How does it really feel to be a woman in the film industry in 2016?

CBC Arts asked seven of the women being honoured at this year's TIFF to chime in on what the Canadian industry can do to set a higher bar for women in film.

We asked 7 Canadian women being celebrated at TIFF this year

(Back L-R) Eva Hartling, Marie Vien, Ann Shin, Jennifer Podemski, Christine Horne, April Mullen, Ann Marie Fleming, Emma Donoghue, Caroline Dhavernas, Carolle Brabant, (Front L-R) Amanda Crew, Sandra Oh and Tracey Deer attend Birks Diamond Tribute to the Year's Women in Film in partnership with Telefilm Canada at Shangri-La Hotel on September 12, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. (Getty)

At the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this week, Telefilm Canada and Birks partnered for the fourth annual Birks Diamond Tribute, which honoured 12 women working in the Canadian film industry: directors Tracey Deer, Ann-Marie Fleming, April Mullen, Léa Pool and Ann Shin; actors Amanda Crew, Caroline Dhavernas, Christine Horne, Sandra Oh and Jennifer Podemski; and scriptwriters Emma Donoghue and Marie Vien. 

The women were selected by a pan-Canadian jury of 20 journalists and bloggers covering the world of arts, culture and entertainment, and collectively they certainly have much to celebrate. But looking at the 91 features to come out of Canada in 2013-'14, a study by Women in View found that 22 per cent of those movies were written by women, and just 17 per cent were made by female directors. It's clear that discussion surrounding the issues facing women in the industry needs to continue — which is why CBC Arts asked seven of the women being honoured at TIFF to chime in on what the Canadian industry can do to set a higher bar for women in film.

What do you think differentiates being a Canadian woman in film from being an American woman in film? What are the pros and cons?

Marie Vien: The context of the Canadian film industry is very different from the one in the United States because of the major — and essential — financing role played by government agencies in Canada as opposed to the purely private financing situation in the US. Through their respective agencies, Canada and Québec have the means to establish guidelines and requirements to promote women directors and scriptwriters, which is not possible in a free market such as the US.

Amanda Crew: I feel like there is a greater sense of community in the Canadian film industry. I feel like all of us women are genuinely cheering each other on and are proud of everyone's accomplishments. It's less dog eat dog and more loving and supportive. 
April Mullen: Being a Canadian woman in the entertainment industry has all the challenges you'd find crossing any border.  The percentages are low across the board when it come to women in film and that's a fact; however, I tend to focus on supporting and celebrating women that are succeeding and breaking through. I feel it is important to strive for more of a balance in terms of a female perspectives which includes all aspects: unique scripts and stronger female characters and directorial voices. 
Ann-Marie Fleming: Because we have national film institutions like Telefilm and the NFB and the Canada Council, we can mandate some changes immediately, like what Claude Jolie Coeur did with promising gender parity for supported films by 2020. Since the NFB has always supported female filmmakers, this won't be too hard to achieve! The downside? I can't vote in the November elections, even though it is going to affect my life. 
Jennifer Podemski: I think, as Canadians, we are less in the consciousness of the American public. But a woman is a woman in this Western industry and things are more challenging all around — not  because we are women but because we are carving a new path (a very difficult and challenging path). But I do find that when any person or any group of people carve a new path, the trials and tribulations lead to very fruitful results. Ultimately, the United States has a bigger audience — they tend to drive audience participation and trend. I don't think women here in our industry are different; we are just working with a much smaller pallete.

While progress has certainly been made with regard to representation of women in the film industry, there are still a lot of problems. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing women working in the film industry in 2016?

Podemski: Fear. Men are afraid so they are holding on tightly to an old paradigm. There is nothing to be afraid of — if we all collectively embrace it, this change or shift in perspective, only good things will come.

Christine Horne: I can really only speak to the challenges that exist for female actors, and even then our experiences are unique. But the reality is that there are still far more parts for men than there are for women. I think the female roles that exist are getting more interesting and more challenging (well, some of them), but there just aren't enough. And as soon as the scale is tipped and a film really does focus on the women, it's reduced to a sub-genre. Is there a film equivalent to "chick lit"? A film with too many women is now a film about women, rather than simply a film. There is also still huge gender disparity in the crews. So even when we are working on a project helmed by women, telling a story about women, we're still going to work in a very male-dominated environment.

Vien: Apart from the major role that public institutions could play with regards to films directed and written by women, there is a need for women themselves to be more assertive. Selling oneself is not traditionally in our DNA.

