Some of the most invigorating, bursting-with-fresh-perspectives-and-points-of-view movies at the latest edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 2019) that concluded last week, either featured highly interesting female characters, or were helmed by female directors, or both.
Hinde Boujemaa’s fine Tunisian debut, Noura’s Dream focuses on a woman, a still youthful mother of three, who wants to put behind her an abusive husband, and build something new with a lover. But things are not as simple as they seem: for a woman, wherever in the world she may be, following her heart can be fraught with challenges.
Celebrated actor-director Nadine Labaki also plays a conflicted woman, but in a different country, and in a different year. 1982, directed by Oualid Mouaness, is based on his memories of the fateful day when Israeli forces invaded Beirut. The lovely Labaki plays a school teacher who has to choose between a brother and a potential suitor. For a woman, making a choice is sometimes being forced, heartbreakingly, to not making a choice at all.
All the way across the globe, in New York, Nicole is struggling to extricate herself from a marriage with Charlie, in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. Scarlett Johansson is marvellous (as is Adam Driver, in the role of Charlie) as she wades through the movie, showing us glimpses of a woman who wants to be a good wife and mother, but who also wants to be herself. No, Nicole is no saint, but she’s no demon either.
Also in New York, when the jaw-droppingly limber Jennifer Lopez twirls around a pole in Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, you don’t just see a body, you see the person behind it. That’s what a feminist gaze does to a film about strippers: it goes beyond.
And multi-culti London is the location of one of my absolute favourite films, Rocks, directed by Sarah Gavron, who worked intensively and with a great deal of empathy with non-actors to create its universe of teenage girls, most of them from immigrant families, trying to find their groove.
The central character is called Rocks. That’s not her real name, of course. It’s just what she goes by at school, and amongst her friends, as she tries to negotiate circumstances no 15-year-old should have to: an absentee mother, zero money, and a little brother to look after.
Even till about five years back, the discovery of a female gaze in a film was a matter of pure luck. The intervening years have been marked by an increase of women in cinema, with entries at the technical level, as well as on the different tiers that control the making of movies. This is a global movement which has resulted, slowly, but surely, in women owning more and more space on and behind the screen.
TIFF vocally prides itself on raising the bar on gender parity, and nearly 50 per cent of its programmers are female, which is bringing a distinct female forwardness in the selection of movies showcased. This is not just during the festival: TIFF’s ‘Share Her Journey’ programme, which runs round-the-year, focuses on identifying and facilitating women who want an entry into the film industry, creating an environment for skill development, and providing access to hitherto tightly controlled spaces.
I speak to the Toronto born-and-bred Jaspreet Sandhu, 34, who has been with TIFF for the past 11 years, and is aware that the work with the ‘Share Her Journey’ programme has just begun. She says, “We don’t want a situation where we are sitting back and saying, ‘oh look, the checklist is complete’.” How would she assess the progress of the programme that began two years back? “Year One was about getting the message out, Year Two, it sort of exploded because we got a lot of interested women reaching out to us. Now, in Year Three, we want to see what has progressively changed, to reach back to the women (126 in the first year, 120 in the second): how do they see the programme as having impacted them?”
Such programmes usually take a long time to catch traction, especially because filmmaking has been for so long, intrinsically, such a male-dominated industry. Sandhu, who went to film school and trained in production, speaks wryly of how she hated being called “little lady” on the set: “I sound like a kid, but I’m not”. She certainly is not: working on something that is so close to her heart has made her a passionate votary for increased female presence on and off the set. “When women are hired in key positions, they hire other women, and this is what Rima (Das) was talking about at her panel,” she says.
Das, an official ambassador for ‘Share Her Journey’, spoke at this edition of TIFF about being not just the only woman on the set, but also someone who can justifiably be seen as a changemaker and an inspirational figure. Das has pretty much made her films on her own, donning the many hats a film requires (director, producer, screenplay writer, cinematographer, editor) on both Village Rockstars and Bulbul Can Sing, which premiered at TIFF 2018.
“Yes, of course it is difficult. Filmmaking is never easy,” says Das, as we sit side-by-side for a late-night screening. “But the way I looked at it is if there was no job for me, I made my own job,” says she. And judging by what Das has done in her ground-breaking work till now, that’s a very fine job indeed.
Last year, Geena Davis headlined a ‘Share Her Journey’ rally mid-fest, speaking about the importance of getting more women to be visible. “Even in a crowd scene, if there are as many women as men, it shifts something,” she said to loud approving roars. And Nandita Das gave a rousing speech on what it is like to create a niche in a closed industry like Bollywood.
How about increasing female viewership? “That is key. The act of watching is itself powerful because after that you go out and talk about what you’ve seen, and that supports our movement,” says Sandhu.
This I can vouch for. You see women like Noura, Nicole, Rocks, and there is no way on earth that you’re not going to talk about them, and share their journey.