Female, rookie filmmakers round up TIFF's Canadian lineup

Female voices and rookie filmmakers figure prominently among Canadian projects unspooling at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, with nearly half of the homegrown slate directed by women and many centring on mother-daughter relationships, female bonds and women in crisis.

Films inspired by Patty Hearst, the immigrant experience and the true nature of cops

Black Conflux is a coming-of-age tale starring Ella Ballentine and Ryan McDonald. (TIFF)

Female voices and rookie filmmakers figure prominently among Canadian projects unspooling at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, with nearly half of the homegrown slate directed by women and many centring on mother-daughter relationships, female bonds and women in crisis.

Here's a look at seven anticipated Canadian films hitting the circuit, including first features and works by returning TIFF alumni:

American Woman

In her directorial feature film debut, Semi Chellas takes inspiration from the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst, granddaughter of media magnate William Randolph Hearst. While the names of key characters have been changed from those of their real-life counterparts, American Woman examines the lives of two very different American radicals — an enigmatic white heiress and a hardened Asian-American war protester charged with her care.

Charmed by outlaw films including Bonnie and Clyde and Thelma and Louise, Chellas says she wanted to make a traditional outlaw movie that features little-seen characters.

In this adaptation of Susan Choi's novel of the same name, Hong Chau — soon to appear in HBO's super hero series Watchmen — commands the screen as Jenny, a political activist who is recruited to help keep America's most-wanted fugitives hidden, including the famous, recently radicalized Pauline, played by Sarah Gadon.

"The best movies for me are about larger-than-life characters, and so many of those are to be found in real stories," Chellas said in an interview at a TIFF press conference in July. "I think that's always very inspiring and delicious for storytellers, when they come across those characters in life that are hard to know and ask us to imagine our way into their stories."

Black Conflux

Nicole Dorsey's atmospheric, psychological drama Black Conflux is an unconventional coming-of-age tale that explores themes of isolation, alienation and toxic masculinity.

Ella Ballentine, of YTV's Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, stars as a promising but troubled teenager determined to avoid turning out like her convict mother.

Her world collides with a self-loathing outcast played by Ryan McDonald, of Citytv's Bad Blood and Fringe.

The film, set in 1987 Newfoundland, is described by Dorsey as "what happens when you defy the patriarchy."

"You're watching two characters who are outsiders in their own ways, living in their heads, trying to figure out who they are, going through their day-to-day and they cross paths and you don't know what's going to happen," McDonald says. "They're both struggling with who they're becoming and I find that really compelling."

The Body Remembers when the World Broke Open

The Body Remembers when the World Broke Open stars Elle-Maija Tailfeathers as a woman who chooses to console a young woman, played by Violet Nelson. (TIFF)

Elle-Maija Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn's feature The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open follows Aila, as played by Tailfeathers, who chooses to console a young woman, played by Violet Nelson, she finds barefoot and sobbing in the streets of East Vancouver, who has just escaped an assault by her boyfriend. Compelled to action, Aila chooses to bring Rosie into her home.

The action was captured on 16-millimetre film and edited to create the appearance of a single take, allowing for continuous, real-time action throughout the 105-minute film.

"Ultimately, it's a film by women for women that speaks to the strength and beauty of Indigenous women in particular, and our capacity to love and heal despite everything that's happened," says Tailfeathers.

Working with her "brilliant" co-director Hepburn, Tailfeathers says the creation of the film is a step in the right direction for Indigenous filmmaking.

"Our working relationship represents one in which Indigenous creatives and settler creatives can work together in a meaningful way and also represents what women can achieve when we work together," she said of her fellow co-director and co-writer, Hepburn.

Easy Land

Making her directorial feature debut is Sanja Zivkovic with Easy Land, a poignant examination of the obstacles facing newcomers to Canada.

The film follows newcomers Jasna, a talented architect from Serbia played by Mirjana Jokovic, and her daughter Nina, played by The Handmaid's Tale actress Nina Kiri, as they struggle to adjust to their new life in Toronto, complicated by poverty and Jasna's volatile psychological state.

Zivkovic describes her film as an intimate family drama that explores the intersection between mental health and immigration.

"I want people to think more about how hard it is for immigrants to come up and start a new life and what that means for them," says Zivkovic, who came to Canada from Serbia in 1994 during the war in the former Yugoslavia.

"In my community I've seen people affected by mental illness and I wondered if there was a connection between the two, because surely immigrating somewhere and leaving your family behind and making a new life for yourself isn't easy."


Coppers is a documentary examining the careers of retired police officers. (TIFF)

Award-winning filmmaker Alan Zweig returns to the festival with his documentary Coppers, in which he examines the careers of retired police officers.

Zweig says the idea for the film came from his past as a former taxi driver. Driving a cab for 20 years, Zweig says he didn't always get along with the police — whom he refers to as "coppers."

"Most of my life, I didn't like cops, I felt they were bullies," says Zweig. "Then I met my friend's dad at a barbecue and was like, 'Oh, he's a nice cop,' and that was a revelation. And then I met another cop who had really suffered."

Zweig says Coppers would appeal to both documentary and horror lovers, describing it as "entertaining" and "funny," as well as "grisly" and "gruesome."

"It's an educated film, and I think that if you care to look at cops — who are all around us and a big part of our lives — if maybe you think you'd like to look at them differently while being entertained, and in some ways grossed out, you should come to this film."

Guest of Honour

TIFF regular Atom Egoyan returns with a psychological drama centred on a "deranged food inspector" reeling from a family crisis as he targets ethnic restaurants in Hamilton.

David Thewlis stars as Jim, a by-the-book inspector, while Laysla De Oliveira plays his daughter Veronica, a high-school music teacher falsely convicted of abusing her position of authority over a 17-year-old. Luke Wilson and Rossif Sutherland co-star.

Egoyan wrote, directed and produced the film, and as in his previous work, the characters here are haunted by personal histories that drive the choices they make.

"Human beings are very complex — infinitely complex — and that's what excites me about making movies," says The Sweet Hereafter director.

Foodies may get a kick out of this film, Egoyan adds. He says examining the way food is prepared and viewed offers an interesting window into where our culture sits today.

"To close restaurants, or to have the ability to actually cut someone off from their livelihood over something that they see as being essential to their own identity, that to me was a very interesting metaphor to work with."


Murmur is a first-time feature about a woman struggling to pull her life together after being convicted of driving while impaired. (Krista Comeau/TIFF)

First-time feature filmmaker Heather Young lands at TIFF with a quiet portrait of a woman struggling to pull her life together after being convicted of driving while impaired. Estranged from her daughter and lonely, Donna gravitates to vulnerable creatures at the animal shelter where she's ordered to perform community service.

The 37-year-old Young, originally from Saint John, N.B., but now based in Halifax, wrote, directed and edited her $200,000 drama with funding help from Telefilm, the Canada Council for the Arts and provincial tax credits.

"It was a big jump going from a short film to a feature. I mean my longest short was around 14 minutes so jumping to a full-length was a huge change," says Young, who graduated from Halifax's NSCAD University in 2009.

Young credits Telefilm's push for reaching gender parity by 2020 in helping her transition to a new stage in her career, but says a ceiling still exists for female and marginalized filmmakers wanting to further their career.

"If you look at it in terms of [which] directors are receiving the larger budgets, over $2.5 million for instance ... you would find we're nowhere near 50/50 gender parity," she says. "I do think that the more money is involved, the less likely people are to entrust that money to a female director."