REAL REEL WOMEN at TIFF 2019 – Report by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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In the spirit of the AWFJ’s REAL REEL WOMEN project which showcases the breathtaking history of biopics about some of history’s most significant women, the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival includes an intriguing array of films that could comfortably be added to this formidable list, with a notable majority directed by women filmmakers.

Three of these films feature in the festival’s Gala Lineup program. The Closing Night Gala Presentation is Radioactive, Marjane Satrapi’s biopic about pioneering scientist Marie Curie and her husband Pierre. Rosamund Pike stars as Marie – famed for winning the Nobel Prize not just once, but twice – who with this World Premiere Pike joins an esteemed group of peers who have also played the famous scientist including Greer Garson who starred in Mervyn LeRoy’s Madame Curie in 1943, and Isabelle Huppert, who played Curie in Claude Pinoteau’s Les Palmes de M. Schutz in 1977. (Marie Curie is one of AWFJ’s REAL REEL WOMEN.)

Another World Premiere Gala Presentation is Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, starring Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Cardi B, Keke Palmer, and Julia Stiles. Finding its origins in a 2015 article from New York Magazine, the film follows a group of strippers who find creative ways to contend with their sudden change of circumstances when serious lifestyle changes hit their Wall Street regulars in the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis.

Joining Radioactive and Hustlers in the Gala Presentations program is the World Premiere of Harriet. Since her ground-breaking debut directorial feature Eve’s Bayou in 1997, actor/filmmaker Kasi Lemmons has proven herself to be a creative force to be reckoned with, rendering her the perfect person to bring the legendary story of abolitionist Harriet Tubman to the screen. A powerful story of strength, courage and resilience, Harriet recounts Tubman’s journey from escaping slavery to becoming a key figure in helping others to freedom through the famous Underground Railroad network. Starring Cynthia Erivo and with an impressive supporting cast including Janelle Monáe,

Seberg brings the tragic life of screen icon Jean Seberg brought to life in a film perfectly cast with Kristen Stewart in the title role. Charting the tensions between Seberg’s career and her passionate political activism, that the latter made her a target of federal investigators whose surveillance and harassment had a devastating effect on Seberg’s life, right up until her death. Directed by Australian filmmaker Benedict Andrews, the film has an impressive list of names behind the scenes including DOP Rachel Morrison, editor Pamela Martin, and is co-written by Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel.

Another famous screen actor brought to life in a biopic is Judy Garland in Rupert Goold’s Judy, starring a spectacularly transformed Renée Zellweger in the title role. Adapted to the screen from Peter Quilter’s 2005 stage play End of the Rainbow which dazzled on Broadway and in London’s West End, Judy examines just how Garland’s life was controlled by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, denying her the necessary skills for self-care or independence. The fallout from these early experiences culminates in the film’s focus on a period in Garland’s later years, when- struggling with poverty and substance-abuse issues – she takes to the London stage and struggles to reclaim that famous voice for herself, both literally and symbolically.

In Australia, filmmaker Unjoo Moon turns to the life story of Helen Reddy whose 1971 song I Am Woman became synonymous with second wave feminism around the world, also granting this biopic making its World Premiere at TIFF its name. Starring Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Reddy, Moon follows her protagonist’s career as she relocates from the southern Australian city of Melbourne to New York City in the mid-1960s with hopes and dreams of a successful music career, but her status as a single mother finds her very much on the outside of a male-dominated industry. A series of significant encounters change her path, and in I Am Woman, Helen is forced to face new challenges in a film with a screenplay written by Emma Jensen, who previously penned the screenplay for Haifaa al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley in 2017.

These films, however, just begin scratch the surface. Less an orthodox biopic than an experimentation with the lines between fact and fiction, the World Premiere of Chiara Malta’s Simple Women traces the filmmakers own experience of meeting that film’s star Elina Löwensohn in real life, already a cult celebrity based largely on her work with filmmakers like Hal Hartley and his 1992 movie Simple Men, of which Malta’s own film title is a knowing reference.

Elsewhere, the lived experience of women directors directly informs fictional narratives in other ways. Documentary filmmaker Antoneta Kastrati’s feature debut Zana tells the story of an infertile woman in Kosovo who is dealing with the horrors of the war a decade earlier. Although a fictional film, the emotional truth of Zana – making its World Premiere at TIFF – stems from Kastrati’s own memories of the war and the impact it had on her personally and on her community. Likewise, Sharipa Urazbayeva’s Mariam stars Meruert Sabbusinova in the title role of a woman in Kazakhstan who struggles to survive after her husband disappears in a fictionalized reimagining of Urazbayeva’s own experience.

The 2019 Toronto Film Festival runs from 5 – 15 September

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).