Locked down as I have been in Melbourne, Australia, and unable to attend the Toronto International Film Festival in person for a second year running, I confess what by any rational standard would be an intensely emotional reaction to the promotional and festival branding ephemera that typically begins the standard film festival screening. Grateful as I was to still be granted press accreditation despite the impossibility of my leaving the southern hemisphere (well, even my actual postcode), it felt that what in person often feels like the admin one must tolerate to arrive at the main event, for me in 2021 provide a much-needed sense of inclusion and presence that acted very much in opposition to my practical circumstances. 

The bulk of these pre-show materials begin with an Acknowledgement of Country, where a voiceover invites us to “reflect on the land that you’re on and its history” as we are shown extraordinary, lush footage of the Canadian wilderness. For me, covering the festival remotely, I am thus prompted to think about where I live, work and play, the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nations, custodians of land stolen by my white ancestors. Unlike Canada, there is no treaty with Australia’s First Nations Peoples, and the land remains unceded. Thus, even before the films began, I was struck at TIFF this year by a sense of the importance of place – of a personal feeling of not being where I felt I should be not just on the micro-scale of the festival itself, but experiencing TIFF from my home in Australia, on land that has a fraught, ugly colonial history, the politics which have granted me as a white woman enormous privilege (such as, for example, being able to cover a major international film festival as a film critic). 

With all the press screenings I watched virtually for the festival – almost all directed by women – including video introductions, I watched as filmmakers spoke of their work from their homes, offices or other locations around the world, further amplifying this sense of place. In this light, it was the words of Mélanie Laurent who presented her feature The Mad Woman’s Ball at the Festival which she both directed and starred in that stuck with me the most. Talking about her desire to be in Toronto with the audience watching her film but only being able to provide a video introduction instead, she said “I wish I were here”. Stranded in Melbourne, but with my head and heart largely in Toronto (and a belly full of imagined Tim Horton’s doughnuts), across the festival’s running dates from the 10th to the 18th of September, more than once I thought “Me too, Mélanie. Me too”. 

Honour to Senator Murray Sinclair

The breathtaking visuals that provided the backdrop for TIFF’s Acknowledgement of Country were excerpts from the impressive filmography of Alanis Obomsawin, a woman from the Abenaki Nation now in her late 80s whose work as a First Nations activist has taken many forms across music, art and, in particular, filmmaking. It is in her later capacity – particularly in the realm of documentaries – that granted the program “Celebrating Alanis Obomsawin” as a major centrepiece of TIFF21, celebrating a 54-year-long filmmaking career in which she made 53 films. Of the many Obomsawin works featured was the recent Honour to Senator Murray Sinclair, a 29-minute-long film in which Obomsawin cast light on the eponymous Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner’s exhaustive work in shining an international spotlight on the horrors committed in Canada’s residential school system which have so recently made news around the world, with recent revelations of atrocities in particular so heinous that we can barely begin to comprehend them. Along with a number of her other key works, this showcase was accompanied by Obomsawin being awarded TIFF’s Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media, formally acknowledging the strength of her work in bridging social awareness with filmmaking. 

As the festival once again combined online screenings with in-person, live events due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, its Awards ceremonies are always a sure-fire attention getter for the international press, where women like Obomsawin stand alongside more mainstream, Hollywood press-friendly fellow winners, such as Jessica Chastain, the latter winning a TIFF Tribute Award and appearing in two films at this year’s festival, Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye and John Michael McDonagh’s The Forgiven. “Jessica has brought life to such strong and inspiring roles for women”, said Joana Vicente, Festival Executive Director and Co-Head. “She is one of the most respected actors of her generation”. Broadcast across Canada on CTV and globally through Variety, although less a household name, while women such as Dionne Warwick and Danis Goulet also won awards, it was thrilling to see fellow Australian Ari Wegner awarded the TIFF Variety Artisan Award. A highly regarded cinematographer whose films include Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd, 2016), In Fabric (Peter Strickland, 2018), True History of the Kelly Gang (Justin Kurzel, 2019) and – more recently – Zola (Janciza Bravo, 2020) and Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, Wegner’s receipt of the award is a formal validation of what has already been broadly recognised as an impressive, accomplished career.

Campion’s The Power of the Dog of course was one of the very big-name women directed films to play at TIFF this year, alongside Julia Ducournau’s history-making sophomore feature Titane, which was perhaps a no-brainer for the People’s Choice Midnight Madness Audience award. As the second woman ever to win the Palme d’Or, as depressing as the lack of acknowledgement of women’s work that has marked major awards almost across the board, that Ducournau’s film played at TIFF on the same program as Campion’s latest has a lovely kind of poetry to it (Campion, of course, being the first woman, ex æquo, to win the Palme d’Or in 1993 with The Piano). Other notable women award winners include Indonesian director Kamila Andini’s Yuni which took the Platform Prize (with South African filmmaker Jenna Cato Bass’s Mlungu Wam earning a much-deserved honourable mention), while Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson’s co-directed feature Scarborough was the first runner up of the TIFF 2021 People’s Choice Award, and Campion’s The Power of the Dog the second runner-up. The 2021 People’s Choice Documentary Award was also a co-directorial effort by a man and woman director, E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s The Rescue, with Irish filmmaker Kate Dolan’s feature debut You Are Not My Mother earning the first runner up award for the People’s Choice Midnight Madness Awards after Titane. Additionally, Métis filmmaker Rhayne Vermette and her movie Ste. Anne and Mumbai filmmaker Payal Kapadia and her film A NIght of Knowing Nothing were both awarded the Amplify Voices Award. Also notable amongst the women awarded major prizes at TIFF this year are Mounia Akl for her feature film Costa Brava, Lebanon

