According to the Data Visualization firm Silk, only 27% of the films screening at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival — 69 of the 400+ films — were directed by women. The numbers get worse if you exclude short films entirely. Worse, only 9% of the films in TIFF’s Discovery section, a program dedicated to showcasing works my new filmmakers, were directed by women. One of the first steps to making these numbers better is supporting short films by women, as shorts tend to be a stepping stone to larger, more costly projects. And if you take a look at this year’s short film program, there’s plenty of great female directorial talent waiting to be given a chance. We took a look at some of these films and filmmakers that have been flying under-the-radar with no or next to no coverage.
Adding to this year’s stock of Canadian films about First Nations characters — the feature Fire Song was one of the greats among these — is Amanda Strong and Bracken Hanuse Corlett’s short Mia, a mixed media animated film about an aboriginal woman in an urban environment who paints images of her ancestral past and her dreams. Mixing stop motion animation with more traditional drawn animation, the film is full of glorious colours and images in an entirely inventive and unique style. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it’s beautiful to behold. The narrative through line is sometimes hard to follow, but the film announces a serious talent in Strong and Hanuse Corlett.
World Famous Gopher Hole Museum
Whereas Mia was part documentary and part narrative film, World Famous Gopher Hole Museum is a much more traditional documentary by Canadian filmmakers Chelsea McMullan and Douglas Nayler. This twenty-minute short takes an inside look at a quirky little museum of curiosities in Torrington, Alberta: it’s filled with gopher hole dioramas, each made and maintained by the museum’s owners and operators.
Aside from saving you the trip to Nowheresville, Alberta, it’s a loving look at a hobbyist and a small town attraction that pays tribute to its subject. There’s a melancholic tinge to the film, as the owners of the museum grow old and the proprietor finds that her age is slowing her down, preventing her from working, even as our view of the museum is of a largely empty space with few visitors. It’s not as popular as it once was, but it still means a great deal to her. McMullan and Nayler show a great deal of empathy in their filmmaking, allowing the film to be not just informative, but an engaging character study, too.
7 Sheep and A New Year
Two films directed by women — 7 Sheep and A New Year — explore black and white film in a contemporary context. In 7 Sheep, Polish director Wictoria Szymanska follows a young girl seemingly living alone on a farm with a strange and lonely old man. Szymanska keeps the camera at the girl’s eye level or below, always staying in her perspective, and often following her from behind. The gestural images create a dreamscape, where the black-and-white hearkens back to a simpler, innocent time.
But colours break through now and then, whether it’s the blue paint the young girl smears on her sheep or the way she herself can flash quickly into colour and back to black and white repeatedly and almost imperceptibly. Though the film lacks narrative cohesion and lasts a bit longer than is needed to establish the tone and ideas, it is full of inventive visual ideas, where each frame brims with emotion even as little story or character development occurs. If given a more concrete script, I’d expect Szymanska to work wonders.
Québécois filmmaker Marie-Ève Juste’s A New Year begins on New Year’s Eve on a black screen as the protagonist belts out a song. Eventually, she appears, her back to the camera, in an empty house with a Christmas tree at the edge of the frame. It’s not until her song about being with friends end that the camera reveals her body, and her pregnant belly, just before her friends arrive. It’s a celebration, but she’s detached.
Before long, we only see her friends looking into lens with confusion and annoyance as she cancels plans post-birth, pre-occupied with her newborn. It’s a story about change and new beginnings, and the black-and-white images give it a nostalgic tinge, frozen in time even as everything around our protagonist is changing. Juste’s framing is exquisite: even a moment of the protagonist sitting alone in quiet reflection on the couch is inventive.
One of the best narrative shorts I saw was NINA because of how Elkhatabi withholds information to maintain tension. Directed by Montreal-based filmmaker Halima Elkhatabi, the film opens on Nina, sitting on a couch, looking into lens, as she’s questioned by an off-camera voice. Eventually, it becomes clear that she’s a young mother though her baby is off-screen and silent. In the next scene, she’s alone on her couch, resting when her baby starts crying and she slowly, painstakingly, and somewhat frustratedly heads into the kitchen to prepare formula. We watch her in the kitchen while the baby’s offscreen screams can be heard, and we sense Nina’s ambivalence about parenting.
Each image and each frame has a purpose, further developing what we know about Nina and her relationship to motherhood. Elkhatabi opts for long takes, allowing us to spend time with and live with Nina in her troubles, preventing us from judging her. Every sound, from the screams to Nina’s breath, is meaningful. Elizabeth Tremblay Gagnon stars and holds our attention in every frame because of all the emotion she shows on her face. The film is a terrific showcase for Elkhatabi’s ability to work with actors and her minimalist approach to telling the story: nothing is over-complicated, but every visual choice is reasoned.