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TIFF Female filmmakers pushing movies to pass Bechdel Test, promote equality

At this year’s box office, Pitch Perfect 2 is one of the most celebrated Bechdel blockbusters.

Photo Credit: Richard Cartwright

As a call to revolution, it's not exactly Leninist.

On Friday afternoon, as TIFF 2015 heads into the home stretch, a group of female filmmakers will gather at the Spoke Club in downtown Toronto to press the movie industry for such a minor measure of social progress that it would be laughable if it weren't so pathetic: They would like to see more women talk to each other on screen.

To be specific, they want more films to pass the so-called Bechdel Test, a three-part metric that draws attention to whether a film includes at least one scene in which a) two women; b) talk to each other; c) about something other than a man. Pretty low bar, right? And yet, according to the Toronto-based actor and filmmaker Imogen Grace, only about 55 per cent of films released last year met that minimal standard.

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(Most films, of course, would pass the reverse test – if one needed to exist – of two men talking about something other than a woman.)

And so Grace and the actress Joella Crichton are asking producers, directors and screenwriters to sign the Bechdel Bill, a pledge that 80 per cent of the films they make will pass muster. "The test is very simple, it's measurable and concrete," said Grace during a phone interview this week. "Right now it's used mostly retroactively" – that is, to measure films after they've been made. The idea of the Bill is to spur creators "to ask themselves, 'Do most of my films pass that test? If they don't, what could I do so that I actually see more women in conversation, see more women with their own narrative arc, more women with agency?'"

Friday's event will feature a panel discussion exploring the promises and potential pitfalls of the pledge, with supporters who include the actor-writer-producer Katie Boland (Sex After Kids) and TV auteur Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik (Durham County, Strange Empire). Director Patricia Rozema will also be there, riding high on her mesmerizing TIFF drama Into the Forest – about two sisters who must survive a continent-wide power outage – which is a model Bechdel picture (for what it's worth, the sisters do talk at one point about a guy).

"It's to everyone's benefit to see the world from different angles," Rozema told me on Tuesday afternoon. "We've only been seeing it from one side. So – open up the conversation. We need a prismatic view. Women are half the population. Don't you want to know how they think?"

Rozema was shouting above the din of a glitzy cocktail reception sponsored by Birks jewellers, held at the Shangri-La Hotel in honour of her and eight other Canadian women in film. It was a spirited affair, overflowing with camaraderie: When writer-director Ingrid Veninger (The Animal Project) was introduced, she shimmied onto the stage and then made her way down the line of her fellow honourees, high-fiving them like a basketball forward pumped up for the big game.

Afterwards, I buttonholed Boland, another of the Birks honourees, to ask about her support of the bill. "If my daughter could grow up in a world where she saw representations of herself on screen, the real conversations she was having in the world, on screen, she would probably like herself more. And she wouldn't see herself just as an accessory to men."

Grace echoed those comments. "I believe storytelling is such a huge part of how we identify ourselves and our place in the world, and that when we don't see a reflection of ourselves, or something we can connect to or identify with, it really affects our sense of self." (Take gender out of the equation, and Grace could be talking about the philosophical underpinning of our governments' support for television and film.)

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Still, there is this. "So many people are really hungry and ready to see women represented in a new way in film," said Grace. If you want proof, just look at this year's box office, where the list of Bechdel blockbusters includes Pitch Perfect 2, Inside Out, Mad Max: Fury Road, Spy and others. But while producers may finally be catching on, Grace says a little push couldn't hurt.

For the time being, the bill is optional – but who knows? "We really want it to be about positive movement forward, and people banding together and standing together at this moment. We don't have any plans for it to be legislation, but somewhere down the road we would hope to talk to [organizations] like ACTRA and other unions like the Directors Guild of Canada and the Writers Guild of Canada, and actually have people like that come on board, or funding [organizations] like Telefilm, and maybe eventually mandate it."

That sort of talk makes Rozema wary. Legislation, she says, is "dangerous business."

"I believe art should be the place where you do whatever the hell you want. I don't know if hard-core legislation is the answer, but strong encouragement – maybe even the word 'shaming' should come into play … you can't represent African-Canadians in a certain way, and you can't treat children a certain way … and you should actually allow women to have some kind of a complexity, other than just the sidekick or the prize for the guys."

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