How representation of women directors still so sparse at film festivals

Topics women directors

Scenes from Radioactive, a film on Nobel-prize winning scientist Marie Curie
In her previous career in finance, French-Tunisian filmmaker Manele Labidi was used to being treated differently from her male colleagues. When she entered the film industry, she felt a sense of déjà vu. The director, who was at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to premiere her debut film Arab Blues, a well-crafted comedy about a young female psychotherapist who returns to Tunis from Paris to set up a practice, said in an interview, “If you come to a producer or financer and say I’m going to do a war movie or science fiction movie, I guess it’s not the same as if you come with an intimate story that takes place in one room. The difference you can feel it, especially when dealing with higher budgets. I think there is this mentality that does not trust women in dealing with money.”

That’s one of the many challenges female filmmakers must still overcome, and why several of them believe it’s important to provide more platforms for their work. The TIFF website points out that out of last year’s top 250 films, only 20 per cent had women directors, writers, producers, editors or cinematographers, while 25 per cent had one or no women in these roles. Two years ago, TIFF started a five-year campaign called Share Her Journey to prioritise gender parity in the film industry. Starting this year, the festival also has a new female co-head in award-winning producer Joana Vicente.

In an interview, Vicente explained the need for programmes like Share Her Journey, noting, “In film schools usually 50 per cent of students are female…so what happens? Why is it more difficult for them to get their first film made? Then we also notice there’s a drop from the first film to the second film — fewer women make a second film and it also takes them a lot more time. It is a systemic problem.”

This year, over a third of films shown at TIFF were directed or co-directed by women, including three out of the four films from India (see box). The female-directed films span a wide range of genres from comedy and drama to animation. So do their characters —TIFF’s closing night film Radioactive is about double Nobel-prize winning scientist Marie Curie, while the crowd-pleaser Hustlers is about a gang of strippers. There are films about female astronauts, labour activists, young Muslim women trying to break their shackles, spirited schoolgirls and much more.

So, do female filmmakers offer a different point of view? One example at TIFF is Proxima, a multilingual European film directed by Alice Winocour. Its protagonist is an astronaut and a mother of a young daughter, struggling to balance both commitments, a rarely seen facet of space travellers. Also at TIFF was Rubaiyat Hossain’s Made in Bangladesh, a look at a woman’s struggle to organise her garment factory co-workers in Dhaka. Although the film boasts a mostly female technical crew, the director says even she has to consciously fight her bias in portraying women because she grew up watching films where women were always viewed through the male gaze.

Made in Bangladesh, which looks at a woman’s struggle to organise her garment factory co-workers in Dhaka
“If you have 98 male directors and two female directors, and of the 98, maybe 50 are telling women’s stories, then what happens is that we learn from men what it’s like to be a woman,” Hossain says, adding, “I always bring up this example of the film Blue is the Warmest Colour. It’s a beautiful graphic novel written by a 28-year-old woman. It’s a beautiful, spiritual love story between two women, and a male director takes it and makes it into a hypersexual film which is all about sex.”

In some cases, a film might not even be made without a woman filmmaker providing the starting point. In writing and directing Hala, Minhal Baig drew from her own life and milieu to create the character of the Pakistani-American high schoolgirl walking a tightrope between her two worlds. While it’s hard work for any film in general to get financing, Baig says female filmmakers face the additional challenge of justifying why their story needs to be told in the first place. But she admits support for female filmmakers is steadily growing, especially in independent cinema. “In the studio space it’s more challenging of course because you’re making a bigger movie with a bigger budget that has to hit a lot of boxes,” Baig says. “So at least in the indie space I’ve found that there’s always room for female filmmakers and a path forward for a movie if you want to make it.”

Amidst the voices of support and special programmes to promote women in cinema, it’s interesting to contrast it with the lines written for Marie Curie in Radioactive. When invited to apply for a senior academic post after her husband’s death, Curie tells the all-male university panel not to give her the opportunity due to pity or any agenda. In this too, Curie was ahead of her time. Now, a growing band of female filmmakers wants a place at the table and platforms like TIFF are stepping up.

Vicente says, “I think we should be promoting great film, but we should also reflect what the world looks like.”

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