Mlungu Wam

While these may be the films that have garnered awards attention, they are only a sliver of the large number of women-directed films at the festival this year. But taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, 2021 also marks an explicit shift in the festival’s future to something more broadly inclusive, where gender is taken into account alongside a number of other markers of difference that have traditionally led to inequality. In 2017, TIFF launched its Share Her Journey campaign, a five-year long project which was meant to wrap up this year but has now become a permanent festival fixture. Share Her Journey also organically overlaps with a new campaign called Every Story which takes a more intersectional approach to boosting diverse representation and participation in the screen industries. In a letter from TIFF co-heads Joana Vicente and Cameron Bailey launching Every Story, they acknowledge the challenges that lie ahead in getting the titular every stories told, stating “We have heard filmmakers from equity-seeking communities say that they did not see themselves represented on screen growing up, and they continue to face barriers in the film industry.” The continued, “In 2019, people of colour comprised just 15.1% of the directors of the world’s top 200 theatrical films. We listened and heard this feedback loud and clear. It’s time for us to re-examine what diversity means in film.” Focused not only on amplifying the voices of women, but also Black people, Indigenous people, people of colour, people from the 2SLGBTQ+ community and people living with a disability, Every Story is practically supported by the newly announced Every Story People’s Fellowship which will fund and support more diverse representation in the 2022 TIFF Filmmaker Lab. 

What is so fascinating about this intersection of Share Her Journey to Every Story is how, as the very curation of this year’s festival indicates, this moves towards a conscious, practical escalation to support equity-seeking voices manifests tangibly in many of the film’s screened in the program themselves, particularly in regard to race. Although my selection of films watched during the festival was necessarily dominated by my interest in women’s filmmaking and what was available on the TIFF digital press screening platform (and what, I must add, a few very kind PR people were willing to share), I was struck by the global nature of the films I saw and the countries represented; in the case of women’s filmmaking alone, I saw movies made by filmmakers from Indonesia, Italy, Australia, the UK, Ireland, Canada, the US, Rwanda, France, Denmark, Poland, South Korea, South Africa, Brazil, Croatia, Argentina, and Kosovo (and that is not including the male-directed films; there, my hands-down favourites included Zalava from Iran, and the Senegalese action-thriller-horror hybrid, Saloum).

Yet simultaneously, the spirit of Share Her Journey remains both strong and constant, and its shift from a time-specific campaign to something more long-term makes sense for the very fact that there is, of course, always work to do on this front. Seeking to address the lack of women in key roles – be they creative or on the production side of things – as the Share Her Journey website makes clear, the things they were up against in 2017 are still issues. For example, only 21% of roles such as director, writer, producer, executive producer, editor and cinematographer were women in the top 250 films of 2019, and on those same films 31% had either none or just one woman in these roles, 45% had two to five women, and a measly 22% had six to nine women. That same year, only 2% of those top 250 films had 10 women or more, in contrast to the 69% of those titles which had 10 or more men. This is, to state the obvious, pretty shocking stuff, and in practical terms, TIFF – through Share Her Journey especially – can boast a 50/50 split in their talent development initiatives since 2016, and in 2021, 46% (not quite half, but close enough) of all films played at the festival were created, directed, or co-directed by women. 


