Movies

TIFF has a message for Venice: Do better by women filmmakers

Adam Benzine

Programmers for the Toronto International Film Festival are taking aim at their counterparts in Italy, sending a blunt message regarding their treatment of female auteurs: Do better. 

The shot across the bow comes with the 87-year-old Venice Film Festival under fire for programming just two female-directed films out of the 21 movies in its main competition line-up, where Todd Phillips’s Joker is squaring off against James Gray’s Ad Astra and Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy.

The Italian fest – which kicks off a week before Toronto – isn’t the only European giant that has been slow to make progress in programming work from women. France’s Cannes Film Festival this year offered only four of its 19 competition slots to women; a figure it happily trumpeted as significant progress. (Prior to 2019, only 82 women had been selected to compete for the Cannes Palme d’Or, as opposed to some 1,600 men.)  


Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Courtesy of TIFF

Both Cannes and Venice offer the same defense: If the quality isn’t there, then they are not going to program second-rate movies just to meet a progressive quota and appear woke. The quality must come first. Venice director Alberto Barbera even went as far as to suggest that he would resign if he were forced to meet a gender quota, describing the concept as “offensive.”

“If I had found 50 per cent of films directed by women to include in competition, I would have done it, without the need to introduce quotas,” Barbera told Italian reporters at last month’s opening press conference. 

But senior staff at TIFF aren’t buying it. 

“You’re not looking hard enough,” says Kiva Reardon, programmer for TIFF’s Contemporary World Cinema (CWC) section and founder of the recently shuttered film journal Cléo. She rejects Barbera’s notion that programming to quotas will reduce the quality of work shown at festivals.

Discussion around female representation in the film industry has increased considerably in the wake of the Time’s Up.

“It suggests that the word ‘quality’ or even ‘best’ is objective, and not something that’s been created over a long time, through the way that the film cannon has been shaped which predominantly has been by white, European men and their tastes,” she says.     

This year, nearly half of TIFF’s 48 CWC titles are directed or co-directed by women, including France’s Mati Diop (Atlantics), Bangladesh’s Rubaiyat Hossain (Made in Bangladesh), Holland’s Halina Reijn (Instinct), Uzbekistan’s Sharipa Urazbayeva (Mariam) and Montreal’s Louise Archambault (And the Birds Rained Down).

“When I’m looking at films, I’m thinking, ‘I want to see new images,’” Reardon explains. “Even if I don’t fully understand it or I’m not immediately drawn in. Because when someone says, ‘This is the best,’ that ‘best’ has been defined by them, but that might not be the best for somebody else. So when Venice says, ‘The quality wasn’t there,’ their certain level of quality wasn’t there, but they’re not trying to push the conversation forward in the way of what the cinematic cannon should be and could be.”


Rosamund Pike in Radioactive.

Courtesy of TIFF

Reardon isn’t the only programmer setting aside normal intra-festival etiquette to talk bluntly about her rivals. Michael Lerman, co-lead programmer for TIFF’s Special Presentations and the artistic director of the Philadelphia Film Festival, doesn’t mince words either.  

“We’ve been hearing a lot of this, ‘The quality was just not there,’” he says. “This is a massively complex issue, but that’s a response that very much shirks off that responsibility. It’s very easy to say, ‘Not enough women are being funded to make films.’ And in a lot of ways it’s true and it’s something we need to focus on a long-term solution for.  

“But being a massively complex issue, everyone in every role at every stage needs to be cognizant of it, they need to do their part in it and be accountable for it,” he adds. “To give a shirk-off response is a cop out. You should say, ‘I’m part of this system, what can I do to help?’” 

Just over a quarter of TIFF’s Special Presentations are directed by women, including Katrin Gebbe’s mother-daughter thriller Pelican Blood, Justine Triet’s psychological drama Sibyl and Céline Sciamma’s period lesbian drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire 

But while TIFF has a decent gender balance in a number of its sections — including Galas (which features female-directed biopics on Harriet Tubman and Marie Curie), Short Cuts, Platform and its TV section Primetime — an analysis of the overall line-up presents an uneven landscape. 


Cynthia Erivo in Harriet.

Courtesy of TIFF

This year, female director representation across all 333 feature films, shorts and TV shows sits at 36 per cent. This makes for a marginal increase on 2018’s 35 per cent. By contrast, women accounted for 45 per cent of the overall line-up and 56 per cent of the U.S. drama competition at Utah’s progressive Sundance Film Festival this January.

Discussion around female representation in the film industry has increased considerably in the wake of the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, and TIFF artistic director and co-head Cameron Bailey last year signed an industry-led “50/50 by 2020” pledge. The agreement calls for greater transparency among film organizations, but stops short of demanding 50 per cent female representation across the festival. (To do that, TIFF would need to axe around 34 male-directed films and offer those slots to women.)

Of course, the missing piece of the puzzle lies in the submissions data, which most major film fests have been reticent to release. Gender parity in programming is hard to critique without the context of how many female-directed films are being submitted in the first place, and festivals are just one part of the pipeline. 

Here, Venice offers a defense. Responding to its negative press, the world’s oldest film festival on Monday launched an inaugural seminar on gender parity and inclusion, where it revealed that, out of the roughly 1,850 features submitted for selection, only 23 per cent were directed by women. As such, the 25 per cent of female-directed films that it selected for its overall line-up is commensurate with submissions. 

This won’t make for an exhibition of art, but for a civil rights festival.

Alberto Barbera, Venice director

Barbera said it would take years for Venice to achieve gender parity. “If I’m to consider inclusion when selecting 60 titles from 1,800 entries, I should also select a certain number of films by black directors, a certain number by gay directors or other people discriminated for various reasons,” he told trade publication Screen Daily. “This won’t make for an exhibition of art, but for a civil rights festival.” 

TIFF, meanwhile, tells the National Post that around 32 per cent of its overall submissions (some 2,540 out of 7,925) came from women, making its 36 per cent female representation roughly in line with its submissions ratio. 

And there’s the rub. Despite TIFF taking the moral high ground over its Venetian rival — and despite the organization’s best efforts for affirmative action — both festivals still have a roughly 1:1 ratio between female-directed submissions and female-directed selections. 

Perhaps TIFF would be better off highlighting its progress pursuing equality of opportunity, rather than equality in outcome, drawing attention to its excellent initiatives such as Share Her Journey, Rising Stars and Filmmaker Labs. In Toronto, at least, there is a will for change. And staff at the fest are optimistic that things are moving in the right direction. 

TIFF has already achieved gender parity among its programming staff, and Canadian Features programmer Ravi Srinivasan says he’s seeing more and more female-helmed features submitted each year. “I’ve been screening films on the Canadian side for five years and I have absolutely noticed a rise in submissions,” he says. “That’s not a product of us trying to accomplish that number, it’s a product of female voices. They’re finally being given an opportunity through various funding bodies such as Telefilm and the arts councils, who are looking to promote stories made by women. And we’re seeing that if they’re given that opportunity, they’re gonna get the work done and the work’s gonna be great.”

“Things are changing,” Reardon agrees, albeit not as quickly as she would like. “It’s frustratingly slow and it’s going to take generations before a Masters section will be 50 per cent women or 60 per cent, or 100 per cent. For men, the starting gun went off a long time ago.”

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