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Gender Parity at Film Festivals: Hot Docs Programmer Says ‘There’s Great Demand for As Many Diverse Voices As Possible’

Now in its 25th year, the documentary-focused festival has a gender-balanced directorial slate for the first time.

On the scene at Hot Docs

T. Andrew Morton

When this year’s Hot Docs festival kicks off later this week in Toronto, the documentary-focused event will open with a historic lineup that speaks to the sea change currently sweeping the industry. For the first time in its 25 year history, the festival has embraced gender parity among its picks, with a gender-balanced lineup of filmmakers across 246 films and 16 interdisciplinary projects. A full 50 percent of this year’s films are directed by women, and that’s not by accident.

“It is something that we’ve been wanting to move towards for quite a while,” director of programming Shane Smith told IndieWire in a recent interview. “This is something that, like curating a diverse and interesting program, is always on our radar. It’s something that we wanted to achieve.” In 2017, the program was 48% women directors. “This year we knew going in if we could make it happen that we would like to do it,” Smith said.

What may have sounded like a constraint to others — as former programmer Dan Schoenbrun previously noted, over the past 10 years, no major market festival has delivered a slate with at least 50 percent of films directed by female filmmakers — was easy for Shane and his crew of fellow programmers.

“We weren’t going to force ourselves into any contortions to make it happen,” Smith said. “We wanted to see what the work was like and what was being made and what would submitted to us. We had no trouble when we started evaluating the work and looking at it and discussing it, no trouble in reaching a parity this year.”

Smith pointed to a number of highlights from this year’s slate that show off the range of picks they were able to program, including the Silence Breakers program (rooted in a theme of “women speaking up and having their voices heard”), along with films like Sarah Menzies’ “Afghan Cycles,” Christina D. King and Elizabeth A. Castle’s “Warrior Women,” Kelly Showker’s “Slut or Nut: The Diary of a Rape Trial” (an “incredibly provocative and powerful film”), and the opening night gala, Maya Gallus’ “The Heat: A Kitchen (R)evolution.”

As Hot Docs prepares to open, another big annual festival is winding down: Tribeca, which is also attempting to reach gender parity with its programming. This year, the festival crafted a slate of films that include 48 percent directed by women. Like Hot Docs, parity is an acknowledged aim of their programming process.

“Women’s voices are being heard louder and certainly there are more women’s voices,” festival co-founder and current chief executive officer of Tribeca Enterprises Jane Rosenthal said at a recent lunch honoring the festival’s many female filmmakers. “The festival this year said, ‘Let try to get to 50-50 in our programming,’ and that’s not like something that was difficult for us. We are about the stories that women tell.”

Both Hot Docs and Tribeca benefit from female-led teams — the majority of Tribeca Enterprises’ staff is female, while two-thirds of the Hot Docs programming team is made up women — who bring a different perspective to choosing films for festival that, as the programmers themselves suggested, might not be present in other selection committees.

“When you look through a particular filter or you make a decision to look at work in a particular way, you start to see new elements, new avenues, new stories,” Smith said. “Two-thirds of the programming team is women, so they’re looking at work in a particular way as well. It’s a very subjective business that we’re in, but they are seeing stories for audiences, for communities, in work that is being submitted to us that we really appreciate and want to provide a platform for.”

Programmers at both festivals stressed that the push for gender parity was a responsibility for the industry as a whole. “It’s our responsibility as curators to represent the film landscape not only as we see it, but also to lead the way towards the future as we would like to see it, and a key part of that is gender parity,” Tribeca’s head of programming Cara Cusomano told IndieWire. “We hope that this next step closer to 50-50 helps push us all in our industry towards a future of more equality, inclusion, and opportunity.”

There was one aspect that distinguishes Hot Docs’ programming approach from other festivals: the documentary world benefits from a higher percentage of working women directors than the narrative side.

“I think there’s a deeper bench, a stronger foundation of female filmmakers and producers in the documentary world,” Smith said. “We have great talent and stories to draw and they’re telling good stories and making good films, important films that capture the conversation that’s happening right now.”

He added, “I hope that people can see that there is so much work out there if you look for it, if you dig for it. I think we just have to do what we think is the right thing to do, but also pay attention to the kind of work that’s being made and the different ways that stories are being told by different filmmakers from different culturally diverse backgrounds, different genders.”

As other festivals struggle to reach parity, but the example that Hot Docs provides a major precedent. “At the very least, we’re asking the question and putting it into minds that we are interested in that work and that maybe they should be also continuing to look for work made by female filmmakers because there’s an audience,” he said. “I think we all need to do our bit really to just try and support that in any way that we can.”

The 2018 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival runs April 26 – May 6.

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