women making film at toronto 2019

First published in Film Comment on September 24, 2019. 

Lina from Lima (María Paz González, 2019)

This year’s Toronto Film Festival featured a special tribute to the female filmmakers of history: Mark Cousins’ 14-hour documentary series, Women Make Film, traced the trajectory of cinema as seen exclusively through the work of women directors. Torn between a thousand options in my four days in Toronto, I couldn’t quite eke out time for Cousins’ omnibus (or judge, for myself, the irony of a male director helming a series about women’s auteurship), but I caught several titles at the festival that I imagine will find a place in the series’ future installments: bracing, inspired films by up-and-coming women directors from all over the world.

Many of these were screened in the festival’s Discovery and Contemporary World Cinema (CWC) sections, which boasted commendably high percentages of women directors: 54 percent in the former case and about 40 percent in the latter. (For the complete TIFF lineup, the number came out to 36 percent.) But numbers, PR-friendly as they are, only tell part of the story—they need to be backed up by the qualitative, hard-to-measure effort of seeking and supporting genuine talent and giving women the critical consideration that they, too, deserve as artists. This is where TIFF seems to have gotten it right. As with any large lineups, both Discovery and CWC featured films of varying strengths, but they spotlit enough robust work by nearly unknown female directors to offer a rebuttal to anyone who worries that gender parity requires a concession of quality, or that there just aren’t enough women making good movies.

To me, the more revealing TIFF statistic is the fact that this year, the festival also achieved parity among its programmers, ensuring that the bid to diversify the lineup went much deeper than simply hitting a number; it included an effort to expand the fold of people whose tastes and connections decide which films enter the festival pipeline. As programmers Dorota Lech (Discovery) and Kiva Reardon (CWC) confirmed to me in conversations after the festival, the high percentage of women in their selections was both an accident and a given. An accident because they operated with no predetermined quotas or metrics, choosing strictly based on quality; and a given because their choices reflect their own backgrounds and philosophies as women passionate about women’s stories.

“I was surprised myself that we landed with this number and how natural and easy it was,” said Lech, who was appointed the lead programmer for the Discovery section only last year. “I am a woman, I have a Master’s in Gender Studies, I live in one of the most multicultural cities in the world. What the program looks like is how I see the world.”

Reardon, who is also the founding editor of the recently shuttered feminist film journal cléo, added over email, “The different backgrounds of the programming team means we’re always looking to redefine what is deemed as ‘best’ and ‘essential.’ What stories have been overlooked, called ‘small’ or ignored? Usually ones by women.”

What’s striking about both Lech’s and Reardon’s programs is the sheer breadth of countries from which they managed to source films by women. Discovery, for instance, features women-directed features from more than 15 countries, including Antoneta Kastrati’s harrowing Zana, the first film from Kosovo to ever be screened at TIFF. Lech said that this was the result of a sustained effort on her part to visit and scout films in countries from where filmmakers are often unable to travel to markets like Cannes and Berlin. In the last few years, she has visited Cuba, Brazil, Chile, Kazakhstan, and Iran, amongst other countries; it was at the Cinema Vérité documentary festival in Tehran that she met Mahnaz Mohammadi, the director of Discovery selection Son-Mother. Reardon, who has been programming African and Middle Eastern films across the festival’s sections for the last three years, emphasized that the Arab world has an abundance of women making films, although they are usually overlooked in the mainstream canon. Her finds this year included Tunisian filmmaker Hinde Boujemaa’s Noura’s Dream, another excellent Discovery entry, which Reardon first encountered in a pitching platform at Egypt’s El Gouna Film Festival two years ago.

***

Comets (Tamar Shavgulidze, 2019)

Lech specializes in cinema from Eastern Europe—an area where she said it’s harder to find female filmmakers, unlike in the glory days of early Soviet cinema. But some of my favorite films in the Discovery lineup hailed from the region. One of these was the wonderfully strange Cometsa narrative shape-shifter about two women who reunite long after their truncated teenage romance and confront the the pull of long-lost possibilities. The second feature by Georgian filmmaker Tamar Shavgulidze, the film consists for the most part of gentle, probing conversations set in a sunlit yard—first between a mother and a daughter, and then between the mother and her former lover, who returns to town after decades of living abroad. Shavgulidze builds a tense, tender waltz out of these exchanges, interweaving the characters’ questions and recollections and longing-ridden glances with snatches of flashback, until Comets dissolves into its masterstroke of a finale: a La Jetée-esque sci-fi film-within-a-film that says aloud everything that the women have been unable to say to one other. Mesmerizing in its minimalism and its hushed voiceover full of melancholy, that final sequence turns Comets into a gorgeous piece of queer meta-text—a testament to cinema as a repository for repressed desires.

Zana (Antoneta Kastrati, 2019)

Zana, the debut Kosovar film at the festival, also fulfilled the titular promise of the Discovery section. Since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, the publicly funded Kosovo Cinematography Centre has been supporting a nascent national cinema, much of which contends with the war that, just two decades ago, killed more than 13,000 civilians and displaced over a million Kosovar Albanians. Zana unfolds in the shadow of the same events, delving deep into the psyche of a woman unwilling, yet pressured to conceive again after losing her daughter in the war. But the film is also inflected by the personal experiences of director Antoneta Kastrati, who lost her own mother and sister in the violence. Now based in L.A., Kastrati has built her repertoire with several documentaries and shorts, often in collaboration with her cinematographer sister Sevdije. Zana is her fiction feature debut—and a remarkably assured one at that, signaling a director with a knack for austere visual storytelling.

