Every year, the Toronto International Film Festival welcomes planeloads of stars, actors and directors famous for their camera-friendly looks, stirring performances and bold cinematic visions. But there's only one dazzling TIFF celeb who is a government bureaucrat: Anna Serner, the head of the Swedish Film Institute, a public-funding agency that set itself the goal of gender parity in 2011 and achieved it in the space of three years.
To women in an international industry with a depressing record on job equity in the key creative roles, the sunny but no-nonsense Serner is a guru delivering a message of cheerful determination. To hear her tell the story, at a recent TIFF industry panel about how to get more women working as film directors, all it takes is willpower to overcome systemic discrimination and unconscious bias. The Swedish numbers now vary from year to year, but in the best years, half of publicly funded film projects are lead by women, not because the institute set quotas but because it insisted that the individual commissioners who decide on funding become aware of the issue.
Serner's conviction that this can be achieved if you simply roll up your sleeves and get on with it is in stark contrast to the abstract promises offered by her colleague and fellow panelist, Carolle Brabant, executive director at Telefilm Canada, where caution seems to be the watchword. After months of pressure from activists on this issue, Telefilm made a disappointingly vague announcement at the start of the festival: It has now set itself a goal to build a portfolio that better reflects Canadian diversity by 2020. Good intentions, but the announcement gave no indication of how it might ensure that more films written and directed by women, visible minorities and First Nations get a public investment nor how it would measure success.
Telefilm currently has no numbers on its performance in these categories because government-privacy regulations prevent it from asking applicants to state their gender or ethnicity and, Brabant told the crowd, currently less than half of applicants voluntarily reveal the information.
Still, as another panelist pointed out, film directors are not anonymous people. Numbers compiled by the industry organization Women in View show that in 2013-14, about 20 per cent of Telefilm-funded projects were directed by women and they were heavily concentrated in smaller-budget films. Only 4 per cent of projects with a public investment over $1-million were led by women.
So far, Telefilm has partnered up with the Canadian Media Producers Association and its Quebec equivalent – after all, these organizations represent the people who actually hire directors – and is launching a working group that will start meeting next month. It's a slow approach that lacks a clear goal and clear timeline, but Brabant had no more details to offer an anticipatory crowd.
Fellow panelist Stephen Follows, who said he was honoured to play the role of "token man," at the event, politely asked if there was a deadline for achieving parity, but to no avail. Follows, a film director and industry analyst who has exposed the same problem in the British film industry, also had some cautionary advice.
First, he said that his research conducted between 2004-15 found the British film industry acted as a funnel that gradually reduced the number of female directors as it moved from film schools, where half the students were women, to small-budget projects, where women make up a quarter of the directors, to big-budget projects where the number falls as low as 4 per cent. His point is that the problem is institutionalized: There is no point looking for individual villains to punish, he said.
Second, his research for the industry group Directors UK found no improvement in the number of female directors in the decade it tracked, so he concluded this is not a problem that is going to slowly fix itself. Deliberate action will be required. Follows argued that producers must be given no choice but to improve their track record on hiring women directors rather than falling back on old patterns.
And finally, he warned against the dangers of what he called the self-congratulatory model. He noted that in Britain during a period where lip service to equity had increased, the number of female directors getting their projects publicly funded had actually dropped.
"If you talk about the problem, that's good," he said. "But if you talk about solutions that don't actually create change, it's worse than doing nothing because people don't think … they are sexist, they don't think they are causing these problems and when … someone else says 'I've got it; it's in hand; we are dealing with it,' they relax and they don't do anything."
"We should care only about end results," he concluded, "not about people's intentions."
So, Telefilm's good intentions count for little. Results starting in 2017 are the only way anyone will be able to judge whether the agency has an effective plan for righting a serious inequity in the way Canadian filmmakers are funded. In Canada, the dangers of self-congratulation seem very remote indeed.