Film talent at TIFF draw attention to gender inequality issues
Director Onur Tukel in a Toronto hotel during a press junket for his film 'Catfight' at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 10, 2016. (Chris Young / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
David Friend, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, September 15, 2016 12:39PM EDT
TORONTO -- "Catfight" writer-director Onur Tukel felt it mighty presumptuous to think he could tell a story from a female perspective.
Yet he couldn't ignore the lingering frustration that Hollywood still isn't making nearly enough movies for women by women.
So he decided to take action himself with the movie, by casting Anne Heche, 47, and Sandra Oh, 45, in a story about two warring former classmates, and by assembling a crew with key roles occupied by women.
Each played a significant part in authenticating his script.
"It was constantly changing based on our discussions," Tukel said during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival where the combative comedy screened.
"I'm trying to write stories that will appeal to women, but at the same time, I have a lot to learn."
The push to get more women in the director's chair and other creative roles hit a new peak this year and gender inequality was a hot topic at TIFF.
Directors, producers and writers grappled over the current power structure of storytelling in entertainment and whether there's any tangible proof that inroads are being made.
"Transparent" TV series creator Jill Soloway dedicated a 40-minute speech to the topic, which looked at how women are portrayed in cinema and who tells their stories. Soloway is feeling optimistic.
"I look around at women that I want to hire and they're working, so that's exciting," she said.
"As recently as five years ago I would go on pitch meetings and be told, 'You need to have a rootable, white, handsome man at the centre of this story."'
Her experience is a sign of change for some, but urgency was still apparent at other TIFF panel discussions.
"Just as windows open, they also close," warned Rina Fraticelli, executive director at Women In View, a Toronto-based advocacy group for gender and racial equity in film and TV work.
"Talking about gender isn't the same thing as doing something."
Before the festival, Telefilm Canada made a murky pledge to boost diversity in the projects it backs, setting a four-year target for nothing particularly specific. It hopes to create a portfolio that better reflects gender, diversity and Canada's indigenous communities.
"It's very clear that we haven't done enough and we need to do more," said Carolle Brabant, executive director of Telefilm, at a panel on female filmmakers. She finished with a sliver of relative optimism.
"We're not at the point where we're questioning the issue anymore."
The Crown corporation didn't include any sort of metrics for how it will measure change. Brabant said privacy laws prevent the organization from asking financing applicants to reveal their gender, which makes it tougher to boost diversity in the early stages of applications.
Recent figures haven't been encouraging for Canada, according to a study by Women in View. It found that of 102 directors on films backed by Telefilm during the 2013-14 production year, only 17 of them were women.
Other countries have varying records of progress. The Swedish Film Institute, the country's funding group, reached gender parity three years after the goal was set in 2011.
The U.K. is miles behind. An independent study by Directors UK found no improvement in the number of women hired as directors in the stretch of a decade ending in 2014.
Film industry analyst Stephen Follows, who conducted the U.K. research, said he's cautious of the "self-congratulatory model" of gender diversity within the industry.
He said some film festivals and other organizations have installed financial and technical support programs for female filmmakers that don't actually result in tangible progress.
"If you talk about solutions that don't actually create change, it's worse than doing nothing," he said.
"People in the industry don't think they're sexist ... and when they're forced to see there is a problem and somebody else says 'I've got it, it's in hand,' they relax and don't do anything."
Not every filmmaker subscribes to this push for data-based diversity in film.
French director Julia Ducournau sees the danger of turning into a token female.
It's something she felt when conversation about her Cannes award-winning second feature "Raw" shifted to her gender.
Cannibalism isn't a subject that most female directors would dare tackle, she heard, and some suggested it was surprising that a woman would make such a gory film. Ducournau dismisses those notions and thinks it belittles her story to emphasize it was written from a female perspective.
"I don't like to gender-ize movies," she said.
"There is no 'men'-cinema and 'women'-cinema -- there is cinema and you have individuals making movies, that's all."
On the set of "Catfight," conversation about gender was often at the forefront, and Tukel carried the topic all the way to the film festival. He made an effort to bring his female crew onto the stage at every screening and gave them credit for the project.
He hopes that will help keep the topic of female storytelling relevant and perhaps urge others to think differently too.
"There is a cultural shift where women do want to see stories where they're in the lead," he said.
"I feel like, to me, that's the demographic that I want to venture into."
With files from Lauren La Rose