18 for '18: These female filmmakers are carving out their space in Canada's cinematic landscape
An all-female new season of The Filmmakers premieres this Saturday
This weekend will see the premiere of the second season of CBC Arts's talk show The Filmmakers. For its sophomore outing, the series has chosen to focus on some of the country's most prominent and compelling female filmmakers, including Mina Shum, Patricia Rozema, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and Sadaf Foroughi. And with that in mind, we've decided to celebrate some of Canada's most exciting up-and-coming women in the industry.
These 18 artists have not only carved out a space for themselves within a film culture that has not always supported women and gender-neutral individuals but are also paving the way for those to come. Some work within existing funding bodies to expand the diversity and scope of what gets subsided, while others have opted for a more lo-fi DIY approach to make sure their voices — and often the marginalized voices within their communities — are heard.
You might notice some familiar names from last year's list, but with this season's focus on female artists, they're absolutely worth highlighting again.
Moving between documentary and fiction (and everything in between) with the effortlessness of Agnès Varda, Sofia Bohdanowicz has already made her mark on the Toronto film scene. Following a stunning tryptic of docu-shorts about her late paternal grandmother, Bohdanowicz debuted her 2016 feature Never Eat Alone to a short run in Toronto, starring actress Deragh Campbell and the director's maternal grandmother Joan Benac. Bohdanowicz continued her winning streak with the documentary Maison du Bonheur — following a Parisian astrologer and tarot reader — which netted her top prizes from the Vancouver Film Critics Circle and the Toronto Film Critics Association. This year Bohdanowicz is heading to the Locarno Film Festival with her new short Veslemøy's Song, her second collaboration with Campbell.
After the successful Slamdance 2017 premiere of Suck it Up! — her look at the shared grief and growing comradery between two women — director Jordan Canning has not been resting on her (festival) laurels. As well as directing and starring in a segment of the anthology film Ordinary Days (2018), Canning has become a prolific TV director, helming episodes of Baroness von Sketch Show and nearly half of the upcoming fifth season of Schitt's Creek. Canning is currently working on her next feature, Oddly Flowers, based on Jessica Grant's 2009 novel Come Thou, Tortoise.
Actor, writer and director Hannah Cheesman has been candid about the baggage that comes with labelling oneself as a feminist in a creative field. "'Being a feminist can be bad for business' is actually something I've been told," she wrote in an essay for The Globe and Mail in 2015. Thankfully, she remains undeterred: "Good thing I like me a good fight." Cheesman shows no signs of giving up that good fight. Her award-winning web-series Whatever, Linda — a Bernie Madoff-inspired 1970s-set story about the woman behind her boss's Ponzi scheme — is currently being developed for television, and her first feature The Definites (co-directed with frequent collaborator Mackenzie Donaldson) was released in Canada earlier this year.
The newest animated short from Bosnian-born Montrealer Eva Cvijanović recalls the whimsical animal tales from Wes Anderson (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs). Based on a children's story by Branko Ćopić, Cvijanović's Hedgehog's Home depicts a felted world of stop-motion animation about a stubborn hedgehog's devotion to his lush forest home. Known predominantly for 2D animation (including her spare-yet-inventive look inside a child's imagination in Seasick) Cvijanović knew she had to use stop-motion in her adaptation of a childhood favourite. As she explains: "Felt just has this comfortable and soft feel...Everyone knows the sensation of feeling snug and warm under a woollen blanket."
Luis De Filippis
Filmmaker Luis De Filippis made their Sundance debut this year with the short For Nonna Anna, a story of cross-generational connection between a grandmother and her trans grandchild. The subject was a personal one for the Toronto-based De Filippis. "For Nonna Anna is based on my relationship with my nonna, who was incredibly supportive," they explain. "At a young age I started experimenting with gender, and she never deterred or made me feel less than." De Filippis has also been outspoken about the significance of trans narratives being told by trans storytellers, in which trans identities are simply another aspect of a character rather than a source of conflict. (Read more about the strides Luis De Filippis is making on trans representation here.)
Expanding on her short film of the same name, writer/director Kathleen Hepburn's Never Steady, Never Still debuted to strong reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017. The feature (starring Harry Potter alum Shirley Henderson) tells the story of a young mother struggling with a recent diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, and was inspired by Hepburn's mother's experience of living with the degenerative disorder. The Vancouver-based Hepburn's personal connection to the material lends the film an aura of authenticity has been praised by critics as an "unsentimental frankness about conditions many filmmakers would milk for sympathy."
Writer/director Naledi Jackson's The Drop-In, a horror-tinged view of immigration issues set in a hair salon, premiered at TIFF in 2017 and went on to be selected for the 2018 Canada's Top Ten Festival shorts programme. Like Joyce Wong, Jackson has also been named an official ambassador for the second year of TIFF's Share Her Journey initiative. Currently, the Vancouver-born Jackson is working as a member of the all-female writing staff on the new season of Anne with an E, the popular CBC/Netflix co-production based on Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables.
The reigning Renaissance Woman of Canadian media — actress, radio host, TV personality, podcaster, screenwriter, filmmaker — Sook-Yin Lee can always be counted on for compelling new projects. This summer saw the release of her second feature-length film, Octavio is Dead!, which deals in grief and gender queerness. The gender exploration of the main character (played by Alias Grace's Sarah Gadon) was loosely inspired by the director's own fluid sexual and gender identity. As Lee explains: "There is a tendency to put people in boxes. As an actor and as a filmmaker, I want people to bust out."
