Women’s Filmmaking Highlights at TIFF 2020 – Alexandra Heller-Nicholas reports

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Like film festivals all over the world this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has the Toronto International Film Festival to think outside of the box regarding the staging of their 2020 event in the context of how the global pandemic has impacted their community and wider the industry. While in different parts of the globe some festivals have moved wholly online and others have more optimistically planned for totally live events, TIFF have sat somewhere in the middle, combining live screenings in cinemas and drive-ins with digital equivalents and a host of supplementary online events such as red carpets, industry events and press conferences.

Scaling back proceedings to suit the demanding new context within which its 45th edition will be taking place, TIFF 2020 regardless does not lack its big names. Alongside Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, François Ozon’s Summer of 85, Viggo Mortenson’s directorial debut Falling and Spike Lee’s David Byrne’s American Utopia, there are of course a range of male-directed films that centre on women’s stories featuring big names J Blakeson’s thriller I Care a Lot with Rosamund Pike and Eiza González, Glendyn Ivin’s Penguin Bloom with Naomi Watts and Jacki Weaver, and of course – most excitingly perhaps – Francis Lee’s highly anticipated Ammonite, a queer period love story starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan.

Unlike a number of other high-profile festivals that have yet to adequately read the room, however, TIFF again avoids the mistake of assuming women in front of the camera will make up for not programming films where they prominently feature behind it in key creative roles. Here again there are no lack of big names, with Halle Berry and Regina King making their directorial debuts with Bruised and One Night in Miami respectively, and joining them at the festivals Gala Presentations this year is Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland starring Frances McDormand.

More globally, a festival highlight is the most recent film from Japanese auteur Naomi Kawase, True Mothers, and with notable inclusions in the Contemporary World Cinema stream including Manijeh Hekmat’s Bandar Band, Lili Horvát’s Preparations to Be Together For an Unknown Period of Time, Jasmila Žbanic’s Quo Vadis, Aïda?, and Miwa Nishikawa’s Under the Open Sky.

Yet despite lacking some of the big names of other streams, it is yet again the Discovery programme which showcases some of the most intriguing and exciting titles of the entire festival with its emphasis on emerging voices. Amongst these too are no lack of women-directed films such as Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, Tracey Deer‘s Beans, Farnoosh Samadi’s 180° Rule, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, Cathy Brady’s Wildfire, and what is sure to become a festival favourite for many at TIFF as it has elsewhere, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby.

The documentary offerings this year are rich, diverse and abundant, headlined by a Special Event screening of Dawn Porter’s The Way I See It which profiles the White House chief photographer during the Obama era, Pete Souza. Sonia Kennebeck returns with another unflinching political documentary with Enemies of the State, with other women-directed documentaries including Michelle Latimer’s Inconvenient Indian, Mayye Zayed’s Lift Like a Girl, Joel Bakan and Jennifer Abbott’s follow-up to 2003’s The Corporation, The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel, and No Ordinary Man, Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt’s co-directed profile of trans American jazz icon, Billy Tipton.

2020 marks a significant high mark for the Midnight Madness programme as it reaches gender parity in terms of the directors of the three films on this reduced programme, an unusual and admirable feat in relation to category of film that far too often finds women locked out of the same professional opportunities their male colleagues are afforded. Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud stars Chloë Grace Moretz as a World War II pilot who finds herself not just in the close company of men in a creaky war plane, but another, more disturbing presence who presents just as much a threat as the enemy forces (if not more so). Co-written and directed by Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli, the shocking and unflinching Violation also stars Sims-Fewer in the lead role as a woman swept up in a whirlwind of intense, violent family intrigues.

TIFF’s shorts programme showcases its usual wealth of talent from around the world, this year including Elinor Nechemya from Israel; Remi Itani from Lebanon; Marie-Ève Juste, Sofia Bohdanowicz, Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, Tiffany Hsiung and Hannah Cheesman from Canada; Renee Zahn from the United Kingdom; Naïla Guiguet from France; Amina Sutton and Maya Tanaka from the United States; and Alexandra Ramires from Portugal.

Turning to the small screen in the Primetime stream, however, and we find we have come a full circle; alongside a preview of Michelle Latimer’s series Trickster, one of the biggest women-directed highlights of the entire festival is surely a screening of episodes 1 to 6 of directorial icon Mira Nair’s highly anticipated series adaptation of Vikram Seth’s legendary 1993 novel, A Suitable Boy. Big screen or small screen, on-site or watching streaming from home, while many elements of TIFF 2020 will be a new experience, the seemingly conscious emphasis on women’s filmmaking from around the world thankfully remains intact.

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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).