This year’s edition of the Toronto International Film Festival is filled with bona fide stars of the screen and filmmaking worlds. With performances by Julianne Moore ("Freeheld," "Maggie’s Plan"), Kate Winslet ("The Dressmaker") and Susan Sarandon ("About Ray," "The Meddler") and big-name filmmakers Catherine Hardwicke ("Miss You Already") and Amy Berg ("Janis: Little Girl Blue") premiering films, there will be plenty of movies by and about women worth talking about at this year’s festival.
But just as important are some titles and names you may be less familiar with. As excited as we are to see TIFF’s highest-profile offerings, we’re also eager to travel down the less-beaten path — to discover new voices and revisit indie talents whose work we’ve enjoyed in the past.
Fifty-seven women-helmed features will play at the festival, or 20% of the lineup. The shorts program is 45% female-helmed. We’re thrilled to see a program that is approaching the long overdue and all-too-elusive 50% line.
"Across the programming team, we always make a concerted effort to look for diverse voices in the program, including women. And not just in terms of women behind the camera, but also female-driven stories," TIFF’s Director of Festival Programming, Kerri Craddock, told Women and Hollywood.
So without further ado, let’s have a look at some of the women behind the camera and female-driven stories that may have slipped under your radar.
Plot summaries courtesy of TIFF.
"Sherpa" (Documentary) – Directed by Jennifer Peedom
What it’s about: Mount Everest inspires numerous stories putting foreign climbers at the peak of attention. "Sherpa" shifts the focus to the Himalayan locals who do most of the heavy lifting on the mountain they call Chomolungma. Veteran director Jennifer Peedom follows an expedition with Phurba Tashi Sherpa, preparing for his world record-setting 22nd ascent as a guide. Shot in 2014, the film also documents unprecedented upheaval as an avalanche kills sixteen Sherpas, and the tragedy incites others to challenge the status quo.
Why we’re interested: The much-anticipated and star-studded "Everest" opened the Venice Film Fest this year, but we’re keener to see Jennifer Peedom’s take on Earth’s highest mountain — a peak many have died trying to conquer. As the title suggests, "Sherpa" follows an Everest trek from the Sherpa point of view. Climbing Everest is an extremely costly and dangerous endeavor. In an upcoming interview with Women and Hollywood, Peedom told us that she worked over a decade as a director and a camera operator in the Himalayas, including three expeditions with the Sherpa team the doc focuses on. The doc also explores how the Sherpa community recovered in the wake of great tragedy — the worst disaster in the history of Everest, which resulted in the deaths of 16 Sherpas.
She explained, "Over the years, I watched Sherpas being left on the cutting room floor on many Everest films, and while they would never say anything, I knew that it hurt them because they were taking a disproportionate share of the risk in getting foreigners to the summit and back down safely." Hence her desire to shine a spotlight on those serving the rich foreigners who have stolen the spotlight.
"Eye in the Sky"
What it’s about: A fascinating look at how our leaders wage war now, "Eye in the Sky" takes us into the control rooms and shipping containers where military personnel make decisions that could result in the deaths of people thousands of miles away. Featuring Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul and Alan Rickman, the latest from "Tsotsi" director Gavin Hood is enormously pertinent and eerily entertaining.
Why we’re interested: Helen Mirren plays a colonel in this film, and that’s more than enough reason for us to watch it. It’ll be interesting to see the distinctly regal Mirren — who won an Oscar for playing Queen Elizabeth, for goodness’ sake — playing a military officer. We can already imagine her wearing a uniform and shouting orders. We’ve noticed a trend of women-in-war films headed toward production, so it’ll be nice to finally see one that’s come to fruition. We’re surprised "Eye in the Sky" hasn’t received more attention for its timely plot and stellar cast.
"Guilty" – Directed by Meghna Gulzar
What it’s about: The day after fourteen-year-old Aarushi Talwar is found murdered in her home, the body of her family’s house servant is discovered just steps away from the scene of Aarushi’s death. The police deem it an honor killing, as she had allegedly brought shame to her family by having an affair with the servant. Despite a lack of evidence, Aarushi’s parents are convicted of the gruesome crimes. Yet the case is riddled with ambiguities that leave more than a shadow of doubt as to whether justice has been served. Employing the structure of a classic whodunit, director Meghna Gulzar reconstructs the botched police investigation, the subsequent inquiry into the case and the trial by public perception that took place when Aarushi’s grieving parents were taken to court.
Why we’re interested: We’re curious to see an Indian female filmmaker take on honor crimes in the context of a whodunit. The film, which is based on a true story, tackles both female sexuality and class — topics we’re always eager to see explored intersectionally. It’s rare to see women at the helm of this kind of movie, and Gulzar’s passion for the subject matter is contagious: The director told Women and Hollywood that she wants as many people as possible to see this film "because it is a story that needs to be known."
"Into the Forest" – Written and Directed by Patricia Rozema
What it’s about: Two sisters (Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood) struggle to survive in a remote country house after a continent-wide power outage in this gripping apocalyptic drama.
