Arts Review

It’s about time: Women in the director’s chair, A TIFF Review by Marc Glassman

It’s about time: Women in the director’s chair, A TIFF Review by Marc Glassman featured image

One of the biggest issues in cinema over the past couple of years is how few women get to direct the films at your Cineplex—or even at your friendly local blockbuster of a festival, TIFF. The stats are appalling. Women directed just 7% of the 250 highest grossing film releases in North America in 2016. That’s down 2% from the previous year. You would be forgiven to think, “what happened to equality?”

40 years ago, directors like Agnes Varda, Liliana Cavani, Chantal Akerman, Lina Wertmuller, Ulrike Ottinger, Margarethe von Trotta, Elaine May, Barbara Kopple and Gillian Armstrong were making a big impact on the international film scene. One would have thought that their films would inspire a new generation of female filmmakers. It did, but the financing for their films—and careers–rarely seemed to come together. Finally, organizations in the film world are beginning to respond to a worldwide concern, that women should be putting their visions on the screen.

One of the progressive forces in global cinema is TIFF. They have set up a $3 million dollar campaign to raise funds for women who direct films. In fact, the pre-TIFF party tonight is a fundraiser and awareness builder for the cause of women filmmakers. The number of films directed by women has cracked the 30% barrier for the first time this year. 33.6% of the films at TIFF this year are made by women—a figure that’s only remarkable after you’ve grasped exactly how bad it has been for decades.

TIFF films by women include the solo first films directed by actors Greta Gerwig, Brie Larson, and Molly Parker, as well as new work by three documentary masters, Alanis Obomsawin, Agnès Varda, and Jennifer Baichwal. The films they and other women made are quite diverse but three new works show the originality finally being recognized by the festival.

TIFF is finally recognizing television in a series called Primetime. One of the shows they’re showcasing is one of the most prestigious Canadian dramas of the fall, Alias Grace. Written and produced by Sarah Polley with creative input and co-producing credits by Margaret Atwood, the show meticulously recreates mid-19th century Ontario in all of its hidebound religiosity and social conservatism. The series concentrates, as did Atwood’s Giller-award winning novel, on Grace Marks, an Irish servant, who is accused and convicted of conspiring to murder her employer and his housekeeper. The hypocrisy of the period is brilliantly exposed in the series: its sexism, class-bound consciousness and inherent racism. Alias Grace has wonderful performances by Sarah Gadon as Grace and Rebecca Liddiard as her best friend, Mary. Directing the series for Polley and Atwood was Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho), who marvelously evoked the period, while effectively showing what was wrong in Upper Canada in the 1840s.

Number One is a chilly, effectively scripted drama about a woman attempting to rise to be CEO of one of the firms in CAC (Cotation Assistée en Continu), a group of the top 40 companies in France. Emmanuelle Blachey (played by a very effective Emmanuelle Devos) is perfectly positioned to take over the nation’s major water-distribution company: she has the smarts, worked in the company for years, and has a team of female advocates who are working to make her candidacy a success. Politics is always hard and Emmanuelle has to deal with a multitude of events in her quest for leadership. Filled with fine character actors and blessed with an excellent scenario, Number One is a drama made by women about women on the rise—including, one hopes, director Tonie Marshall.

The Swan is a beautifully lensed film set in one of the most gorgeous natural settings in the world, rural Iceland. The drama, the debut feature by Asa Helga Hjorleifsdottir, centres on a nine-year old girl, Sol, who is forced to work on her great-aunt’s farm for a summer as punishment for being caught shoplifting. The director has a clear idea of what an urban girl would understand about the world as she adjusts to country life. Sol’s attitudes are irrevocably changed as she deals with her cousin Asta, who has returned home distraught over a lost love and Jon, the farmhand and writer who mysteriously becomes part of their lives that summer.

There are many other films by women at TIFF. Many are character studies and violence isn’t avoided into their narratives. Still, they feel different than films made by most men in their willingness to explore the dreams, hopes and desires of their protagonists. At any rate, this is one reviewer who will seek out films by women this—and every—year at TIFF. Why not take advantage of the good will of a festival that is trying to address equality in a week?

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Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Classical Mornings with Mike and Jean.

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