Midnight Madness Gender Parity at TIFF 2020 – Alexandra Heller-Nicholas reports

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2020 has been a difficult year for the horror film industry and broader fan and creator community for reasons beyond the impact of COVID-19 and its impact on production, exhibition, and distribution. In early June, The Daily Beast published a shocking exposé by Marlow Stern called “How a Right-Wing Movie Studio Enabled the ‘Harvey Weinstein’ of Indie Film” which cast the parent company of two beloved cult and genre film publications in a deeply unflattering light, including the iconic Fangoria magazine which has been a horror fan staple since 1979.

The Daily Beast article was promptly followed by an announcement from Fangoria that they would be severing ties with this owner and were actively pursuing new opportunities that would allow the magazine to continue publishing in the future. As we enter the final stages of the year, in this context it does feel like some light is beginning to shine at the end of a very dismal tunnel. The recent announcement that Fangoria has been acquired by entrepreneur Abhi Goel and Tara Ansley (CEO of Wanderwall Entertainment) has been enthusiastically welcomed, particularly in light of Ansley’s own active participation in the industry as a producer of films including Tyler Macintyre’s 2017 feminist horror comedy Tragedy Girls.

Ansley’s comments following the Fangoria acquisition announcement for many felt like a much-needed salve after the ugly Daily Beast revelations. Posting on Twitter, Ansley said; “If a little girl who grew up wanting to be IN Fango[ria] can one day co-own Fangoria – that goes to show you how we can all really do anything if we keep banging our heads into the walls long enough. Be kind & collaborate. Don’t ever give up. I look forward to amplifying your voices.”

In the spirit of transparency, I have contributed to Fangoria in the past myself, so when I say here that this news “for many felt like a much needed salve”, make no mistake that I include myself amongst those numbers. Yet I know that I am far from alone in this being the inescapable context with which the recent launch of the Midnight Madness programme at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival is necessarily framed, as it reaches the significant milestone of achieving gender parity for the first time ever.

While the mainstream film press have noted that the festival as a whole has come the closest to gender parity it ever has – 46% of movies selected for the festival this year were directed or co-directed by women – Midnight Madness has hit exactly 50%. Although the number of films playing in the programme this year reflect the broader reduction in scale of the festival in general, two of the three films set to screen are Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud which is joined by Violation, co-directed and co-written by Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli, with Sims-Fewer also starring in the lead role.

While a notable feat in its own right, it is perhaps only when contrasted with the 2019 programme that the enormity of this statistic becomes clear. Last year, of the ten films screened in Midnight Madness, only one was directed by a woman (Rose Glass’s extraordinary debut Saint Maud). “Women have long been a minority presence in TIFF’s Midnight Madness section, and though I have ensured that at least one selection was directed by a woman for each edition of the programme over the past three years, that remains a sobering metric that I must work towards meaningfully increasing”, says programmer Peter Kuplowsky. “I am heartened this year’s three-film selection achieved gender parity, and that two of the filmmakers are people of color, but I think what I was most cognizant of while making these selections was how each of these films were considerably preoccupied with complex female protagonists who find themselves confronted by external patriarchal pressure”.

This point is crucial. Debates around parity often risk diminishing significant factors such as content and quality in favour of pure statistical data regarding who is in the director’s chair. Make no mistake, the latter is of course extremely important, but it does not reveal the whole picture from a programming perspective and what that can offer audiences in terms of access to diverse, inclusive content. In this light, the 2020 Midnight Madness programme is notable for reaching parity through an emphasis on both quantity and quality, making claims of tokenism effectively impossible. While the ethical debates around programming and equity in terms of gender and other points of difference are complex, to achieve gender parity while consolidating a cohesive, strong programme of top shelf films where 50% of the filmmakers are women and 50% are people of color is no small deal.

This is clearly the case when it comes to a closer look at the women-directed films themselves. Most attention-grabbing of the titles due in part to the star power of its lead actor Chloë Grace Moretz is Chinese-New Zealand filmmaker Roseanne Liang’s horror film Shadow in the Cloud. In Kuplowsky’s words, this is a film where “a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force pilot not only confronts a supernatural threat 20,000 feet in the air, but also the exceedingly toxic workplace culture of a B-17 Flying Fortress crewed by dismissive and salacious men”.

Without hesitating, however, Kuplowsky is quick to add that there is a dark relevance to the film’s plot when it comes to the movie’s own production history. “Shadow in the Cloud is further meta-textually complicated by the baggage of its original writer, who after being publicly called out for harassment and assault, was summarily dismissed before the film entered production”. Kuplowsky continued, “His script was reportedly extensively re-written by director Roseanne Liang, who compellingly balances the film’s requisite horror thrills and action spectacle”.

Gendered violence and abuse also lie at the heart of Violation – co-written and co-directed by Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli and starring Sims-Fewer in the lead role – albeit in a different way to Shadow in the Cloud. A more aggressive and explicit film in terms of its focus on gendered violence and abuse, as Kuplowsky notes, it “is far more provocative and complex in its interrogation of similar themes”. Told in a conceptually sophisticated non-linear manner, Violation follows two sisters and their partners on a country retreat where repressed secrets boil over and explode in a shocking act of violence that triggers an unpredictable series of consequences. Wholly original and unrelentingly gripping, while not for everyone Violation is undoubtedly destined to make many critics top ten lists for the year.

But the interest in women’s filmmaking and genre cinema at TIFF this year does not end here. Additionally, the festival’s industry conference features the event “Sorority Row: Women in Genre Filmmaking” on Friday 11 September, moderated by April Wolfe (host of the legendary Switchblade Sisters podcast and co-writer of Sophia Takal’s 2019 feminist slasher movie Black Christmas). Exploring the relationship between gender and horror filmmaking, Wolfe will lead a discussion with Liang, Amy Seimetz (Sun Don’t Shine, She Dies Tomorrow), and Veena Sud, whose 2018 feature The Lie with Joey King has recently been announced as part of the Amazon/Blumhouse collaborative series, Welcome to the Blumhouse which seeks to highlight directorial diversity in the genre.

Says Wolfe of the “Sorority Row” event, “it’s an honor to be asked to moderate a discussion of this sort at TIFF, partially because it lends great legitimacy to genre filmmaking and partially because it means they’re willing to go past the surface-level discourse of what it means to be a woman filmmaker we so often get mired in on diversity-initiative panels; sometimes it can feel like we’re spinning our wheels in the same damn mud.”

Wolfe continues, “I think the more we demystify the process, give freely of our knowledge, the more varied filmmakers we’ll naturally see at these festivals. I hope every audience member from this panel comes away with a renewed drive to create, because I’m looking to highlight the unorthodox routes to success, not just the typical speed bumps, and we’re so fortunate to have this short list of highly accomplished women from very different backgrounds to share their experiences.” With events such as this and approaches that Wolfe has herself championed across her own acclaimed career, it is hopefully only inevitable that 2020 will not be a one-off when it comes to amplifying the work of women filmmakers in horror, at TIFF and elsewhere.

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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).