Why we’re interested: This is Ellen Page’s "other" movie at TIFF. Page and co-star Julianne Moore have been generating headlines for "Freeheld," but we shouldn’t forget that Page is debuting another promising project at the festival. We’re betting Page and Evan Rachel Wood have great chemistry as sisters, and it will be fascinating to see how their relationship is affected in the face of starvation, sickness and intruders. Director Patricia Rozema, who is being honored at the festival for her artistic achievements, shared with us that the film’s story can be viewed as "both a cautionary tale and an inspiration at the same time."
"3000 Nights" – Written and Directed by Mai Masri
What it’s about: Railroaded into an Israeli prison on a terrorism charge, a young Palestinian woman discovers that she is pregnant just as a group of her fellow inmates launch a revolt against the prison administration. A story of motherhood in the most dire of circumstances, "3000 Nights" makes a prison into a metaphor for Palestine under occupation, exploring how the institution shapes the complicated interplay of resilience, empathy and psychological manipulation.
Why we’re interested: Comparisons to "Orange is the New Black" will be inevitable, but we get the sense that Litchfield Penitentiary will seem cushy in comparison to this jail. Mai Masri explained what drew her to the story in an upcoming interview with us: She met a woman who gave birth in an Israeli prison in the ’80s. "Her story touched me deeply and made me curious to know more," Masri said. She researched and interviewed women who gave birth in detention. The result of her efforts sounds like a gripping story with deep emotional resonance.
"Five Nights in Maine" – Written and Directed by Maris Curran
What it’s about: Golden Globe nominee David Oyelowo ("Selma") and Academy Award winner Dianne Wiest ("Bullets Over Broadway") star in this intimate drama about a grieving widower who sets out to fulfill his wife’s last wish that he finally meet her irascible mother.
Why we’re interested: It feels like a long time — too long — since we’ve seen Dianne Wiest in a lead role, and we’re happy to see her paired up with "Selma" star David Oyelowo. "Five Nights in Maine" marks Maris Curran’s directorial debut, but in our interview with her (which will be published soon), Curran came across like a pro and offered great insight into the gestation of the story.
"I gravitate to stories that examine the joys and trauma of everyday life — particularly emotional stories that form the fabric of our lives, but might be rarely discussed," she said. "For ‘Five Nights in Maine,’ I was interested in the ways that loss can actually bind people together rather than isolate them. I’ve found that in the U.S., we treat grief as an individual experience that should happen behind closed doors. But in essence, there is little more universal than caring for someone and losing them — even if that loss is not a death. In making this film, I was interested in putting two people who are grieving quite differently together to spark conversations that will ideally continue beyond the film." These are the kinds of conversations we’re interested in having, so we thank Curran for opening the floor with "Five Nights in Maine."
"Mustang" – Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven; Written by Deniz Gamze Ergüven and Alice Winocour
What it’s about: Five young sisters living in a coastal Turkish village on the Black Sea are placed under the tyrannical regime of traditional morality by their guardians, in the poignant, award-winning first feature by Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven.
Why we’re interested: We’ve been raving about "Mustang" since its premiere at Cannes, writing that "The film shows what religious repression does the souls of women: it kills them." Deniz Gamze Ergüven told us that the film grew from her "desire to tell what it means to be a girl, a woman, in Turkey today" in the face of sexualization, which happens from an early age.
Gamze Ergüven is another first-time filmmaker who impressed us with her thoughtful responses to our questions. When asked what she wanted people to think about when leaving the theater, the writer-director said, "Through art history and through cinema, we are used to looking at the world through the eyes of men. Femininity is really pioneer land. The ambition of the film is generating empathy with the characters of the film and opening a few doors into this new territory. It was important to me for people to feel with these characters as much as they would think about them." These characters stayed in both our hearts and minds long after the credits for "Mustang" rolled.
"Miss Sharon Jones!" (Documentary) – Directed by Barbara Kopple
What it’s about: Two-time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple ("Harlan County, USA") follows R&B queen Sharon Jones over the course of an eventful year, as she battles a cancer diagnosis and struggles to hold her band the Dap-Kings together.
Why we’re interested: Okay, granted a two-time Oscar winner isn’t exactly a hidden gem, but we feel as though "Miss Sharon Jones!" hasn’t received as much fanfare as it ought to. A new film by Barbara Kopple is a big deal. Female-centric music docs are having a moment right now. We’re eager to learn more about Sharon Jones and her personal and professional struggles through Kopple’s lens.
By the way, Kopple’s "Harlan County, USA" is featured in the fest’s Classics program. The 1976 Academy Award-winning doc, which focuses on striking workers, is oft-mentioned as a favorite and an inspiration by Women and Hollywood interviewees.
Be sure to read our interview with TIFF’s Artistic Director Cameron Bailey and Director of Festival Programming Keri Craddock to get more recommendations. We’ll be rolling out over 30 interviews with the women directors of TIFF throughout the festival.