If you’ve been paying any attention to the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival lineup, you may have noticed a glaring difference in this year’s schedule from TIFFs past. Sure, there are still the Oscar-bait biopics (Ford v Ferrari), and the buzzy book adaptations (The Goldfinch), not to mention the requisite homegrown content (opening-night film Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band). But, in a first for the festival — which opens today and runs until the 15 — many of the most highly anticipated films are helmed by women. There’s the J.Lo-produced and Lorene Scafaria-directed Hustlers, the Fred Rogers biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, directed by Marielle Heller, and Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, just to name a few.
That’s by design. This year, festival programmers made a serious effort to include diverse titles not just by women, but by other underrepresented voices — a much-needed push that comes at a time when the industry is finally self-reflecting on a legacy that is overwhelmingly white and male. "There are clearly many, many historical biases that have contributed to the fact that women have had such a small representation in the film world," Cameron Bailey, TIFF artistic director and co-head, tells Refinery29. "Festivals are only one part of it, but I think we have to do our part to help that change."
Strength in Numbers
This year, 45% of the gala films debuting at TIFF are directed by women (36% of films overall) — the highest percentage in the festival’s 44-year history. Major credit for this goes to Joana Vicente, who was named TIFF’s co-head and executive director last year. (It’s also worth noting that TIFF achieved gender parity with their programmers this year.) With producing credits on more than 40 films and an Oscar nomination for the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Vicente comes to TIFF with a stacked resume. The fact that she is a woman in the most powerful role you can hold at an international festival is not lost on her. "I hope I am impacting [TIFF’s representation of women], but there is still a lot of work to do," she says. "If you look at a film school, usually half of the class is made of women, so there is a drop we’re seeing." Of the top 100 grossing films of 2018, women represented just 4% of directors. "We are holding ourselves accountable and doing what we can to make progress happen," Vicente adds. That means nurturing and finding up-and-coming filmmakers, like those working on short films, which are often young artists’ entry points into the industry.
The Ripple Effect
Of course, it doesn’t matter what kind of movies are made and who's directing them if the only ones getting media attention are coming out of the same old boys’ club. In 2019, TIFF committed to inviting more writers and film critics of colour to the festival in the wake of statistics released last year that show the field of film criticism is even more exclusive and homogenous than the industry it critiques. If those journalists couldn’t afford to attend the festival, TIFF raised money to foot the bill. It’s one of a handful of festivals starting to make diversity initiatives a priority — Sundance also hired more women programmers and was more inclusive with its journalist guest list. We know that the more a film is covered, the better chances for distribution and more eyeballs. That ripple effect can even carry a film to that coveted Oscar gold (see: Moonlight).
The Ones to Watch
Vicente recommends Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger by Alanis Obomsawin, the 53rd film by the acclaimed Canadian director. She's also excited about The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open by Canadians Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers. It's powerful story of two Indigenous women bonding over their shared experience with domestic violence. On Bailey’s can’t-miss list is New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi’s JoJo Rabbit, a film with a wild synopsis that he can’t wait for audiences to see. “It’s about how hate grows inside of people, especially inside of children, which is very much a current concern,” he says. “It’s a really emotional film.” He also says not to sleep on the festival’s Midnight Madness program, late-night screenings of the best in action, horror, and fantasy, including Saint Maud by director Rose Glass.
As for their respective Oscars pics? “I'm terrible at this,” Bailey says laughing, but he’s betting on Radioactive, the festival’s closing night gala film, which tells the story of Marie Curie (played by Rosamund Pike) and her relationship with her husband. He’s also team Just Mercy, Marriage Story, and, yes, Hustlers. “If the awards are brave enough, they will recognize Jennifer Lopez's performance and Constance Wu's performance,” he says. “It's about exotic dancers, so some people might be a bit wary but it's terrific and a lot of fun.”