Proxima and My Zoe set the bar for what we should expect from female characters in film in the TIFF19 Platform Competition, its flagship program for emerging filmmakers.
From Canada to Argentina, Singapore to Mexico, 2019’s Platform Competition at TIFF took me around the world to explore stories of motherhood, long-term romantic relationships, corruption and manipulation, mental illness, broken families, women in the workplace, and going deaf. The films also seemed to be divided strongly between chauvinistic male perspectives (The Moneychanger, Martin Eden, Workforce), and strongly female perspectives, which made me feel like I was seeing the world in a new way on screen (The Sleepwalkers, My Zoe, Proxima, Rocks). Somewhere in the middle were two smart films about struggling, depressed woman that were directed by men (though clearly in close collaboration with their leads) — Anne at 13,000 ft and Wet Season — and the male-dominated (though not chauvinistic) Sound of Metal. That makes for 40% of the films directed by women, with past selections hovering around the same fraction (sometimes better, sometimes worse).
Female stories in the TIFF19 Platform Competition: The Sleepwalkers and Rocks
In 2019, I found that each Platform title I watched informed how I watched the others — and my judgements about what deserved to be here (and what films from CWC should have been here, instead). Two of the first films I saw in the section were both directed by women: The Sleepwalkers, a mother-daughter story that brought the camera intimately close to the characters and into women’s spaces I’ve rarely seen on film; and Rocks, a chaotic story of teenage girls in London that brought out their youthful energy. Both films were proof that making films about women could entail a new cinematic grammar because new stories required new technical strategies. Although The Sleepwalkers doesn’t fully stick the landing, and Rocks often feels like it’s trying to do so much that it doesn’t fully find a coherent story, both films were invigorating for their newness.
Seeing both of these films early raised my expectations for the other films in the program to tell untold stories in a new and revelatory way. The handheld camera in The Sleepwalkers which let us observe men — as threats or objects of desire — the way the women did, and that showed private moments of the women changing into their bathing suits together, felt like a window into a world I knew well but had never seen on screen. Similarly, the non-judgmental sisterhood of the girls in Rocks, and the way the film’s protagonist quietly carried too many responsibilities on her shoulders felt incredibly real. Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood had explored similar themes, but the wide swath of socio-economic and racial backgrounds depicted in Rocks felt the way modern urban centres do, but are rarely depicted on screen.
The gold standard for female characters in the TIFF19 Platform Competition: My Zoe and Proxima
Next, I caught up with a pair of thought-provoking films from two European women. My Zoe began with a brutal argument between a former husband (Richard Armitage) and wife (Julie Delpy), which brilliantly laid bare the common dynamic of a narcissistic, emotionally manipulative man, and his undue influence on his (former) female partner. It made me angry about all the toxic men who get a free pass on film. This, in turn, came on the heels of Alice Winocour’s brilliant Proxima (also one of Seventh Row’s best films of the decade), about the subtle and insidious sexism faced by a woman in STEM — and, like My Zoe, was also a mother and daughter story. Watching these films, and the struggles these women faced, felt like a process of being radicalized to not accept anything less on screen than complex female characters, alongside their male counterparts. Both My Zoe and Proxima give lots of screen time to the fathers (who are former partners of the protagonist), ensuring they are more than mere props.
Disappointingly male stories with poor female characters: Martin Eden and Workforce
The same can’t be said of the female characters in the male-dominated Martin Eden, which won the competition. It may have been a technical achievement of seamlessly mixing archival footage with footage for the film, but all of its women were mere accessories to the male characters. As a modern retelling of Jack London’s novel, which updates the setting, but not London’s attitude toward women, I found it reprehensible — especially as the winner, when Proxima was right there. Similarly, as the story of a reprehensible and chauvinistic criminal, I found it hard to get into The Moneychanger, which was regressive in its content if not its filmmaking style. The same was true of Mexico’s Workforce, a strongly designed and made film about class inequalities and the way people will selfishly throw each other under the bus for their own advancement. Its perspective was again from an entitled male who verged on rapey, and the film’s insights about class felt less revelatory than last year’s female-directed (and starrer) The Chambermaid.
The sound of Proxima and Sound of Metal
The Riz Ahmed starrer Sound of Metal was one of the festival’s hottest tickets (with the premiere ultimately retailing for $85 a pop), and from its premiere on day 2 of the festival, critics and audiences were raving about the sound design. I didn’t manage to squeeze it into my schedule until the end of the festival, after I’d see Proxima. That order matters because I felt that Proxima (as well as Portrait of a Lady on Fire, in a different section) featured the best sound design of any feature at the festival. Winocour has always been attentive to sound (something she talked about in our interviews for both Disorder and Proxima), and what was remarkable here was how she used sound to create emotional resonance. For example, when the astronaut mother (Eva Green) and her daughter are separated by a pre-launch quarantine, they have to talk through a microphone and are divided by glass. The sound itself becomes artificial and distancing, mirroring the characters’ emotions. The film is full of countless examples of stellar, emotionally grounded sound design.
Sound of Metal, by contrast, tries to give us insight into what it sounds like to go deaf, sometimes effectively, but also by drawing attention to itself: the sound design is explained in close captions, so no wonder audiences were enamoured with it. They were told to be by the film itself. There’s nothing subtle about the sound in this film, and even its point of view is unclear: sometimes we hear what the protagonist, who is losing his hearing, hears, and sometimes we are granted an objective perspective. It’s the kind of sound work that wins awards for Best Sound Design, when it’s really just Most Sound Design. I found myself frustrated with how much attention it was getting when I felt Proxima had much more nuanced and effective sound.
Meanwhile, proving that you can be a male director without throwing female characters under the bus, there was Anthony Chen’s Wet Season and Kazik Radwanski’s Anne at 13,000 ft. Set in Singapore’s wet season, amongst constant downpours, Chen’s film is fittingly a film about a heroine on the precipice of change: unhappy in her marriage to a cheating husband, relegated to a caring role for her father-in-law, unable to get pregnant despite fertility treatments, and unappreciated professionally as an English teacher at a school that puts higher value on STEM, Ling (Yann Yann Yeo) feels stuck. So when her teenage student takes an interest, with an ill-placed crush, she finds herself giving into the boy’s attraction to her because she wants to feel needed by someone. Instead of making this illicit affair either sexy or exciting, it instead becomes a wake up call that forces Ling to make changes in her life. Doing something so embarrassing and reprehensible forces her to take stock and rethink. At the same time, Chen explores the boy’s confusion and ill-placed attraction in the fallout from Ling’s mistake.
Anne at 13,000 ft.
Anne at 13,000 ft. explores another difficult woman, also an educator, but this time one suffering from an unspecified mental illness that makes her unpleasant to be around, capricious, and prone to immature outbursts. At just 75 minutes, Radwanski delves into what makes Anne tick, forcing the audience to live with her social discomfort as well as our own discomfort with her. Shot over the course of two years with a handheld camera and a lot of closeups, Radwanski’s claustrophobic film is an immense achievement and a difficult watch. It’s also the product of close collaboration with his female lead, Deragh Campbell (who also co-directed and starred in Ms Slavic 7 this year), who helped ensure this complex woman got her due.