Set in the countryside, Zana plays with the conventions of classic pastoral horror to etch out a haunting afterimage of the trauma of war—as borne, particularly, in the bodies of women. Pale, PTSD-stricken Lume spends most of her days tending to household chores and farm-work. Her routine is frequently interrupted by ominous visions that, chillingly, are almost impossible to distinguish from the actual vestiges of the war: the corpses and animal skulls she hallucinates are no less terrifying than the bullets she finds buried in the soil or the ghastly VHS tape she discovers of her daughter being dug up from the ground (which her mother-in-law has saved “in case of a trial”). Lume’s desperate need to grieve, with both body and mind, is somehow illegible to her mother-in-law, who parades her around to witch doctors and healers seeking a cure for what she assumes is infertility. Hewing close to Lume’s perspective and employing an unnerving, disjointed editing style, director (and editor) Kastrati creates a genuinely confusing sense of reality, with lead actress Adriana Matoshi bending the film around her with a magnificent performance of embodied grief. Her Lume reminded me of the PTSD-afflicted women in another TIFF selection: Kantemir Balagov’s post-WWII drama Beanpole, which screened in CWC, also explores the terror and promise of childbirth after the annihilation of war. Unlike Balagov’s film, however, Zana offers us no historical distance: the recency of the events that frame the film—and Kastrati’s tight, genre setup—ensure that we can feel the horror of it all in our bones.

Son-Mother (Mahnaz Mohammadi, 2019)

Son-Mother is another bleak, exacting drama about a woman’s lack of choice in a patriarchal society—a subject director Mahnaz Mohammadi knows all too well. A documentarian, actress, and activist, Mohammadi was banned from leaving Iran in 2011 after the release of her feature doc Travelogue, and then imprisoned for two years in 2014 for her political activism. Son-Mother, her first project since being released from prison, has a more humanist focus than her documentary work; à la Ken Loach, Mohammadi closely follows the tribulations of a helpless soul caught in the ever-more-insidious ways of the system. In the first half of the film, titled “Son,” widowed factory worker Leila (Raha Khodayari) struggles with a Sophie’s Choice-esque dilemma: the kindly bus driver at her factory has made her an offer of marriage, promising to support her and her children, but on one awful condition—that she send away her 12-year-old son Amir (Mahan Nasiri) until the driver’s teenage daughter is old enough to be married. Leila spends much of this first half adamantly rejecting his advances, until the risk of losing her factory job amid a brewing strike crumbles her resolve. She reluctantly sends Amir away to a school for the deaf, and the film segues into its second section, titled, “Mother.” The miserabilism of the first half gives way to something more like a thriller here as Amir tries to convince his schoolteachers of his deafness while also plotting his escape.

Written by Mohammed Rasoulof (A Man of Integrity), the script turns increasingly melodramatic as it proceeds, but the formal economy of Mohammadi’s direction compensates for the excesses of the writing. Even before we learn of the bus driver’s proposal to Leila, the situation is laid out for us in a quiet, triangular exchange of gazes between the two of them and a nosy coworker, relayed through the rearview mirror of the bus. Amir’s fate is conveyed through a similar choreography of gestures: Leila’s friend takes him out to a boat and instructs him to simply “not hear”—and immediately, the sound recedes from the scene and the camera zeroes in gently on the boy’s face as he internalizes the command. Nasiri is precocious in a granular, nearly wordless performance, while Raha Khodayari is reminiscent of Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, her face weary with sorrow and exhaustion but never losing its touch of defiance.

Mariam (Sharipa Urazbayeva, 2019)

In contrast to the heavier subject-matter and genre mechanics of these films, Mariam and Lina from Lima offered gentler, more modest narratives about women rediscovering themselves in the absence of the men in their lives. In Mariam, Sharipa Urazbayeva’s true-to-life debut feature, a woman living in a remote village in the Kazakh steppe is forced to fend for herself and her kids after her husband suddenly disappears. Initially fazed by the slow-moving police and a confounding bureaucratic system, Mariam (Meruert Sabbusinova) soon starts to find little joys in life without her husband—until, of course, he returns, forcing a reckoning upon her. Urazbayeva employs a formal device that has now become something of a docu-fiction cliché: long, static medium-shots of a character at the margins of society, tending to daily chores. (I was reminded of Wang Quan’an’s Berlinale entry Öndög, a similarly glacial, observational drama about a reclusive woman in Mongolian steppe.) The film is enlivened, however, by the procedural rhythms of the plot and non-professional Sabbusinova’s beautifully acted—or, given that this is the actual story of her life, reenacted—journey of coming into her own.

In María Paz González’s Lina from Lima (also a debut), the protagonist, a Peruvian maid who works for a wealthy family in Chile, comes to terms with a different sort of separation. Back home in Lima, her teenage son grows distant from her and her ex-husband moves on with his new family, while she remains stuck in her life of invisible immigrant labor. But Lina (Magaly Solier), like Mariam, finds many little escapes in this life of solitude, which Gonzalez brings to life as glitzy musical interludes. It’s a lovely mix of poignancy and playfulness that stays endearingly low-key, the film’s sparse production balanced out by the infectious charm and wide, expressive eyes of its heroine. Like most other women-directed films I saw at TIFF (including Mati Diop’s Atlantics and Ina Weisse’s The Audition, discussed at length elsewhere in FC), Lina from Lina allows the woman at its center to command and truly own the frame, adding to the festival’s dazzling array of not just female filmmakers, but also performers and characters.

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