Fight for fairness: TIFF’s push for gender equality draws from firepower of Indian women

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New Delhi | Published: September 16, 2018 1:36:59 AM

The first institutional fight against injustice towards women in the global film industry has just begun.

Actor-director Nandita Das speaks at the Share Her Journey rally at TIFF this year. The initiative aims to increase women’s participation in films

The first institutional fight against injustice towards women in the global film industry has just begun. And a chunk of the firepower has been provided by Indian women. The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has become the first major institution in the world of entertainment to take big steps for gender justice and equality. This year, over one-third of the films at the influential festival in North America, the home of Hollywood, are directed or co-directed by women. Women are also at the helm of two-thirds of films from India and its diaspora.

Foot soldiers
The female gender is behind the camera in three of the six films from India selected for the 43rd edition of the Toronto festival, which concludes today. Four of the five films from the Indian diaspora at TIFF this year are directed by women. Actor-director Nandita Das, Assamese filmmaker Rima Das and Dharamsala-based director Ritu Sarin have their films at TIFF, which is backing women’s participation in films in its first edition after allegations of sexual harassment against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein came out in October last year.

“Cinema is a true representation of the world,” says TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey, referring to the need to include a larger number of women filmmakers in international film festivals. “It is important to show all the perspectives,’’ he adds. Thirty-five per cent of the TIFF selections this year are films made by women and 136 of the 342 films screening at the festival have female leads in the cast.

The substantial share of women directors at TIFF is significant, especially in the wake of vociferous protests against the Venice Film Festival, which had only one woman director in a field of 20 films in the competition section for its Golden Lion award this year.

“When we are women directors, we got to own it,” says Nandita Das, who was among the global leaders in cinema this year for the Toronto festival’s Share Her Journey initiative to increase women’s participation in films. On September 8, Das and her fellow filmmakers joined actors and activists from around the world to hit the streets in Toronto for a rally to support women in films. British director Amma Asante and Canadian actor Mia Krishner, founder of the #AfterMeToo movement, were among those raising their voices for gender equality and justice.

Elevating women’s role
According to TIFF, only 11% of last year’s top 250 films were directed by women, and only 11% were written by women. The Toronto festival witnessed a scathing account of gender gap in the entertainment industry in a new documentary, This Changes Everything, by American filmmaker Tom Donahue, who gathered a who’s who of female actors and directors, such as Meryl Streep, Jessica Chastain and Reese Witherspoon, for a powerful call to action on elevating women’s roles in film and television. “Progress will happen when men take a stand,” Streep says in the film.

While women directors in India are under-represented just like their counterparts across the world, their films stand out for the powerful portrayal of social and political issues. Ritu Sarin, who has co-directed her new film, The Sweet Requiem, with husband Tenzing Sonam, handles the question of exile and identity while telling the story of Tibetan refugees. Rima Das, whose previous film The Village Rockstars won the National Award for Best Picture this year, tells a coming-of-age story in her film, Bulbul Can Sing, while Nandita Das raises the issue of freedom of expression in her new film, Manto, based on Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto.

The India diaspora at TIFF is led by Toronto-born Veena Sud, Indian-Canadian Jennifer Baichwal and London-based Jayisha Patel and Sandhya Suri—the only male director on the list of Indian diaspora directors is Toronto-based Akash Sherman. Patel talks about the cycle of abuse suffered by girls in her short film The Circle, while The Field by Suri tells the story of a woman farm worker. Sud’s The Lie is about a couple wrestling with the consequences of their teenage daughter’s lethal mistake. Baichwal, a Canadian of Indian origin, examines humanity’s massive re-engineering of the planet with her co-directors Nicolas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky in her new film Anthropocene: The Human Epoch.

-The author is a freelancer

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