Is there a film equivalent to 'chick lit'? A film with too many women is now a film about women, rather than simply a film. There is also still huge gender disparity in the crews. So even when we are working on a project helmed by women, telling a story about women, we're still going to work in a very male-dominated environment.- Christine Horne

Tracey Deer: I think there is a complacency problem that persists within the industry that keeps many decision makers from striving for innovation and excellence. It seems there is an attitude that it's just easier to do it the way it's always been done. That includes hiring the same people again and again, despite atrocious behaviour or sub-par results. It's tough to break into this industry for anyone, but even tougher when people evaluate you based on your gender and not your skill set. The work should speak for itself.

Crew: In my personal experience, I feel like the stereotypes of what a "woman's role" is in a film/tv show and in the real world is what we are up against. There are still these limited ideas of what a woman should represent, a cookie cutter version of this perfect beauty who giggles when a man speaks to her and only serves as the love interest. I think we have made a lot of progress in this arena but we still have a long ways to go. 

Mullen: I believe if the younger generation starts to see celebrated women in film and awareness is amplified, then we are on track to give them the courage it takes to know it's possible. If you see it, you believe. At a younger age this makes a huge impact for young creators. It is a long term goal where we now are the trailblazers to a more balanced industry.

Fleming: Although I've been making work for almost thirty years, I don't really think of myself as part of the industry. I think the challenges are not dissimilar to those faced my women in all sectors. Perhaps ageism is worse.

What do you think we need to do as a collective industry — and society — to make Canada set the bar even higher for women in film?

Deer: I think networks and producers need to make equal gender representation a priority in everything they produce. Put simply, they need to hire more women. We represent half of the population, so we should have that same presence within the industry tasked with shaping the media landscape of this country.

Fleming: I don't know if the film industry or society in general can ever be a true meritocracy, but we can stop making assumptions about people, not just women, and start seeing strength in differences.

Mullen: The bar is set high and we are here — now it's time to allow creative freedom and be sure that Canadians see Canadian cinema and talent.  Strive to foster a new generation of women and celebrate the ones that have been the trailblazers.

I don't know if the film industry or society in general can ever be a true meritocracy, but we can stop making assumptions about people, not just women, and start seeing strength in differences.- Ann-Marie Fleming

Crew: I think we need to continue pushing to make films and TV shows that show a different kind of woman — one beyond her looks and sex appeal, a real woman that we can relate to, not an idea of some man's fantasy.

Podemski: Men must speak out and utilize the platform to create an open dialogue. Women don't need to only talk and imagine and dream with other women; we share this massive space with men and we must do it together.

Who is another woman in film — Canadian or otherwise — that you really admire and why?

Podemski: Sarah Polley. I can go on and on about her, but ultimately it comes down to this: no one has allowed me to be more of a "woman in film" than she has. All of me — the ugliest, the prettiest and the most real. And I know that she's done it with a lot of people. She's planted seeds that have blossomed into flowers and trees that breathe life into new expressions.

Fleming: Canuck Helen du Toit, whose career hats include artistic director of the Palm Springs Short and Feature Film Festivals, Toornto International Film Festival programmer, curator of panelists and guests for industry forums. As well as being a filmmaker herself, she has dedicated herself to supporting innovation and celebrating artistic excellent on every level of filmmaking, behind and in front of the camera. She is fearless.

Mullen: Andrea Arnold. I just saw American Honey in Cannes and it shook my soul — I have not stopped thinking about the standout raw moments in that film. 

Crew: There are so many woman right now kicking ass that I really admire: Sarah Polley, Tatiana Maslany, Zoe Kazan, Sarah Gadon, Lena Dunham, Katie Boland and all the woman being honoured at the Birks event have inspired me tremendously!

Vien: I am a great fan of Sofia Coppola because of her culture, her gracefulness, the choice of her themes and her immense talent to project us in the world of women. I also admire her for her independence. I love Anne Fontaine as well. Her most recent film, Les Innocentes, transports us in the world of nuns during World War II in Poland. She was able to wonderfully project the inner strength of these women while respecting their authenticity.

Deer: I really admire my partner-in-the-creative, executive producer and writer Cynthia Knight. Like myself, working in this industry has always been her dream and she has steadfastly pursued it, not allowing any of the inevitable challenges to deter her. She inspires me everyday. Her voice is strong, her brain is brilliant and her personality is a joy to be around. Most importantly, she cares so deeply about what she does. It's not a job for her — it's a passion, and that is what our industry should be all about.

(These conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.)


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