When I'm watching a movie, I've learned to trust what my body tells me. This summer, as I slumped in theatre after theatre watching men in superhero costumes raze cities and punch each other silly, what my body told me was this: I was bored. It was all loud and repetitive and wasteful, and I couldn't care less.
In the past two weeks, however, as I've been screening films from the Toronto International Film Festival, my body has woken up again. I've been sitting up straight, sick with tension; I've been laughing or murmuring "no, no, no" to the screen. I've been holding my breath, sighing with relief, squirming in discomfort. And while I haven't seen a single bullet or cape, I have been watching something I've hardly glimpsed on screen in the past four months: women. Not on the fringes of the stories, either – in the central roles. I have been watching compelling women characters kick emotional ass.
There's this misapprehension that what is suspenseful in a movie must involve physical danger, and that so-called women's stories – i.e., any story with a female protagonist that does not generally feature explosions – are inherently "small" and therefore not dramatic. Ridiculous. I defy you to find anything more dramatic than this: A young woman in 1950s Ireland gets pregnant out of wedlock. She gives birth in a convent, where the nuns force her into indentured servitude for four years, and into giving up her son against her will. Fifty years later, with the help of a journalist, she attempts to track down her boy. Along the way, she feels crushing grief, has a crisis of faith, and uncovers nasty secrets about the Roman Catholic Church. And it's based on a true story.
The movie is Philomena, it stars Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, it's directed by Stephen Frears, and it gave me more heart-in-mouth drama, and made me feel more, than this entire summer's blockbuster lineup combined. Reviews out of the Venice Film Festival call it "a triumph."
And how's this for action/adventure? Australia, 1977, also based on a true story: A young woman who's happiest when she's alone decides to train three wild camels, and then take them, by herself, on a 2,700-kilometre trek across the desert. She puts herself repeatedly in harm's way, experiences joy, sorrow and lust, and becomes a quiet hero to thousands of people who later read her book about the experience. The movie is Tracks, it stars Mia Wasikowska, and it will challenge you to think about the meaning of a life far more than any maniac with his hand on a detonator or cop with an axe to grind can.
I've seen The F Word, about a young animator (Zoe Kazan) wrestling with the painful realization that she loves two men at the same time; Stay, about the dilemma faced by a pregnant woman (Taylor Schilling) whose lover (Aidan Quinn) doesn't want children; The Past, about a mother (Bérénice Bejo) caught in an impasse when her new boyfriend and her teenage daughter don't get along; and The Face of Love, about a widow (Annette Bening) unhinged by grief long after she thought the worst had passed.
I'm eager to see White Lies, about the culture clash among three women in a small New Zealand town in the early 20th century; Hateship Loveship, about an unassuming woman (Kristen Wiig) who seizes an opportunity for fulfilment; Enough Said, in which a massage therapist (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gets caught between a bitterly divorced couple; Around the Block, about a teacher (Christina Ricci) trying to pull one of her students away from a life of crime; and Gloria, about a fiftysomething woman (Paulina Garcia, who won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for this performance) trying to figure out if a relationship, with all its compromises, is worth shaking up her happy life for.
All those films I mentioned are stuffed with the kind of drama that means something to me: They show me how other people experience being alive; how humans deal with the everyday dramas – made more meaningful by their ordinariness – of love, loneliness, rejection, second chances, friendship, heartache, happiness and loss. Shootouts and CGI fistfights are a walk in the park by comparison.
It irks me that it's become acceptable to deem films whose currency is emotion "female," and to marginalize or dismiss them as lesser because of that. Of course men care about emotions, too; of course they sometimes want something more from a film than special effects and gun-play escapism. But there remains a stubborn perception in the structured Hollywood of studios and big production companies that these films don't burn up the box office, so they're not worth investing in – not to make, and certainly not to market.
It doesn't help that many, though by no means all, of these films are directed by women, and that women directors in 2013 are still in a ridiculous minority, as are women studio execs with the power to green-light projects. There are 366 entries (features and shorts) at this year's TIFF; only 68 were directed by women. That's less than 20 per cent. Last time I checked, women still made up half the world's population.
"The root of the issue, in North America at least, is that women don't control the money," says Jane Schoettle, who programs U.S. indies for TIFF, as well as Australian, New Zealand and Israeli films. "There's a lack of confidence – which is completely sexist – about the ability of women to deliver bigger-budget pictures. A studio will bet $30-million on a guy. They won't do that with a woman."
Christopher Nolan, for example, went from an indie such as Memento to being at the helm of the Batman franchise in two films; Jon Favreau moved up from Made to Elf to Iron Man. Those offers don't bounce the same way to women directors. So when a woman can't get financing for a $50-million film, she makes a (harder to market, distribute and see) $5-million one. Emotions are the special effects that she can afford, and the cycle perpetuates.
I've written about these disparities before, and it distresses me to still be doing so. I thought things would have changed more over the course of my lifetime. But I am encouraged by the films selected by TIFF's Next Wave Committee, a dozen young film buffs ranging in age from 15 to 18. Of the 10 TIFF pictures that they've deemed especially interesting and relevant to them, 4.5 were directed by women (the half is a male/female team), many have strong female protagonists, and all of them are about big emotions. Unabashedly, unapologetically and unmarginalized-edly so. It's almost enough to make one cry.