The lineup for this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (aka TIFF) is stacked with some truly excellent-looking films that subvert normative notions of gender and sexuality. Kristen Cochrane rounds up 6 films that focus on gender and sexual diversity – to see at this year’s fest (or after, at a theatre/laptop near you).
The Toronto International Film Festival, one of the big film festivals where you can actually just wait in line and go see any film, is known as the “people’s festival.” If you like to spy on actors or ask for a selfie, you should go to TIFF. I once saw my idol Gael García Bernal at a Starbucks when he was in town for the premieres of Neruda and Salt and Fire. Despite trying to prepare hypothetical (and non-invasive) monologues in my head in which I would thank him for his contribution to queer and sexually diverse cinema with Y Tú Mamá También and La mala educación, I just stood inside the Starbucks, pretending that I needed to charge my phone. I think he could tell that I wanted to talk to him, since he stayed inside, seemingly doing nothing, with his back to the coffee station. I never went up to him, but Gael, if you’re reading this, I appreciate how your work challenges the heteronormative matrix.
Even if lurking near your idols in coffee chains isn’t your bag, you should go to TIFF if you like diverse stories. Compared to Cannes and Venice, TIFF generally endeavours to offer a wider array of films that go beyond white, cisgender, heterosexual, and colonial narratives. The artistic director, Cameron Bailey, is a Black, Barbados-born programmer, film critic, and activist dedicated to curating a diverse festival lineup. In 1995, he created the Planet Africa programming slate at TIFF, selecting films from Africa and the African diaspora. While Planet Africa ended in 2005, Bailey’s reputation for highlighting films that challenge issues like nationalism and racism endures.
This year, TIFF’s programming upholds the festival’s international reputation for diversity: its lineup features several cinematic portrayals of frequently marginalized stories, in addition to Oscar contenders and films set to become blockbusters. Here are six films premiering at TIFF 2018 that offer a diversity of perspectives in their emphasis on gender and sexual diversity.
1. The Third Wife. Dir. Ash Mayfair; Vietnam.
Ash Mayfair’s screenplay for her first feature The Third Wife won the Spike Lee Film Production Award in 2014, handpicked by Lee himself. After a positively-received debut at this year’s San Sebastian Film Festival, The Third Wife will have its world premiere at TIFF. Set in 19th-century rural Vietnam, the 14-year-old protagonist May becomes the third wife of the much older Hung, for whom she is expected to bear a son. But it is Xuan, Hung’s second wife, who captures May’s interest.
As Giovanna Fulvi writes, “May initially looks to be a lucky beneficiary of her patriarchal culture, but time will prove that forces such as romantic love, sexual taboo, and female independence will find their expression in even the most repressive of circumstances.”
Born in Vietnam, Mayfair went to school in the UK and the US, earning an MFA in filmmaking from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Before The Third Wife, she made five short films which have screened at various international film festivals, including the Cannes Short Film Corner.
2. The Weekend. Dir. Stella Meghie; USA.
The Weekend is Toronto-born filmmaker and screenwriter Stella Meghie’s second directorial trip to TIFF, having premiered Jean of the Jones there in 2016. In her newest film, a weekend getaway brings stand-up comedian Zadie (Sasheer Zamata), who calls herself “extremely single,” into a romantic liaison with not only her ex-lover (Tone Bell), but also his new girlfriend (DeWanda Wise) and another guest (Y’lan Noel). The Canadianness of the film is highlighted by the visit of the latter guest, the attractive Aubrey from Montreal (Noel), who arrives at the remote B&B with no idea that he’s about to get involved in a ménage-à-quatre.
The rom-com boasts an impressive cast: featuring former SNL cast member Sasheer Zamata (as protagonist Zadie); Disjointed’s Tone Bell as the ex-boyfriend; DeWanda Wise, star of the TV remake of She’s Gotta Have It (as the ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend); and Y’lan Noel from The First Purge and Insecure.
