Docs

TIFF ’17: Female filmmakers talk gender barriers in the doc industry

The Toronto International Film Festival received accolades this year for its strong female representation. One-third of the features and documentaries screened at this year’s festival were directed by female-identifying filmmakers, up ...
September 15, 2017

The Toronto International Film Festival received accolades this year for its strong female representation.

One-third of the features and documentaries screened at this year’s festival were directed by female-identifying filmmakers, up 3% from last year.

It’s an encouraging development in an industry whose gender bias problems have been well-documented.

In July, TIFF unveiled a five-year plan to encourage participation, skills development and opportunities for women in the film industry through a slew of talent programs for both emerging and established filmmakers. In 2016, TIFF’s talent programs boasted a minimum of 50% female participation.

Of the 28 documentaries that screened at this year’s festival, which concludes on Sunday (Sept 17.), 11 were directed by women. Projects from Sara Driver, Agnès Varda, Sophie Fiennes and Laura Huertas Millán were among those screened.

TIFF Docs programmer Thom Powers says that while this figure is hopeful, the journey is far from over. “I think documentary has always been a place of greater opportunity for female directors. [But] it’s far from parity and there’s more work to be done.”

One of the reasons women have historically been able to successfully develop documentaries, he says, is that the medium does not require filmmakers to answer to industry gatekeepers as much as they would have to in the fiction industry. “You don’t have to wait for someone to greenlight your script, or to get a cast, or get a costume designer, production designer. You can just start filming,” says Powers.

Heidi Ewing, who screened the doc One of Us with co-director Rachel Grady on Sept. 10, agrees that the doc field features less obstacles for female-identifying filmmakers. But it’s not because the field is inherently less sexist. “You tend to see a lot more women in documentary because production budgets are lower,” she explains. “The stakes are perceived as lower. It’s harder to see in feature, where budgets are bigger and the risk is higher.”

The Other Side of Everything director Mila Turajlic confirms that female-directed films have a harder time finding substantial financial investment. “I don’t feel [gender] makes a difference when applying to European film funds or talking to European broadcasters, but I can imagine it becomes more of an issue in a situation where you’re financing a feature [fiction] film, and money is coming from private boards and foundations that are part of a male-dominated business world.”

Powers believes that the substantial number of high-ranking execs and role models in doc fields has contributed to its progressiveness relative to the fiction industry. He cites HBO’s Sheila Nevins, Netflix’s Lisa Nishimura, A&E IndieFilms’ Molly Thompson and Barbara Kopple as individuals who have helped open the doors.

For Violeta Ayala, director of Cocaine Prison, institutionalized initiatives that explicitly address gender imbalances are important. But, she stresses, female filmmakers also need to continue working for advances. “I think that we women have to support each other and give opportunities to each other,” she says. “I don’t believe that change comes from top to bottom.”

Ayala, who is indigenous and was born in Bolivia, believes that women of color in particular face obstacles in the film industry, and support within the community is critical.

“We have something [called] the Brown Girls Doc Mafia, a group in the United States of women of color,” says Ayala. “It’s a Facebook page, too. We [post things] like, ‘I need a director of photography, and I want a director of photography that is a woman of color. I need a musician. I need a music composer.’ We need to do this more and more.”

“We have to help each other,” Ayala continues. “We can’t expect the whole system to change if we don’t change. If I just hire men, of course the industry won’t change.”

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