Travel plans are afoot this autumn for me, and that meant that TIFF 2016 was going to be a protracted affair. Ten-to-twelve screenings (down from my usual twenty-five-to-thirty), and precious little time off from work.
So with less than half the tickets to work with, I looked for a guiding principle to help me choose my films…and then it hit me:
TIFF 2016 would become the festival that I only paid attention to the titles directed by women.
The idea was inspired by several sources. Obviously, there was the eight whole months I’d spent working on the #52FilmsByWomen project, the artists that it had made me better acquainted with, and the fascination it had spurred in me towards female filmmakers. Along with that, there was Filmspotting critic Josh Larsen, who had done this very thing two years ago at The Sundance Film Festival. Last, and certainly not least, there was Marya E. Gates who has been a key inspiration to my thirst for better comprehension of the female eye with…well…everything she does, really, but especially her Year With Women that made up her movie watching habits for 2015.
However, despite what all of those forays into women in film had accomplished, people whose opinion I respect underlined one key component to the plan that I had to adhere to: I couldn’t brag about it.
To publicize what I was planning to do – or even what I was doing as it went along – would turn it into a gimmick, a stunt. It would lessen the whole thing and seem like I was trying to call attention to myself. (Even posting this post-mortem was something I wrestled with).
So, if I was going to do it, I just had to do it. No hashtags, no hoopla, no “look at me!” self-congratulations.
So I just went about it. I made my selections, and swapped schedules with other attendees, and waited for someone to look over my slate that aligned with next-to-nobody’s and make a comment. The funny thing? Almost nobody did! Despite posts on just about every film, tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram images of director after director, it took until the very last day of the festival for anyone to ask me “Hey, are you…?”
At the end of it all, the hope is that one distant day, such a move would go unnoticed because it wouldn’t be a novelty…and that there would be so many to pick from that it would be easy to build a massive slate populated with female filmmakers. But back to the present…
The programme itself played out wonderfully. Thirteen films, chosen with an eye on representation, all enjoyed to various levels. Even the two I could claim were the ones I liked the least were selections I would still deem rewarding watches for what they did with style and story.
In fifteen festivals that is a first.
On the one hand, it could be a complete co-incidence, or a lucky bounce. On the other hand, it could be that because women have to push so much harder to get their stories made, the films have to be that much better. There’s a theory that only the very best books get translated into other languages because the demand exists. Is it possible that only the best films are getting made by women because they have to push that much harder to get them supported?
The effect was a much more varied week than I have become accustomed to. There was no temptation to catch a blockbuster, no getting caught-up in awards hype. This year, I never had a moment of burning a ticket on a film like THE MARTIAN or 127 HOURS; I wouldn’t witness on the oscar chances of Jean Dujardins or Natalie Portman.
The slate of films I pulled together was more immediate; more varied. Some films were very big, some were very intimate – but they all felt like they were more interested in engaging with the audience gathered than they were aiming for ego-stroking notoriety. To be sure – several came with acclaim, several with prestige, and a few of them were quite big in scale…but when compared to what was happening elsewhere in the festival with selections like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, LION, and LA LA LAND…at times it felt like I was on a different planet.
It’s a planet I’m going to think long and hard about revisiting in festivals future.
It allowed me to get introduced to new names like Alice Lowe, Sarah Adina Smith, and Stella Meghie. It brought me back into the orbit of storytellers from TIFFs past like Claudia Sainte-Luce. It got me an audience (literally) with legends like Agnès Varda and Julie Dash. And it gave me a chance to get absolutely dwarfed by some huge films by Andrea Arnold and Ana Lily Amirpour.
The selfish intention was to use one piece of criteria to ease what is usually a difficult decision. The unexpected result was a week of higher engagement, discovery, enlightenment, and illumination. It reminded me of what I often say to others; that you get out of TIFF what you put into it. So by putting in dedication to programmes I usually skip…and storytellers I am less familiar with, I got a week unlike any I’ve experienced in the sixteen festivals I’ve attended.
To anyone getting weary of this festival, I suggest trying something like this. It’s amazing how unique it can make one’s festival experience
Next year I might do this again, or I might not. For now, all I can say is that I’m happy I did it this year…and that I owe Marya, Josh, and everyone at womeninfilm.org a beer or two for the experience.
For those interested, I saw:
THINGS TO COME – Mia Hansen-Løve (France production)
WEREWOLF – Ashley McKenzie (Canada)
A UNITED KINGDOM – Amma Assante (UK)
BUSTER’S MAL HEART – Sarah Adina Smith (USA)
AMERICAN HONEY – Andrea Arnold (UK/USA)
THE BAD BATCH – Ana Lily Amirpour (USA)
JEAN OF THE JONSES – Stella Meghie (USA)
BELOW HER MOUTH – April Mullen (Canada)
THE EMPTY BOX – Claudia Sainte-Luce (Mexico)
OKAFOR’S LAW – Omoni Oboli (Nigeria)
PREVENGE – Alice Lowe (UK)
Cinematheque screening of 1977’s ONE SINGS, THE OTHER DOESN’T – Agnes Varda (France)
Cinematheque screening of 1991’s DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST – Julie Dash (USA)