnight Madness program reaching not just gender parity but was split 50/50 between white filmmakers and filmmakers of colour. “Given the reduced number of slots I had to fill at the festival this year, I made it a priority that not only would each of my selections offer a distinct Midnight Madness experience for the audience, but that whatever diversity I achieved with regards to genre and tone would also be matched in the diversity of the filmmakers I would be recognizing,” said Midnight Madness programmer Peter Kuplowsky.10 While the program was significantly reduced from its usual ten films to three due to the broader scaling back of the festival this year, the 50/50 gender split was attained by the inclusion of Roseanne Liang’s Chloë Grace Moretz-fronted Shadow in the Cloud and the ground-breaking anti rape-revenge film Violation – arguably the strongest and bravest film programmed in the entire festival – which was co-directed by sexual assault survivors Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer.11

Violation

In light of the unambiguous downer that 2020 is around the world as we face off with a diabolical, life-changing pandemic, as comparatively small in scale as the increases we see in favour of inclusion on the festival circuit – both TIFF and elsewhere – are enough to give us some hope that progress is being made, a desperately needed psychological boost if nothing else in the face of a dramatically unsteady, unclear future. But rather than smugly pat ourselves on the back and say “job done”, these achievements – while admirable – must be seen as a starting point to prompt further conversation, rather than considering it a token box ticked and now back to business as usual when white men continue to dominate. TIFF in 2020 have not merely come close to parity; what is perhaps just as – if not more – significant is that they have done so by programming an extraordinary number of very very strong films that also happen to be directed by women (and many of those are women of colour).12

Quo Vadis, Aïda?

It’s not a case of either/or when it comes to inclusivity and programming excellent films and, more importantly, it never has been. It is in this spirit that this festival report seeks to provoke further questions rather than locking anything down; is parity simply a superficial tick-the-box quota that doesn’t fully reflect what we really need to see in terms of genuine systemic change in the festival scene? Should we be looking for different data sets – not just in terms of gender but other underrepresented groups in terms of programming teams, and/or should we perhaps be demanding data about what films are considered (films programmers and their screening support teams actually watch) and then measuring that information up against what actually gets selected? What role has the shift to online screening played in the ability for some festivals to seemingly take a risk this year and boost the number of women-directed films they program, and does this reflect the Annenberg trend that sees Netflix well ahead of the curve over major studios, or is it just a coincidence? And, perhaps most of all, does festival culture moving into the domestic sphere mark a significant triumph for access on an audience level that sees what one can only speculate is a rise in viewers who may not be able to otherwise attend film festivals, such as mothers with babies and young children or those living with disabilities? The answers to these questions will take a long time to become clear; we can only hope those with the ability to make a change ask them sooner rather than later.

Toronto International Film Festival
10-20 September, 2020
Festival website: https://tiff.net/

Endnotes

  1. Press release, “Popular Films Show Paltry Progress Toward Inclusion: The Annual Report from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative Examines Films from 2007 to 2019”, USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, Los Angeles, 10 September 2020.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Scott Roxborough, “Sweden’s Göteborg Festival Achieves 50/50 Gender Parity“, The Hollywood Reporter, 7 January 2020.
  4. Your Guide to All the Women-Helmed Projects at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival“, Sundance Institute, 8 January 2020.
  5. Lanre Bakare, “‘Diversity is now centre stage’: Berlin film festival sets industry precedent“, The Guardian, 22 February 2020.
  6. Newsletter, “Thank you for being a part of MIFF 68½”, Melbourne International Film Festival, 1 September 2020.
  7. Kate Erbland, “Venice Film Festival Nears Gender Parity: Women Directors Make Up 44 Percent of 2020 Competition“, IndieWire, 28 July 2020.
  8. See my festival report from last year, “Sharing My Journey: Women and the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival“, Senses of Cinema, October 2019.
  9. Brent Lang, “Toronto Film Festival Boasts Record Number of Women Directors, Nears Gender Parity“, Variety, 30 July 2020.
  10. Email to author from Peter Kuplowsky, 20 August 2020.
  11. See my interview: “The Anti Rape-Revenge Film: Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli on Violation (TIFF 2020)“, Film International, 17 September 2020.
  12. See, for example, my positive reviews of An Old Lady, Enemies of the State, Quo Vadis, Aida?, Shadow in the Cloud, Tove, Under the Open Sky, Holler, Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, Shiva Baby, Violation, and of course One Night in Miami.

About The Author

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas has written eight books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with a particular focus on gender politics, including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), the Bram Stoker Award-nominated Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019) and, most recently, 1000 Women in Horror: 1895-2018 (BearMedia, 2020). She has co-edited five books including ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019) and the Thames & Hudson catalogue for the 2018 ACMI exhibition Wonderland about Alice in film. Alexandra is a Research Fellow at RMIT University and an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and she was an editor at Senses of Cinema until from 2015 to 2018.

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