TIFF’s Efforts to Improve Gender Equality in Film Should Be Applauded

The Toronto International Film Festival was already making progress before the allegations against Harvey Weinstein sparked the #metoo movement in Hollywood.
September 5, 2018, 7:40pm
From left to right, Natalie Portman and A Million Little Pieces director Sam Taylor-Johnson | Images via CP

In October of 2017, just a month after last year’s run of the Toronto International Film Festival, The New York Times and The New Yorker published allegations of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein, made by dozens of women over the course of three decades. The effects were immediate. Weinstein, once the most powerful man in Hollywood, was dismissed from the Weinstein Company and expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Producers Guild of American, and every other company of which he had ever been a part.


The #MeToo movement that followed—originating from activist Tarana Burke’s use of the phrase in 2006 to create a support system for people who’ve experienced sexual abuse—and a long-needed inspection of inequalities in pay and opportunity for women and people of color have signalled a fundamental shift in the film landscape. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the first following Weinstein’s downfall, 82 women in the film industry marched on the red carpet— joined by Cannes director Thierry Frémaux—to protest gender inequality in the industry, and the annual amfAR Gala, of which Weinstein had been an integral part, was noticeably dimmed. (On the other end of the spectrum, Italian director Luciano Silighini Garagnani appeared on the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival wearing a shirt proclaiming “Weinstein is Innocent.”)

As TIFF 2018 begins, all eyes are on the festival to see how the first TIFF post-Weinstein will play out. The festival—which featured last year’s Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water, as well as Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—has long been an awards season proving ground, broadly once the Weinstein Company’s domain, and as the industry changes, the pressure is on to create parity.

In fairness, TIFF was already ahead of the curve. Ahead of last year’s festival, TIFF began “Share Her Journey,” a five-year, $3 million campaign (of which, as of TIFF’s 2017 annual report, almost $1 million has already been raised) to support female directors and creators, including a three-month residency program, a speaker series, and classroom support. “We acknowledge that gender inequity is systemic in the screen industries,” said festival artistic director Cameron Bailey in a statement to Variety. “Change has to happen at every level.”


This year, the festival’s efforts are expanding even further, branching into the field of film criticism as well. As a part of the initiative, the festival extended invitations to new voices in the community in addition to support for those who might not independently be able to attend. To that end, in June, actress Brie Larson announced that TIFF (as well as the Sundance Film Festival) would allocate 20 percent of their press credentials to underrepresented writers, and more recently, a Share Her Journey rally—with Geena Davis, Mia Kirshner, and Amma Asante among those scheduled to attend—was announced for September 8th, right in the middle of the festival’s opening weekend.

Female filmmakers are also all over the festival’s slate, as over a third of the 343 films playing this year are directed by women, including five out of the twenty Gala Presentations—including Claire Denis’ High Life, Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher, Nicole Holofcener’s The Land of Steady Habits, Veena Sud’s The Lie, and Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had. (It’s only a small drop from last year, which saw six out of twenty Gala Presentations directed by women, and still worth celebrating.)

Also of note are the series of interviews running on the festival’s site leading up to the opening night, all of which spotlight female directors whose work will be playing during the festival’s run. Though the interviews are primarily about their work, there is also an undercurrent to the discussions that speaks to the times. “It couldn’t feel more relatable,” says Emma Tammi, speaking about her 1890s-set film The Wind and the struggle of its heroine. “This idea of the environment closing in on you and becoming an unsustainable place to survive also feels weirdly relatable right now.”

Even more striking is the interview with Alejandra Márquez Abella (director of The Good Girls, or Las niñas bien), who notes that the #MeToo movement is progressing more slowly in other countries besides the US, and that there’s still a lot of work to be done. On a more heartening note, however, it’s work that TIFF is helping to accomplish. “To me, TIFF was everything,” Abella adds, recalling how her first feature, Semana Santa, premiered at the festival, and being called back for the TIFF Talent Lab. “It was the difference between nothing and everything … It really trained my way of seeing cinema. It was a life-changing experience, without a doubt.”

Though the shifting of tectonic plates in the film industry following Harvey Weinstein’s downfall has been tumultuous, TIFF seems to be blossoming, as the programs sponsored by the festival, from Share Her Journey to the Talent Lab (which has already been running for two decades), are helping to create awareness of and opportunities for underrepresented people in the film industry—the very people who would have been marginalized and taken advantage of under Weinstein’s reign. Again, to quote Bailey, change has to be made at every level, and TIFF, at least, is up to the challenge.

Follow Karen Han on Twitter.

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