TIFF 2023 Rising Stars: Seven Out of Nine are Women! – Jennifer Merin reports

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TIFF has announced this years honorees in its 2023 Rising Stars program, and seven of the nine selected actors are women! They are Adwa Bader (Saudi Arabia/USA), Almudena González (Argentina), Amrit Kaur (Canada), Aria Mia Loberti (USA), Kudakwashe Rutendo (Canada), Léah Aubert (France) and Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne (New Zealand), and they are joined by their male colleagues, Cody Lightning (Canada) and Mark Clennon (Canada). All Rising Stars are featured in films and series from TIFF 2023’s Official Selection, and join the Festival from around the world.

TIFF’s Rising Stars program features actors on the verge of making a large impact on the international stage and provides them with an exclusive opportunity to experience and engage in professional development and mentorship sessions and industry events that provide valuable networking opportunities with established creatives at the Festival.

“Every year, we see the incredible impact of TIFF’s Rising Stars initiative and are thrilled to announce the new 2023 cohort of the most exciting and up and coming on-screen talent,” said Anita Lee, Chief Programming Officer, TIFF. “If you don’t know who they are, you will soon.”

And as a prelude, here are TIFF’s official introductions to them (ladies first!):

ADWA BADER (Saudi Arabia/USA)
NAGA, (dir. Meshaal Al Jaser)

Adwa Bader is a Saudi American multihyphenate and interdisciplinary artist, actor, poet, and screenwriter. She’s a Riyadh native who landed many roles as a commercial actor and model since 2008, working on short films and campaigns for many local and international brands and outlets such as Harvey Nichols, Destination, FarFetch, and Burberry. Bader published a limited and exclusive compilation of her poetry in 2020, and most recently landed her first lead role to star in director Meshal Al Jasser’s feature film NAGA, which is set to be released in 2023.
The Ravaging Wind, (dir. Paula Hernández)

Almudena González is an actor born in Buenos Aires in 1999. Having graduated from the Vocational Institute of Art in 2016, she also trained with Federico León, Francisca Ure, Juan Onofri Barbato, Laura Sbdar, and Martín Flores Cárdenas. In 2021, she filmed Argentina, 1985, directed by Santiago Mitre; and in 2022, she filmed A Ravaging Wind, her first leading role, directed by Paula Hernández. She is currently studying for a Bachelor’s Degree in Acting at UNA, which she entered in 2017. She teaches acting and poetry classes in self-managed, private workshops.
The Queen of My Dreams, (dir. Fawzia Mirza)

Amrit Kaur is an artistic hyphenate: an actor, comedian, director, and writer. She believes in acting as a humanitarian art form with the power to heal, transcend, and empower. Kaur will star in Fawzia Mirza’s The Queen of My Dreams opposite Hamza Haq and Nimra Bucha. The film, premiering at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, follows a Pakistani woman and her Canadian-born daughter as they come of age in two eras. The actor is best known for her breakout role on Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble’s HBO Max hit series, The Sex Lives of College Girls. Amongst myriad raving reviews, The Chicago Sun Times’ Richard Roeper hailed Kaur’s performance, where “in a cast of standouts, Kaur is the superstar… that funny, that clever, that captivating.” Off-screen, Kaur continues to maintain a strong connection to theatre. She is an ensemble member of Gracemoon Arts Company, which is building an off-Broadway theatre opening in Brooklyn, NY later this year.
All The Light We Cannot See, (dir. Shawn Levy)

Aria Mia Loberti is an American actress, writer, scholar, and human rights advocate. She plays the lead role in Shawn Levy’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel All The Light We Cannot See. Loberti earned the part after a global search of thousands of actresses, despite no formal training; it’s her first-ever acting role and is a leading example of authentic blind representation. A Fulbright Scholar with a master’s degree in ancient rhetoric from Royal Holloway University of London, she is also a PhD candidate at Penn State University. Furthermore, as a supporter of UNICEF, Loberti is actively a passionate advocate for human rights, environmental justice, and educational equity.
Backspot, (dir. D. W. Waterson)

