Women @ TIFF 2021 – Alexandra Heller-Nicholas reports

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Once again combining in-person events with an online component, the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from 9-18 of September and once again includes an impressive number of women-helmed films spanning their programme. This in part coincides with the Festival’s Share Her Journey campaign which began in 2017; originally conceived as a five-year programme to focus on gender parity and amplify the role of women in the screen industries, 2021 marks its final year, and the films in this year’s programme demonstrate that while the battle is certainly not over – for TIFF, for film festivals, or for the screen industries more broadly – if you make an effort to consciously elevate women in these fields, the results can be extraordinary.

Broadcast in Canada on CTV and internationally available via a stream by Variety, the TIFF Tribute Awards also celebrate the work of many notable women in the industry, whose winners this year include a TIFF Tribute Actor Award to Jessica Chastain, the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media to Alanis Obomsawin (whose work is lovingly showcased in the enormous retrospective Celebrating Alanis at this year’s festival), the TIFF Emerging Talent Award to Danis Goulet, and the TIFF Special Tribute Award to Dionne Warwick.

The big names are, of course, all here as usual, meaning the red carpet – be it literal and/or symbolic – will hardly suffer a lack of love. Special Events include Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated and star-studded adaptation of Frank Herbert’s cult scifi novel Dune, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria with Tilda Swinton, Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero, and Pablo Larraín’s Spencer with Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, a screening that corresponds with what will no doubt be a very popular “In Conversation With…” event with Stewart herself.

Women are equally represented in the Festival’s Gala Presentations this year, which include Camille Griffin’s black comedy Silent Night with Kiera Knightly, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island with Mia Wasikowska, Mélanie Laurent’s The Mad Woman’s Ball from France, Maya Forbes and Wallace Woldoarsky co-directed Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline starring romance The Good House, Alison Klayman’s documentary about Alanis Morrisette, Jagged, and Danis Goulet’s Night Raiders. Other notable inclusions include Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast with Catriona Balfe and Judy Dench, Phillip Noyce’s Lakewood with Naomi Watts, and Edgar Wright’s much hyped Last Night in Soho with Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy.

Likewise, there is no lack of big names in this year’s Special Presentations, featuring amongst others Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog with Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst, the Justine Bateman directed, Olivia Munn fronted Violet, Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman, Italian director Nathalie Biancheri’s Wolf with George MacKay and Lily-Rose Depp, Hungarian filmmaker Ildikó Enyedi’s The Story of My Wife with Gijs Naber, Léa Seydoux, and Louis Garrel, Clio Barnard’s Ali & Ava, and from Germany, Maria Schrader’s I’m Your Man with Maren Eggert and Dan Stevens. Other notable Special Presentations include Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye with Jessica Chastain in the title role, Eva Husson’s Mothering Sunday with Odessa Young, Olivia Coleman, Colin Firth and the great Glenda Jackson, and Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner’s documentary, Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over.

While it may be tempting for less open-minded filmgoers to consider the cult Midnight Madness stream as somewhat niche, that this year’s collection of films features Julia Ducournau’s Titane starring Vincent Lindon and Agathe Rousselle render such assumptions flagrantly incorrect; only the second woman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes after Jane Campion, Ducournau has not legitimized horror, but rather demanded audiences expand their way of thinking about genre cinema altogether. Ducournau is joined by Kate Dolan’s You Are Not My Mother from Ireland, and Bertrand Mandico’s After Blue finds the French filmmaker once again working with his long-time collaborator, actor Elina Löwensohn.

The focus on global filmmaking in the Contemporary World Cinema stream showcases amongst others Anita Rocha da Silveira’s Medusa from Brazil, Dubrovnik-born, US-based filmmaker Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s Murina, Italian filmmaker Laura Samani who makes her fictional feature film debut with Small Body, Kosavo-born actor-turned-filmmaker Luàna Bajrami’s The Hill Where the Lionesses Roar, and Kira Kovalenko’s Unclenching the Fists from Russia. The always-strong Platform programme’s primary drawcard is Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Earwig with Paul Hilton and Romola Garai, adapted from Brian Catling’s novel and her first English language feature, following on from Innocence in 2004 and Evolution in 2015. Other Platform highlights include Jenna Cato Bass’s Mlungu Wam from South Africa, Polish filmmaker Aga Woszczyńska’s Silent Land, and Indonesian filmmaker Kamila Andini’s Yuni. In the Discovery stream, we also find potential treasures including but not limited to Serbian filmmaker Ana Lazarevic’s The Game, Agustina San Martín’s To Kill the Beast from Argentina; Tea Lindeburg’s Danish religious drama As In Heaven. Ruth Paxton’s A Banquet from the UK, and from Canada, Haya Waseem’s Quickening.

Women of course continue to excel in documentary filmmaking, which this year is represented by movies including Eva Orner’s documentaries on bushfires, climate change and political pig-headedness in Australia Burning, Beba, an autobiographical documentary by young US-born Afro-Latina filmmaker Rebecca Huntt, Liz Garbus’s Becoming Cousteau on the iconic Jacques Cousteau, Penny Lane’s Listening to Kenny G, and Heather Hatch’s Wochiiglii Io: End of the Peace. Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West return after the success of their Ruth Bader Ginsberg documentary RBG (2018) with Julia, a celebration of cooking queen Julia Child. Narrated by Helena Bonham Carter and with Steve McQueen as its producer, Bianca Stigter’s Three Minutes – A Lengthening will no doubt be one of the highlights of the festival, utilizing a vast home movie archive of color footage of a Jewish community in Poland in 1938 the year before the Nazis invaded and thus providing a microhistory of sorts of precisely what the Holocaust destroyed.

The Primetime program which focuses on the small screen includes a sneak peak of Ava DuVernay and Colin Kaepernick’s limited series Colin in Black and White which reflects on the famous football player’s extraordinary role in the broader racial and political firestorm of the United States when he took a knee as the national anthem played on the field in 2016. TIFF Rewind casts a retrospective gaze back at Precious (2009) and features a free digital talk with director Lee Daniels and actor Gabourey Sidibe, and a similar event features director Patricia Cardoso and star America Ferrera as they revisit Real Women Have Curves (2002).

TIFF’s more experimental Wavelength stream features a strong line-up of women-directed features and shorts, 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. Wavelength shorts include Vika Kirchenbauer’s The Capacity for Adequate Anger (Germany) and Spanish artist Laida Lertxundi’s Inner Outer Space, with Spanish filmmaker Nicolás Pereda’s Dear Chantal, an homage to Chantal Akerman.

There is a similar global curatorial approach to the main shorts programme, with works such as Renee Zhan’s Soft Animals (UK), Andrea Herrera Catalá’s The Infantas (Spain), Sandrine Brodeur- 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.

While largely out of public view, it is also important to recognize the focus on diversity and representation as consistent themes at this year’s TIFF Industry events. Panels include “Intimacy on Set with Ita O’Brien”, a conversation with the intimacy coordinator on shows including I May Destroy You and It’s a Sin, moderated by actor and filmmaker Madeleine Sims-Fewer who co-directed and starred in last year’s unflinching Midnight Madness rape-revenge film, Violation. The panel “Reset: Dismantling Toxic Behaviours On Set and In the Industry” features Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open), Isabel Sandoval (Lingua Franca), Nisha Ganatra (Late Night) and Andria Wilson Mirza (director and producer of ReFrame) in conversation about safety, equity and inclusivity on the set.

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from 9-18 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).