Deepa Mehta, Mira Nair, Jane Campion and Lynne Ramsay have shown that women make great films, the kind that cut across cultural boundaries and create box-office records. And, going by the number of women filmmakers who presented their works at the recent Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), it seems that many more are now staking their claim behind the camera.
Seventeen years ago, with the film, 'Sam and Me', Deepa Mehta launched her career from TIIF's grand platform. Her latest offering, 'Heaven on Earth', starring Bollywood star Preity Zinta, opened to a good response this year. In an interview she went on record to say that TIFF "nurtures" emerging filmmakers, and is the perfect place to launch a film because all the distributors are present here.
Obviously, there are many who agree with Mehta's point of view. Out of the total tally of 249 full-length features that screened between September 4 to 13, 45 had women calling the shots and five of them opened to gala screenings. Australian Meagan Doneman presented her engaging documentary, 'Yes Madam, Sir', on India's first woman IPS officer, Kiran Bedi. After spending close to eight years on the project - saving enough money from her day jobs to undertake trips to India for race and shooting - the docu-feature opened to full crowds at the festival.
Doneman says her fascination with Bedi began as a 13-year-old when she first read about the police officer's endeavors in prison reform at Tihar jail, Delhi. She acquired a degree in Business Communication, with a specialization in film, and then worked as an editor for both big and small budget films. In 1999, she finally got to meet Bedi, after several attempts at contacting the busy officer. When she floated the idea of a documentary to Bedi, to Doneman's surprise and delight, she agreed. And 'Yes Madam, Sir' was the result.
Bedi said her decision (to go with Doneman) was instinctive and also fuelled by the belief that the filmmaker was honest. The documentary is engaging and, to the filmmaker's credit, it is not an exercise in sycophancy. Although it highlights Bedi's professional achievements, there's space for some criticism as well. It is also perhaps for the first time that Bedi's daughter, Saina, has appeared before the camera, as the film captures the complex mother-daughter relationship.
Apart from the hardships she endured as a western woman filming in India, Doneman says she struggled a great deal to raise finances for the movie. But as the film made it to TIFF, there is a sense of deja vu. "I sensed a great story and felt that should be told," she said.
In terms of percentages of films by women, Festival's Co-director Cameron Bailey revealed that "it is about 30 per cent of the overall selection." And this year, Canada contributed a big share of the numbers. Apart from high-profile directors like Mehta, whose gritty portrayal of an immigrant bride in 'Heaven on Earth', screened as a special presentation, there was Kari Skogland's thriller, 'Fifty Dead Men Walking'. Ingrid Veninger's coming-of-age 'Only' and Marie-Helene Cousineau and Madeline Piujuq Ivalu's 'Inuit tale Before Tomorrow', were the other features that generated a buzz.
Commenting on the increasing numbers of women moviemakers, Steve Gravestock, director of TIFF's Canadian programming, said that Canada tends to fare better on the gender balance than the United States, but generally lags behind European countries, particularly France. While he attributed this partly to the funding agencies, ultimately, he said, it's the tenacity of the filmmakers that is leading them to claim a bigger spot behind the camera.
And festivals like TIFF, said actor-activist Nandita Das, provide an excellent venue to meet distributors, finances, producers, other directors and the media. This year, Das showcased her maiden directorial venture 'Firaaq', which is set in the aftermath of 2002 Gujarat carnage. It portrays the impact of sectarian violence on the human psyche and relationships. "It is a work of fiction based on thousand true stories," said Das, who worked for almost three years on the script, partnering with Auckland-based Shuchi Kothari on the screenplay.
"Most films about riots are full of the violence that they set out to critique. I wanted instead to explore the fierce and delicate emotions of fear, anxiety, prejudice and ambivalence in human relationships during such times." She added, "Being a woman, I definitely brought a feminine gaze to issues. This is important for me, but I have other identities, too."
Das was not the only young or emerging filmmaker in attendance. There were many of them outside the English language domain showcasing their work. Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf was there with 'Two-legged Horse', Chus Gutierrez with 'Return to Hansala' (Spain), Mexican director Yulene Olaizola with 'Shakespeare and Victor Hugo's Intimacies', Guka Omaranava with 'Native Dancer' (Kazakhstan). And there were others too.
At 28, Makhmalbaf has already carved a niche for herself in world cinema. Daughter of famed filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Samira became the youngest director to participate in the 1998 Cannes Film Festival with her film 'Apple'. She was 18 then. Her films are usually screened to an appreciative audience at the TIFF and, 'Two-legged Horse' got the same response. The film is a dark portrayal of the times we live in, through an unequal power relationship between two boys. She said, "Through the film I attempt to discover the edge of human tolerance and how much a human can endure in order to meet his needs."
What sets her films apart is the documenting of ordinary people and their lives, their dilemmas, their struggles and their dreams in the contours of the society they live in. Restrictions imposed on women, by any regime, disturbs her. "This kind of narrow-mindedness upsets me. People think you are not a first class human being but a second class one. And that you might have a limitation in your mind just because you are a woman," she said.
Makhmalbaf has faced occasional difficulties arising from the fact that she is a woman. But, as she explained, they are not strong enough to deter her from her work. Her concerns, however, like those of many other women filmmakers, extend beyond the defining identity of gender. Interestingly, a cursory glance at the films made by women that were presented at TIFF revealed that most of them focused on human rights, social issues and the family.
Whether women filmmakers bring a different approach to filming is a matter of debate, but there was one feature at TIFF that was the result of a unique effort. Marie-Helene Cousineau and Madeline Piujuq Ivalu's 'Inuit tale Before Tomorrow', is the product of their women's collective, Arnait Video Workshop. 'Before Tomorrow' - the company's first full-length feature - tells the story of an Inuit woman and her grandson, who are abandoned on a remote island to fend for themselves. According to Cousineau, "It's very important to tell women's stories from a woman's point of view."
Veteran actress Susan Coyne said in an interview that it's a lack of confidence that stops a lot of women from getting into filmmaking. She noted that her own insecurities had kept her from striking out until this year, when she presented the short film, 'How Are You?' with her 'Slings and Arrows' co-star, Martha Burns, at TIFF.
"As an actor, a female actor, getting a chance to...see the whole thing from on top is really critical in terms of reinventing yourself. You're not just waiting for people to tell you what to do - like, 'Who do you think I am? What would you like me to say?'. Here you have a chance to really collaborate, listen, ask questions, make decisions," says Coyne. She adds, "It's very liberating."