Girls to the rescue! This festival celebrates the up-and-coming wonder women of the film world

The superhero mission of Toronto's Breakthroughs Film Festival? To prove why female-driven movies are so vital — and give them a home.

Breakthroughs Film Festival's superhero mission? To prove why female-driven movies are so vital

(Breakthroughs Film Festival)

It's 2017.

Or so we say in times like these, when this summer's blockbusters are forecast to experience a whopping 10% decrease in ticket sales, statistics show that only 7% of last year's top 250 films were helmed by women and the current runaway success at the box office is both directed by and starring a woman.

It may be a numbers game, but if the phrase "it's 2017" is code for nothing more than our collective agreement that, come on, people, we should have cleaned up our act by now...then let it be 2017. The Breakthroughs Film Festival, a two-night program running June 16 and 17 at the Royal Cinema in Toronto, is evidence of the incomparable stories women tell when they're allowed behind the camera.

If a woman finally ends up making a film, the chances that it's a good one, statistically, is very high — because once we get some money in our hands, we try not to make something bad.- Maren Ade, director

Breakthroughs is the only Canadian film festival dedicated to showcasing short films by female directors. It first arose under the name Octavia Films, but changed its moniker a few years ago to reflect its focus on artists who were still labouring to break through into the male-dominated field. In its inaugural year the festival simply showcased Canadian directors, but it's since opened submissions to women from all around the globe. This year the programming has incorporated panel discussions, a VR exhibit and, as their latest step forward, the additional highlighting of work by filmmakers of a new generation aged 18-30.

Sarah Kolasky, right, co-wrote and starred in Great Great Great. (Canadian Film Fest)

It's clear a lot of growth has taken place in the six years that Breakthroughs has spent carving out its place in Toronto's hearty festival circuit. That includes two vital additions to the team: Sarah Kolasky, a filmmaker serving as the festival's Chair of the Board, and Gabor Pertic, a programmer at Hot Docs and TIFF and Breakthroughs' executive director. With the movie industry on the slow march towards gender parity, they have plenty of thoughts on where their humble festival stands amidst it all.

"We aim to include as many diverse voices, genres and styles as possible within the program," says Pertic on their selections process — noting that as much as their roster has broadened, their mandate remains the same. Kolasky, whose Great Great Great was crowned Best Feature at the 2017 Canadian Film Fest, points out that she's always on the lookout for filmmakers who understand the short film medium and can "take a simple idea and execute the film in a really creative way."

Cave Small Cave Big. (Breakthroughs Film Festival)

With that criteria in mind, the tightly-curated lineup of films ends up being unlike so many others: from Cave Small Cave Big, a Canadian work conceptualized, written and storyboarded by two five-year-olds, to A Night in Tokoriki, where an improvised Romanian nightclub sets the scene for an 18th birthday party. The program is also a surefire way to catch some knockout cinema reflective of the wise words echoed by director Maren Ade after serving on the jury at this year's Cannes Film Festival: "If a woman finally ends up making a film, the chances that it's a good one, statistically, is very high — because once we get some money in our hands, we try not to make something bad."

[Female-driven films] bring people together to celebrate the stories that aren't often seen on the big screen. Clearly there is a yearning for it.- Gabor Pertic, Breakthroughs Film Festival executive director

While ideas around gender equality and diverse representation may finally be at the forefront of our discussions about cinema, it would certainly be advantageous to see them taken one step further so that women are at the forefront of the films, too. Case in point: Wonder Woman.

"I love that we're seeing more female-centred blockbusters," Kolasky says, "and as long as these films make the studios money, there will be a shift underway. However, these multimillion dollar films need to have a broad appeal. It's for that reason we're probably not going to see actual 'diverse' female stories told at that level anytime soon — but I hope their success has a trickle-down effect for indie filmmakers. I hope it creates a bigger market for some of my favourite directors like Andrea Arnold, Kelly Reichardt and Ashley McKenzie."

A Night in Tokoriki. (Breakthroughs Film Festival)

Witnessing the rapturous response to a local screening of Wonder Woman only affirmed Pertic's investment in Breakthroughs' mission. "It's moments like that where you see the support and importance of female stories," he says. "They bring together people to celebrate the stories that aren't often seen on the big screen. Clearly there is a yearning for it."

Sweden and Australia were two of the first national film funds to make note of this disparity and put their money where their mouth was by backing stories we don't regularly see onscreen. Last year, Telefilm Canada followed suit when it announced its diversity initiative, outlining a movement to dissolve the gender gap in all feature film financing by 2020. That doesn't negate the necessity of a festival centred on fledgling female directors, however.

"I'd say even if some sense of balance is achieved, that's no reason to stop highlighting various diverse content in fests like ours," says Pertic, remarking that the only place Breakthroughs is going is up. "I would love to secure some generous sponsors for the organization so that we have the resources to pay staff, extend our year-round activities and cover travel and accommodation for filmmakers outside of Toronto," adds Kolasky. "I want Breakthroughs to be known internationally as a festival where discoveries are made."

Breakthroughs Fim Festival. June 16-17. Toronto.