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Gender Parity Is Center Stage at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival

There are efforts underway to make gender parity a reality. Two such initiatives intersected over the first weekend of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

The film industry — like so much else in this world — can feel like an old boys’ club. The data support this conclusion. When we look at the top 250 films of 2017, women directed only 11 percent, and only 16 percent were the work of female writers.

Expanding our scope further, women comprised only 18 percent of all directors, writers, producers, editors and cinematographers. The gender imbalance in the film industry is staggering. Men take up more than 80 percent of these key roles. Onscreen representation is not much better. Only 24 percent of the leads in last year’s 100 top-grossing films were women.

These figures further plunge when we look at the number of African-American, Hispanic, Asian and East Asian, Indigenous, LGBT+, and other minority women who work in film and television. Equality and equity are far from the norm.

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There are efforts underway to change this, and to make gender parity a reality. Two such initiatives intersected over the first weekend of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

On the morning of Saturday, Sept. 8, TIFF’s artistic director Cameron Bailey signed the 50/50×2020 gender-parity pledge at an intimate breakfast ceremony. This agreement requires TIFF to compile demographic data about its gender-inclusion efforts by 2020. The information to be collected includes gender and race statistics about the directors and producers of festival submissions, as well as programmers and board members who serve TIFF internally.

Created by the French organization of the same name, the 50/50×2020 Programming Pledge for Parity and Inclusion made its debut at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it was accompanied by a red carpet protest by women filmmakers, including Cannes jury president Cate Blanchett.

The TIFF signing was followed by the Share Her Journey rally, which takes its name from a five-year TIFF initiative designed to increase the participation of women behind and in front of the camera.

The Share Her Journey initiative is aiming to raise $3 million, and is almost halfway to that goal. It has funded initiatives like the Micki Moore Residence, a 10-week mentorship for emerging female screenwriters; and the RBC Female Creator Initiative, which provides networking and skills development opportunities through participation in the TIFF Producer Accelerator, the TIFF Film Lab, and through access to TIFF Industry programming.

The rally began with performances by singers Molly Johnson and Shakura S’aida. The latter shared the words of her mother, who was a civil rights activist in 1950s North Carolina: “I want you to use your voice,” she told the men and women who had gathered for the event. “When you see things that are happening in the world that are not the way they should be, I want you to use your voice.” This mantra set the stage for the speakers who followed.

Ten remarkable women from around the world then shared their experiences in the film industry. They spoke of their triumphs, but also brought to light the gender bias and sexual harassment they encountered as they navigated the industry and built successful careers.

The opening speaker was TIFF executive director and chief operating officer Michele Maheux. She told the audience that they had gathered to “celebrate and lift up women.”

She started by talking about TIFF’s Share Her Journey program, which is entering its second year. “We wanted to bring solutions to issues that were rampant in the film industry,” she said, “A lack of female voices and female gaze. … What a difference a year makes!” she exclaimed to the cheering crowd.

Her attention then turned to the emergence of the #MeToo movement to fight misogyny in the film industry and elsewhere. “Over the past 12 months, women have been the central part of the conversation in the news, and we have made much-needed noise,” she began. “Collectively, we have managed to shake the unshakeable, and we should be extremely proud about that.”

She concluded with a note about her own experience: “I stand here as a woman who has her own stories, and some scars to show for some of those stories, over the nearly 40 years I’ve been in this industry.”

The women who followed included Thelma & Louise co-star Geena Davis; Indian actor and Manto director Nandita Das; Keri Putnam of Sundance ReFrame; actor Amanda Brugel of The Handmaid’s Tale; Zavia Forrest of TIFF’s Next Wave program; and Crash producer Cathy Schulman.

Dr. Stacy L. Smith, of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, shared statistics about the lack of onscreen and offscreen representation. Despite the depressing numbers, she ended on a note of hope: “Our north star is not diversity, it is not inclusion, but it is belonging. We must all feel as if our voices and our stories matter.”

Canadian actor and #AfterMeToo co-founder Mia Kirshner proved to be a powerful speaker who offered specific calls to action for her industry and her country.

A survivor of sexual aggression, she called upon the Canadian actors’ union, ACTRA, to support negotiations for better protections against such occurrences within the industry.

Her impassioned plea also called for the creation of an online platform called ROSA to harmonize reporting mechanisms across the country; to provide online and telephone support to women filling out forms reporting sexual assault; and to offer time-limited legal and mental health services for victims.

“If we truly want to achieve gender parity, we need to create a safe environment where survivors feel safe and powerful enough to advocate for themselves,” she said. “Knowledge is power, and we will use that knowledge to fight back.

Director Amma Asante told the crowd about the challenge of making her World War II drama, Where Hands Touch, which is set in Berlin. “It wasn’t lost on me that I was a black woman trying to tell a story in a genre — and set in a time and a place — that has usually been the preserve of white male directors.”

The rally ended with TIFF’s Maheux, who revealed that the festival had truly embraced the Share Her Journey message internally.

“I have the privilege of working every day in an organization with a huge management team that’s more than 70 percent female,” she boasted. “An an organization that’s just appointed gender parity at the very top.”

We can all hope that initiatives like 50/50×2020 and Share Her Journey will create a world of workplaces that are as progressive, tolerant and gender-inclusive as TIFF.