Kudakwashe Rutendo is a fast-rising actor from Fort McMurray, Alberta, currently based in Toronto. She was first introduced to the performing arts through LIVE poetry, and since then her passion for performance has only grown. After graduating high school, she moved to Toronto to attend the University of Toronto and pursue a career in acting. Recently, Rutendo landed a role starring alongside actor Tatyana Ali in the feature film Giving Hope: The Ni’cola Mitchell Story (Lifetime). She is also a theatre actor featured in productions such as Lost Heroes of Oro (Theatre by the Bay), and Vierge (Factory Theatre). Rutendo is expected to have her breakout role in the upcoming feature film Backspot (Page Boy Productions), starring opposite Devery Jacobs (Rising Stars 2018), Thomas Antony Olajide (Rising Stars 2021), and Evan Rachel Wood.
Sisterhood, (dir. Nora el Hourch)

Always passionate about cinema, Leah Aubert started acting when she was seven in a musical comedy. Since then, Aubert never stopped acting, going from theatre class in school to acting in front of a camera. Her first step in front of the camera was in a 2021 student film. Recently, she starred in the movie Sisterhood by Nora el Hourch, and has also created her own short movie, which she both acted in and directed.
The Convert, (dir. Lee Tamahori)

Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne is a Māori Storyteller who is of Ngāti Porou and Ngai Tūhoe descent. She grew up on the East Coast attending Te Kohanga Reo o Itinoa and Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Kawakawa mai Tawhiti. After completing school, Ngatai-Melbourne auditioned and was accepted into New Zealand’s leading drama school, Toi Whakaari, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree majoring in Acting (BA) in 2020. Ngatai-Melbourne is well known for her roles in feature films such as Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Kahu), Cousins (Adult Makareta), and Whina (Teenage Whina), as well as the TV series We are still here (Te Mauniko), Mystic (Maia), and Kairākau (Ruamahu). Ngatai-Melbourne has also discovered a passion for creating her own work, and most recently wrote, directed, and starred in her debut short film E Rangi Rā (Paea), supported by Māoriland Film. Her hopes and aspirations are to break the stereotypical way Māori are portrayed by decolonizing the screen and spaces, and above all, to make her Māori whanau, hapu, and iwi proud.
Hey, Viktor!, (dir. Cody Lightning)

Cody Lightning is a world-class, generation-defining actor. Hailing from Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis, Alberta, Lightning began acting at age five in the film Geronimo. Since then, he has become one of Hollywood’s most active Indigenous actors, best known for his roles in Smoke Signals, The Brave, Brick, and many more. In 2023, Lightning will star in Marvel’s upcoming Echo series. His debut feature film as a writer-director, Hey Victor!, sees Lightning revisit his iconic role in Smoke Signals. In recent years, Lightning has taken on greater creative responsibilities, including producing, directing, and writing, focusing on projects that highlight how fucking hilarious Indigenous people are.
I Don’t Know Who You Are, (dir. M.H. Murray)

Mark Clennon is a Jamaican-born artist whose art is expressed through various mediums. As a musician, he has garnered fans worldwide with music that The Recording Academy describes as “mesmerising,” MTV News recently described his art as “intimate and groundbreaking.” In 2022, Clennon made history with the first music video set and shot in Jamaica to depict a same-sex on-screen romance instantly highlighting him as one of Jamaica’s only openly gay performers. Clennon began his career in entertainment as an actor, but took a hiatus to focus on music. I Don’t Know Who You Are marks his triumphant return to acting, with which he is able to marry his love and passion for music.

TIFF Rising Stars is produced by Jane Kim, Industry Programming Producer, with the support of Emma Bulpin, Rising Stars Programmer, and, Taelor Lewis-Joseph, Associate Programmer, Industry.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).