It's already been a massive year for LGBTQ film — but at TIFF, the spotlight finally turns to women
TIFF has a record number of films about queer and trans women
It was already very clear well before the lineup was announced for this year's Toronto International Film Festival that 2017 would go down in history as, among many other things, an epic year for LGBTQ cinema.
The narrative surrounding this claim really actually began around this time last year, when a micro-budget indie film chronicling the life of a young gay black man first debuted to audiences at both Telluride and TIFF before making a more extraordinary journey into the cultural zeitgeist than anyone could have imagined. I vividly remember feeling stuck to my seat when the credits began to roll for Barry Jenkins' Moonlight at its TIFF press screening. And while many, many things were going through my head as I slowly began to stop sobbing, none of them included realistically thinking it would win best picture at the Oscars — not because I didn't think its brilliance wasn't worthy of every possible award, but because at the time, the world was still a place where no one believed movies like Moonlight could win awards like that at an institution as historically majority-serving as the Oscars. Of course, that ended up not being true. We found that out in the most dramatic way possible back in February.
While it's unlikely anything related to LGBTQ cinema will eclipse that moment — or Moonlight itself — in 2017, its first eight months have already proven pretty staggering in terms of various attempts. Even as Jenkins and his fellow Moonlight producers were making their way onto that Oscar stage after Envelopegate was discovered, audiences at January's Sundance Film Festival had already been introduced to Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name, certainly one of the talked-about films at that festival, and by far my own personal favourite. Adapted from André Aciman's novel of the same title, it's a devastatingly beautiful depiction of an Italian summer romance between a teenage boy (Timothée Chalamet) and a 20-something academic (Armie Hammer) whose trailer alone has already inspired a series of gifs dedicated to its sexual tension.
[In 2016] the world was still a place where no one believed movies like Moonlight could win awards at an institution as historically majority-serving as the Oscars. Of course, that ended up not being true.- Peter Knegt
Call Me By Your Name is making its North American premiere this week at TIFF alongside another film coming off a lauded debut at an earlier festival: Robin Campillo's BPM (Beats Per Minute). Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes (basically the second-place prize), the film is set during the onset of the AIDS epidemic in Paris and offers an incredibly powerful tribute to the activists that fought against the system to save countless lives. (I just saw it this morning, and my eyes still haven't dried.)
Like Call Me By Your Name, BPM is a hot ticket at TIFF — and rightfully so. It's one of the most effective cinematic portrayals of LGBTQ-related activism I've ever seen, just as Call Me By Your Name is already right up there with Brokeback Mountain in terms of my favourite gay movie romances. But they are essentially both nearly-perfected evolutions of narratives we've seen before. There's nothing nearly as revolutionary about them as, say, Moonlight, which showed us characters and a world rarely we'd never seen on a big screen before. Call Me By Your Name and BPM are, like most films in the LGBTQ cinema canon, about gay white men — which is why it's so great to see that they are far from the only films aiming to enter that canon at TIFF this year, and that most of the others — at least seven feature films and a handful more shorts — are about lesbians or trans women.
One of those films also comes pre-approved from another festival: Sebastián Lelio's A Fantastic Woman. The Chilean import won raves at the Berlin Film Festival back in February, in large part thanks to the performance of its lead actress Daniela Vega, who plays a young transgender waitress and aspiring singer. Vega is getting legitimate Oscar buzz for her work — but unlike the many cis actors who have won awards for playing trans characters (Hilary Swank, Jared Leto, etc, etc, etc), Vega is trans herself. If she were to be nominated, she would be the first trans actor to ever receive an Oscar nod, and only the third trans person up for an award in any category (after musician Anohni a few years ago and late composer Angela Morley way back in the 1970s).
Remarkably, A Fantastic Woman isn't Lelio's only film at TIFF. He's also world premiering Disobedience, his first film set outside Chilé. It stars Rachel Weisz as a woman who returns home to her orthodox Jewish community in London only to fall in love with her cousin's wife, played by Rachel McAdams. And it will screen alongside another story of star-crossed sapphic love: Tali Sahlom-Ezer's My Days of Mercy, which stars McAdams' fellow Canadian Elliot Page as the daughter of a man on death row who falls in love with a woman (Kate Mara) on the opposing side of their family's cause.
Then there's Battle of the Sexes, perhaps the most high-profile of the bunch thanks to it being a biopic of the first prominent female athlete to come out as a lesbian, 1970s tennis star Billie Jean King. Emma Stone portrays King alongside Steve Carell as her rival Bobby Riggs, and the film has already been met with huge acclaim after premiering last weekend at the Telluride Film Festival. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (who made Little Miss Sunshine together), it's also pleasantly part of a majority of LGBTQ-related films at TIFF directed or co-directed by women. In addition to Faris and Shalom-Ezer, there are Angela Robinson (Professor Marston & the Wonder Women), Ivana Mladenovic (Soldiers. Story from Ferentari), Ingrid Veninger (Porcupine Lake), Kathleen Hepburn (Never Steady, Never Still) and Limor Shmila (Montana).
One thing worth noting across all these films is that they hardly offer a racially diverse batch of subject matter. Hopefully we'll be saying differently come 2018's TIFF, when the success of Moonlight could be felt in terms of what films are getting made — most of this year's TIFF this year were in production well before that surprise Oscars win shook up the status quo. That being said, it's also worth celebrating that the aforementioned Angela Robinson is an openly gay black woman whose film looks at the man behind the Wonder Woman franchise (which is having a pretty solid 2017 itself), and the "extended relationship" he and his wife both had with another woman.
Finally, Robinson isn't the only LGBTQ person of colour behind an anticipated TIFF film. Dee Rees, whose incredible directorial debut Pariah followed a teenage black girl trying to embrace her lesbian identity (it screened at TIFF in 2011), is at the festival with Mudbound. The film examines racial tensions in the Jim Crow South of the 1940s and, like Call Me By Your Name, it premiered at Sundance to Oscar buzz that is only amplifying at TIFF. If Rees were to end up nominated for best director, she would be the first woman of colour to do so, not to mention the first openly LGBTQ woman of any race.
And perhaps after Moonlight, it's okay to cautiously believe we live in a world where that can finally happen.