Which is all great, but what about the films themselves? Again, restricted as I was by regional availability on the digital press screening service, I was still struck by the quality and diversity of the women directed films I saw, many – if not most – which were debut features. Personal highlights include French-Kosovar filmmaker (and co-star of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire) Luàna Bajrami’s coming of age film The Hill Where the Lionesses Roar; Sciamma’s own latest film, Petit Maman; Anita Rocha da Silveira’s powerful right-wing Christian girl gang tale of internalised misogyny in Brazil, Medusa; Danish filmmaker Tea Lindeburg’s historical drama meets dark folkloric fairy-tale, As In Heaven; Argentine director Agustina San Martín’s steamy tale of self-discovery, To Kill the Beast; Hong Sung-eun’s portrait of isolation in South Korea, Aloners; Justine Bateman’s Violet, a formally playful psychological tale of self-sabotage; Jenna Cato Bass’s breath-taking supernatural tale of class and race in South Africa, Mlungu Wam; the Scorsese-produced Croation coming of age film Murina, directed by Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović; the dark, deep genius of Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Woszczyńska’s Silent Land; the divisive yet captivating audacity of Ruth Paxton’s gastro-spiritual horror nightmare A Banquet; Rebeca Huntt’s unrestrained and captivating documentary self-portrait, Beba; Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker Haya Waseem’s Quickening about a young woman caught between two cultures; Kate Dolan’s kitchen sink Irish horror film You Are Not My Mother about families and spirits in disarray; Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeman’s co-directed queer African musical scifi political manifesto, Neptune Frost; Eve Orner’s heart-breaking documentary Burning about the 2019/2020 ‘Black Summer’ bushfires in Australia and what they mean for global climate change; Italian filmmaker Laura Samani’s festival highlight about motherhood, grief and faith, Small Body; Mélanie Laurent’s aforementioned flawless historical feminist drama about women, madness and society in late 19th century France, The Mad Women’s Ball and Kamila Andini’s aforementioned fearless Indonesian coming-of-age film Yuni; and the latest from Clio Barnard, Ali & Ava, a romantic drama set in Bradford that crosses class and racial boundaries. 

And of course, both behind and in front of the camera, there were the bigger films, the ones that set the red carpet alight. Kristen Stewart participated in an In Conversation event to discuss her much-hyped performance as Princess Diana in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, and the festival also featured movies including Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria with Tilda Swinton, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast with Catriona Balfe and Judy Dench, Phillip Noyce’s Lakewood with Naomi Watts, and Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho with Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy. Women directors were no stranger here, either, with other significant titles including but not limited to Camille Griffin’s black comedy Silent Night with Kiera Knightly, Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Earwig, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, Nathalie Biancheri’s Wolf, Ildikó Enyedi’s The Story of My Wife with Gijs Naber, Léa Seydoux, and Louis Garrel, Ana Lazarevic’s The Game, Maria Schrader’s I’m Your Man with Maren Eggert and Dan Stevens, Maya Forbes and Wallace Woldoarsky co-directed Sigourney Weaver vehicle The Good House, Alison Klayman’s controversial Alanis Morrisette documentary Jagged, Danis Goulet’s award-winning Night Raiders, Liz Garbus’s Becoming Cousteau, Penny Lane’s Listening to Kenny G, Heather Hatch’s Wochiiglii Io: End of the Peace, Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s Julia, and Bianca Stigter’s Three Minutes – A Lengthening. In the Primetime program, Ava DuVernay and Colin Kaepernick’s limited series Colin in Black and White was also highly anticipated, and retrospective screenings included Patricia Cardoso’s America Ferrera-fronted Real Women Have Curves (2002). 

Although garnering less mainstream traffic, the TIFF treasures still remain hidden in the Wavelengths and shorts programs. Women’s work in the former including Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Not Knowing (India), Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s Astel (France/Senegal), Madeleine Gottlieb’s You and Me, Before and After (Australia), and from Canada, Rhayne Vermette’s Ste. Anne. Likewise, there is a similar internationalism that has also marked the shorts program over the previous years, this year including Renee Zhan’s Soft Animals (UK), Andrea Herrera Catalá’s The Infantas (Spain), Sandrine Brodeur and Isabelle Mecattaf’s Beity (Lebanon/US); Olive Nwosu’s Egúngún (UK/Nigeria); and from Canada, Marie Valade’s Boobs, Rosana Matecki’s Saturday Night, Pakistani-Canadian-US filmmaker Fawzia Mirza’s The Syed Family Xmas Eve Game Night, Desrosiers and Carmine Pierre-Dufor’s Fanmi, and Andrea Nirmala Widjajanto’s Srikandi

Returning to the wording of the festival’s Acknowledgment of Country and its invitation to reflect on the notion of place, I am again reminded of the beauty and provocative nature of Laurent’s simple statement, “I wish I were here”. Cinema transports us, and with the newly announced Every Story campaign now intersecting with Share Her Journey, the fraught nature of all sorts of borders – and the identities that are tethered to them – somehow seem a little more elastic. Sure, in the context of COVID-19, they may briefly disrupt those of us privileged enough to have the means to travel the world to see these films at festivals such as TIFF. But at the heart of this festival (indeed, all festivals) is always – always – the movies themselves. And, especially for the women-directed films I was so fortunate enough to see this year, those movies open doors into places and experiences so far beyond my own. 

Toronto International Film Festival
10-18 September 2021
Festival website: https://www.tiff.net/

About The Author

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with a particular focus on gender politics, including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011) and its second edition, published in 2021; Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2014); Suspiria (Auteur/Liverpool University Press, 2015); Ms. 45 (Wallflower/Columbia University Press, 2017); The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland, 2021); and two Bram Stoker Award finalists, Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019) and 1000 Women in Horror: 1895-2018 (BearManor Media, 2020). She has co-edited many 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 an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, on the advisory board for the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. She was an editor at Senses of Cinema from 2015 to 2018.

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