3. Mouthpiece. Dir. Patricia Rozema; Canada.
The story behind the film Mouthpiece could be adapted into its own episode for the reboot of The L Word (or its own film). When Canadian filmmaker and open lesbian Patricia Rozema saw the widely acclaimed Toronto play Mouthpiece (created and performed by Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken), she recommended it to her friends for their visit to Toronto. Her friends just happened to be celesbian couple Jodie Foster and Alex Hedison. They took Rozema’s advice, and were so impressed that Hedison called Sadava and Nostbakken and asked them if they would be interested in touring the play across the U.S.
As LA Weekly described the play after its LA premiere: “The story traverses the spectrum of feminist hot topics, from the legitimacy of fashion magazines to how people react to a woman crying and whether a woman eating french fries in public is a feminist statement. Both actors don matching ultra-thin white one-piece bathing suits.”
Rozema is part of the Toronto New Wave film movement, and her contemporary is the quintessential queer filmmaker John Greyson. With Rozema at the helm, the forecast on an adaptation of this play looks promising (and gay as hell).
4. Falls Around Her. Dir. Darlene Naponse; Canada.
In her second film collaboration with the award-winning Cree-Métis actress Tantoo Cardinal (who is in another film at the festival, Through Black Spruce), director Darlene Naponse focuses on the prominent Anishinaabe musician Mary Birchbark (Cardinal) whose years of international touring have left her exhausted. Mary returns home to Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation in northern Ontario, where she intends to recover. But Mary’s sister Betty (Tina Keeper) notices that something is amiss with Mary—something beyond just post-tour burnout. Despite Betty’s support and Mary’s best efforts, the latter’s past begins to haunt her.
In addition to her film work, Naponse is the founder of the award-winning Anishinaabe multi-media company Pine Needle Productions. She is also a university instructor and a busy activist who works in indigenous social issues.
5. Touch Me Not. Dir. Adina Pintilie; Romania, Germany, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, France.
Romanian filmmaker and screenwriter Adina Pintilie’s debut Touch Me Not (which received the Golden Bear and Best First Feature at the Berlinale this year) explores diverse modes of expressing intimacy. The film blends fiction and non-fiction, featuring non-professional as well as professional actors in various locations where intimacy can be experienced, like a touch-yoga class, a hospital room, a sex club, and Pintilie’s own apartment.
In our current socio-cultural moment, the term “body-positivity” often evokes bodies that still fit into traditional and exclusionary notions of beauty. In an interview with Variety, Pintilie discusses the film’s take on beauty, bodily intimacy, and our relationship with not only our own bodies, but the bodies of others:
“There are lots of types of bodies that differ from the classical norm of beauty. For me, Christian, the protagonist with spinal muscular atrophy, is a superb human being and a beautiful body, but he’s totally different from the norm. As it is a film about intimacy, “Touch Me Not” is implicitly a film about the body, about the subjective experience of your own body and the way you perceive the bodies of others.”
Pintilie spent seven years working on the film, which explores various approaches to BDSM, kink, and sexual practices between people who are often excluded from sexual diversity narratives.
6. The Wind. Dir. Emma Tammi; USA.
A film which could perhaps be described as colonial horror, Emma Tammi’s solo directorial debut The Wind features a woman named Elizabeth “Lizzy” Macklin (Caitlin Gerard), who accompanies her husband to settle on an apparently isolated and dreary territory on the American frontier in the 1890s. But Lizzy soon finds out that the territory is occupied by something supernatural. When she brings up her experience of sinister hauntings, her husband dismisses her fears as mere religious superstition. Classic.
Without having seen the film, The Wind gives me Hereditary vibes, and it will be interesting to see how Tammi tackles the horrors of colonialism alongside the supernatural. Based on her interview with TIFF about The Wind, it seems that Tammi has the political in mind. She recalled seeing Get Out at Sundance, which screened right after the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, and noted that genre films, like horror, draw in audiences who may not necessarily be there for the social message. Rather, unassuming audiences “stumble upon these conversations happening in the film. That’s not something that straight drama can do with as much mass appeal.”
The Toronto International Film Festival is on from September 7-17. See the full list of programming here :)
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and graduate researcher at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. Her current research is located in queer cinema, particularly in Latin America, but she also writes on topics related to culture, film, media and their intersections with gender and sexuality. Her work has appeared in Amuse/i-D, AnOther, Teen Vogue, Somesuch, and VICE.