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Isabelle Huppert, who plays the lead in three films screening at TIFF, will be interviewed on stage at the festival next week.Courtesy of TIFF

Piers Handling, director of the Toronto International Film Festival, will be interviewing the celebrated French actress Isabelle Huppert on stage next week. He plans to ask her whether there is any difference between being directed by a man and being directed by a woman – being directed by Paul Verhoeven, for example, in the erotic thriller Elle, or by Mia Hansen-Love in the mid-life drama Things to Come, two of the three films at this year's TIFF in which Huppert plays the lead.

He expects that she will say no. In the director's chair, women do the same work as men.

And yet, Elle and Things to Come seem like a contrasting pair, each reflecting an approach to cinema that might seem almost stereotypically male or female. Elle is a violent, plot-driven piece that is sure to prove controversial as Huppert's character enters into sexual game-playing with a rapist. In the exquisitely sensitive Things to Come, the woman she plays is busy shedding men and responsibilities to find a certain freedom in late middle age.

Whether they are making Hollywood blockbusters or delicate art films, the vast majority of directors are men. As the international industry finally begins to wrestle with its appalling record on employment equity, belatedly seeking ways to put more women in charge, it is also worth considering what difference that might make to what audiences see on the screen. How can equity be achieved and what might it bring?

Gender equity is the largest issue hovering over this year's TIFF, which opens Thursday. Handling can boast that almost 30 per cent of this year's films were directed by women – if you include all the short films – and Telefilm Canada, the federal investment agency, is expected to make a major announcement on this file timed to the festival. Funders, producers, programmers and film directors themselves all say women can lead films as well as men. Yet, they also say the reason the world needs more films by women is because it needs diversity of voice. Achieving equity may prove a balancing act, insisting on equality yet making room for difference.

"Public shaming is in order but it can't come from us," says the Canadian director Bronwen Hughes, whose film The Journey is the Destination is one of seven female-directed films amongst the 20 gala presentations at TIFF. "You can't make a film with a chip on your shoulder. … I am glad this [change] is happening but there is no such category as female films, any more than there is male films. I'm wary of this division: 'You are that kind of thing.' No, I am my own thing."

For all the supposed liberalism of the cultural community, it would be hard to find a more gendered workplace than a film set, unless you went climbing up oil rigs or down coal mines. Women are largely employed in traditionally female areas such as makeup, costuming and administration while men work in the creative and technical roles that offer more opportunity to advance: the cameraman or the screenwriter who eventually becomes a director.

This is just one of the reasons there are so few female directors, says Amanda Coles, a Canadian professor of arts management at the University of Melbourne who has just released a new report on the same problem in TV production for a coalition of Canadian industry groups.

Another is good old-fashioned sexism about what leadership looks like.

"The role of the director in my study was described as sitting at the top of a 'military command chain,' and as a 'captain of a ship in a stormy sea.' Male and female directors consistently reported that the attributes considered assets for male directors were seen as shortcomings for female directors," Coles said in an e-mail exchange.

"It's a guy's business and it has been for decades," agrees Handling. "There's a distrust in investing money in films that women are directing, either because of the subject matter or their leadership when it comes to making hard decisions – all the clichés."

The results are stark: The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University reports that women directed only 9 per cent of Hollywood's 250 top-grossing films in 2015. In Canada, privacy rules prevent Telefilm bureaucrats from gathering statistics about gender or ethnicity, but others have done it for them. Women in View, an organization dedicated to gender parity in the audiovisual industries, calculated that, of the 91 feature-length films in which Telefilm invested in 2013-14, only 17 were directed by women. If the investment was more than $1-million, the number of female directors dropped to 4 per cent.

Coles also sites a five-year study by the U.S. industry financing group Slated that found films written, produced or performed by women actually offered a better return on investment than ones by men, but that films directed by women performed less well at the box office – because they were shown on fewer cinema screens. She argues women directors are thus trapped in a self-perpetuating marginalized position that only the industry itself can change.

This will be a hard fight in Hollywood. The studios are hierarchical commercial businesses loath to depart from comfortable formulas and established – that is, white male – professional networks. But in countries such as Canada, where the most significant investor in any film is the taxpayer, it represents an opportunity for public agencies to lead the way. The Swedish Film Institute, for example, has achieved gender parity in the projects it funds in the space of three years by pairing producers looking for directors with women and identifying women ready for a second or third project.

"It's an easier fix in a way [than Hollywood]," says Naomi Jaye, a Toronto director and the activist who has been pushing Telefilm the hardest on the issue. "This is taxpayers' money. It must represent Canada and that includes visible minorities, First Nations and women."

Jaye likes to say that if you are a woman of colour you have more chance of getting impaled by a unicorn than getting money from Telefilm, but that's not entirely fair. The problem is systemic and the bias is not at the agency, argues Telefilm's chief executive officer, Carolle Brabant.

Telefilm funds about a third of the applications it receives, offering an investment that is repaid if the film makes money, but Brabant says her staff has found Telefilm's internal decisions are slightly biased in favour of female applicants. It's the pool of applications that is heavily weighted towards men.

To fix this, Telefilm has been working with other partners – the provincial investment bodies and producers – because, as Brabant notes, the federal agency covers only a third of the budget of a film. "If we just say we are now going to be allocating 50 per cent of funding to projects by women and 4 per cent to indigenous projects, and if they can't find the other 65 per cent [of their budget], we are going to wind up with projects that don't get to our screens."

As TIFF gets under way and international attention is focused on Toronto, Brabant will be participating in a Sept. 10 panel on the issue with Anna Serner, the head of the pioneering Swedish Film Institute, and is also expected to announce about how exactly Canada is going to follow suit.

"Our portfolio of audio-visual content does not represent Canada's diversity," she says. "It's a big value of our country and we need to harness that."

That's another reason independent national cinemas are going to lead the way. The Hollywood studios have largely abandoned smaller films to concentrate on franchises often built around men in action – the so-called tentpoles that no longer hold up anything but themselves – so they don't look well placed to start sharing diverse visions. On the other hand, the small national film industries are in a better position to directly profit from a wider variety of styles and ideas.

"Canada will only win as a smaller film economy through the uniqueness of its voice," says Tim Southam, national president of the Directors Guild of Canada, which helped commission Coles's research. "Diversity is a critical element of that."

As the equity issue looms, it is tempting to read that diversity into the choices made by TIFF's programmers, to identify approaches to movie-making that are unusual because they are female – or at least unusual and female. A film such as Toni Erdmann, one of a mere three female-directed movies amongst the 21 in competition at Cannes last May, is a clear rebuff to Hollywood's brisk pacing and clear resolutions. A comedy about a young German businesswoman acutely embarrassed by a surprise visit by her prank-playing father, Maran Ade's film reproduces the character's discomfort in the audience itself by extending each scene longer than necessary. Similarly, the whimsy and lyricism applied to animation in Ann Marie Fleming's Window Horses, about a writer visiting a poetry festival in Iran, or the unresolved stories favoured by the American director Kelly Reichardt in Certain Women help broaden the reach of both the festival and the form.

As the independent film industry expands to finally include more women, what will cinema look like when half the auteurs are auteures?