YUKON’S AVAILABLE LIGHT FILM FEST 2023: Feminist Wrap – Rachel West reports

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Yukon’s Available Light Film Festival Reaches Gender Parity: Female Filmmaker Wrap

The 21st annual Available Light Film Festival (ALFF) in the Yukon is not just Canada’s largest international film festival north of the 60th parallel it’s also a film festival with gender parity in its programme selections this year.

Held in Whitehorse in-person and online from February 9 through 19, out of the 101 short and feature narrative and documentary films screening at the festival, 51 are directed by women. Twenty out of the 45 features are directed by female-identified filmmakers, while 31 of the 56 short films are helmed by women, with the selections screening for a receptive and engaged local Yukon audience.

Since gender parity became a hot-button issue in 2018 and the world’s leading film festivals pledged on a gender parity transparency, parity has been somewhat of a rarity for most festivals. Parity among its film selection is something that has not achieved by the Venice Film Festival or Cannes Film Festival (though neither has committed to parity in a gender-based line-up), nor the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022. While those festivals have been making strides, Sweden’s Göteborg Film Festival was the first major fest to achieve gender parity in 2020, with Sundance’s 2022 line-up comprised of 52 per cent of features directed by women.

With its parity programming, Available Light shines the spotlight on women behind-the-camera. Featuring many films that have been making the festival circuit in the past year, the festival brought these women-helmed films to Northern Canadian audiences who happily gathered for in-person screenings in Whitehorse. Among the much-lauded women-directed selections are Charlotte Wells’ Oscar-nominated Aftersun, and International Oscar submissions for France and Ukraine, Alice Diop’s Saint Omer and Maryna Er Gorbach’s Klondike, with many of the festival’s Canadian programming directed by women.

The hot ticket at the festival was Northwest Territories writer-director Kirsten Carthew’s post-apocalyptic eco-action film Polaris. Filmed in the Yukon, the invigorating story is led by a powerhouse performance by young star Viva Lee as Sumi. Raised by a polar bear in a frozen wasteland, this is Mad Max: Fury Road in the Arctic with female warriors who speak a made-up indecipherable – and non-translated – language. Having already played a number of Canadian festivals including Whistler and Fantasia, seeing this in the cinema with an explosive and supportive local audience was a real treat and one of the screening highlights of ALFF. With many of the local actors and crew present for the screening and Q&A at the Yukon Arts Centre, more contributions of the women on-screen and behind-the-camera were highlighted in a lengthy discussion with the crowd.

Several other high-profile Canadian features directed by women held their Yukon debuts including Gail Maurice’s Rosie. The well-reviewed dramedy follows an orphaned Indigenous girl who is forced to live with her reluctant, street-smart, aunt and her two gender-bending best friends in 80’s Montreal. Fluent in Cree/Michif, Maurice has built a career for herself as an actress as well as behind the screen with her Assini Productions that aims to highlight stories with strong Indigenous female leads.

The journey of Indigenous women in Canada is highlighted in writer-director Marie Clements’ Bones Of Crows. Also starring Maurice in a supporting role, Bones Of Crows features a tour de force performance by Secwépemc actress Grace Dove as Aline Spears, a Cree woman who survives Canada’s residential school system to continue her family’s generational fight against systemic racism, sexual abuse, and trauma. A tale told like a psychological thriller with tact and grace, Clements’ and her largely female cast deliver a story that is both powerful and necessary, engaging the in-person festival audience.

Among other ALFF highlights by women include Chandler Levack’s nostalgic comedy I Like Movies. Set in 2002, this throwback follows Lawrence, a young video store clerk and his best friend who dream of one day making their own movie. With film school in New York out of reach, Lawrence has to settle for attending university in Canada where his dream of becoming a director may be just out of reach.

In addition to the feature films, ALFF’s documentary programming got the local audiences talking. Geographies of Solitude by Jacquelyn Mills immerses viewers into the ecosystem of Sable Island and its fiercest champion, Zoe Lucas, and her quest to document everything that washes up on shore of this tiny Atlantic island. Her story and Mills’ unique approach to the documentary led to engaging conversation post-screening from the festival attendees who audibly gasped when confronted with Lucas’ consummate documentation of the amount of specific debris, like balloons, that have washed up on Sable Island’s beaches.

Among other Canadian documentary selections, canine lovers were pleased to see Part of the Pack co-directed by Isabelle Groc and Mike McKinlay which takes a look at what happens as humans encroach on wild wolf habitats. Elsewhere in the festival, Chelsea McMullan’s look at award-winning Canadian Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq in Ever Deadly and Teresa Alfeld’s bittersweet rock doc Doug And The Slugs And Me got music fans talking. In addition, Laura Poitras’ Oscar-nominated All The Beauty And The Bloodshed also made its Yukon premiere at ALFF.

With a slate of industry programming, I also had the opportunity to sit in on the ALFF short film pitch competition which saw six filmmaking teams – three of which featured pitches by women including one co-ed pitch team – share their vision for a variety of unique stories and genres.

The Available Light Film Festival runs in-person and online from February 9 through 19 and is presented by the Yukon Film Society and presenting partners Telefilm Canada and Canada Goose.

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Rachel West

Based in Toronto, Rachel is a Senior Film Critic at ThatShelf.com. She has interviewed everyone from Michael Fassbender to Miss Piggy and has reported live from TIFF, the SAG Awards, Comic-Con, and the Golden Globes, among other events, and has contributed film writing and content to outlets including ET Canada, Telefilm, Global News, The National Post, Cineplex Magazine, and Letterboxd, among others. She is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. Find her on Twitter: @rachel_is_here