Toronto filmmaker Rebeccah Love's latest short, Acres, is about a pair of childhood sweethearts who reconnect after years apart. Love, an ardent champion of the Toronto film community, stressed the importance of supporting the local scene in an interview with The Globe and Mail: "There's a generosity of spirit, an appreciation for collaboration, for helping others." This collaborative energy is certainly at work in Love's filmmaking — including Acres, which features a cameo from fellow Toronto director Kazik Radwanski (How Heavy This Hammer). Love is currently enrolled at the University of Guelph pursuing an MFA in creative writing on top of developing future film projects.
Since its debut, Ashley McKenzie's Werewolf has been raking in critical accolades, culminating at the 2018 Toronto Film Critics Association awards ceremony by taking home the prestigious Rogers Award for Best Canadian Film and accompanying $100,000 prize. The Cape Breton-born McKenzie has also caught the attention of the U.S. media following Werewolf's American premiere, with the A.V. Club declaring it a "strong enough work to suggest that [McKenzie is] just a full moon away from metamorphosing into a major talent."
Along with helming her own accomplished work — including the documentaries My Prairie Home and Michael Shannon Michael Shannon John — Toronto filmmaker Chelsea McMullan is doing her part to lift others coming up behind her. This year, McMullan was part of a five-member jury charged with selecting participants for Telefilm's new Talent to Watch programme (an initiative spearheaded by another Toronto filmmaker, Matt Johnson). Along with picking strong contenders, McMullan also noted that one of the goals of the jury was to make sure the final selections "considered race, region, gender and queer representation as well."
Montreal artist and filmmaker Caroline Monnet uses her work to explore her dual backgrounds between France and the Algonquin territory of Quebec, or "communicating complex ideas around Indigenous identity and bicultural living through the examination of cultural histories" as she explains in an artist's statement on her official website. In addition being a co-founding member of the Indigenous digital arts collective ITWÉ, Monnet's shorts have been exhibited all over the world including at the National Art Gallery in Ottawa, Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Sundance and TIFF, and she was selected for the Cannes Film Festival Cinéfondation residency in 2016. Monnet is currently in production on The Seven Last Words, an experimental effort in collaboration with four other directors. Selected works are currently available to stream for free on the NFB website.
The New York-based film festival New Directors/New Films has long been a breeding ground for emerging talent, having programmed the early works of Pedro Almodóvar, Spike Lee, Christopher Nolan and Chantal Akerman — and now Chloé Robichaud can count herself among those ranks. Following the success of her Cannes-premiering Sarah Prefers to Run in 2013, Robichaud's sophomore feature Boundaries — about a trio of women in politics working to broker a deal between Canada and the fictional island of Besco — landed at ND/NF in 2017. As Film Comment notes, Robichaud's work "explores the role of choice and experience in articulating identity."
Vancouver native Sophy Romvari has been turning heads on the festival circuit with her impressive oeuvre of short film work. Her most recent, Pumpkin Movie, is a vital complement to the current post-#MeToo era and is indicative of both her DIY collaborative spirit and ingenuity. The short stages a Skype conversation between two friends (played by the director and a friend) trading stories of harassment, commissioned from the real-life stories of people Romvari knows, over a communal Hallowe'en pumpkin carving session — a new sort of horror flick. Currently a graduate student of York University's filmmaking programme, Romvari is hard at work developing her thesis film, set to become her first feature.
The audience's squeals of delight and shock at the visual punchline of Bao — the animated short paired with the release of Brad Bird's Incredibles 2 — symbolically announced the arrival of director Domee Shi to Pixar Animation Studios' heretofore boys' club. Bao is unmistakably Canadian, in both setting (the short takes place in a prominently Chinese neighbourhood in Toronto, complete with the CN Tower visible in the background) and sensibility (the short features some light comic body horror that could make even the most hardened David Cronenberg fan gasp). For Shi, using Toronto as her inspiration was a natural decision: "I just thought it would be like a fun homage to my hometown — but also, adding those specific details are how we ground the story in real life and how we make these characters feel like real people we see on the streets or real family members."
In her acclaimed film The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, documentarian Brett Story's approach to depicting the violence of prisons was to eschew brutal images from within the walls and instead focus on the social effect the prison industrial complex has had on American society. She explained her approach in a 2016 interview with VICE: "I wanted to make links in this film, however oblique, between these issues: policing, incarceration, housing policy, tax policy...to upend the idea of the prison system as just a closed system that has nothing to do with other aspects of daily life." This summer, Story has been invited to participate in the 2018 Sundance Documentary Edit and Story Lab on her co-directed effort The Hottest August.
Michif filmmaker and mixed media artist Amanda Strong made waves in 2017 when legendary documentarian Alanis Obomsawin chose Strong as the recipient of her $50,000 Clyde Gilmour Award prize at the Toronto Film Critics Association Awards. It's not hard to see why when viewing Strong's striking body of work, in which the artist uses stop-motion animation to create hybrid documentary accounts of Indigenous stories. (Read more about Strong's shadow-puppet stop-motion short Flood here, a part of CBC Arts's Keep Calm and Decolonize film series, here.)
A suburban strip mall might seem like an inauspicious setting for a movie, but Scarborough native Joyce Wong was inspired by the locale's potential for showcasing the kinds of little-seen communities she grew up around in her debut feature Wexford Plaza (2017). For Wong, "[strip malls] have this '60s idealism but also this immigrant multi-layered, diverse feel." In July of this year, Wong was named an ambassador of TIFF's Share Her Journey initiative, a project dedicated to speaking out about gender discrimination in the industry in the post-#MeToo era. (Read more about Wexford Plaza here.)
Season 2 of The Filmmakers premieres this Saturday, July 28 at 8:30pm ET/CT/MT, 9:30pm AT, 10PM NT and 11pm PT on CBC TV and cbc.ca/watch.