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At Toronto’s Hot Docs festival, a distinctly female gaze

Canadian Maya Gallus, whose The Heat: A Kitchen (R)evolution (pictured) opens this year’s Hot Docs festival, says of documentary filmmaking: ‘The budget is lower, more manageable. Smaller crews are required; it’s more portable.’

It’s hard for a woman to ride a bike in Afghanistan. It’s hard for a woman to run a three-star restaurant in France. And it’s hard for a woman to win political office in the United States. Inequality, prejudice and harassment hamper them all. It is becoming easier, however, for women to make documentaries telling you that.

As the 25th annual Hot Docs festival launches Thursday, it can boast that it has achieved gender equity: half of the films in the 242-film program were directed by women. Men occupy a large majority of the key creative roles in both Hollywood and in Canada’s much smaller film industry, but the ease with which Hot Docs has achieved a better balance – last year, 48 per cent of the films in the festival were made by women – is not entirely surprising: Documentary is a more welcoming arena than feature film, and both men and women are pouring into it.

“We are in a bit of a golden age for documentary; there are so many platforms, so many people watching documentaries, and funding documentaries, seeing commercial opportunities in them,” said Shane Smith, director of programming for the festival. As his programming team seeks out diversity of cultural backgrounds, a variety of viewpoints and a balance of genders amongst filmmakers, it has found no shortage of material. This year, the programmers screened about 3,000 films – they are selecting less than 10 per cent of what is submitted.

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“There was so much strong work from male and female filmmakers. We always have to turn down work we like. If the work didn’t justify it, we weren’t going to do it,” Smith said, adding gender equity “wasn’t a big leap or a big stretch.”

Partly, this is because funding organizations have become aware of the issue and are making commitments to gender equity: Half of the directors making work for the National Film Board of Canada in 2017 to 2018 are women, while Telefilm, the federal film-funding agency, has also achieved balance in its under-$2.5-million category (where docs would fall).

Gallus’s culinary film seems a particularly apt way to launch a festival in which half of the directors are women.

Also, Smith speculates, it is because women are well-represented amongst the programmers and funding executives who decide what gets money and what gets shown: Two-thirds of his programming team is female and the festival’s Doc Mogul Award winner this year is Cara Mertes, who heads film funding for the Ford Foundation in the United States and has worked previously programming docs at both PBS and the Sundance Festival.

But mainly, women are making documentaries because the barrier to entry is lower than in feature filmmaking, so it is easier for them to break in.

“Non-fiction is not where money or power lies traditionally,” Mertes said in an e-mail exchange with the Globe. Documentary as a practice is notoriously unprofitable, relies heavily on government and foundation funding where available, has fractured distribution systems and comparatively few marketing dollars. … The numbers of female non-fiction makers remain significantly higher than female fiction makers, and they represent the highest levels of the craft.”

That matches the observations of Canadian filmmaker Maya Gallus, whose documentary The Heat: A Kitchen (R)evolution, opens the festival: “The budget is lower, more manageable. Smaller crews are required; it’s more portable.”

She also suggests that more women may enter the field because it offers saner hours for anybody who is trying to raise a family while working in film. “There is that parallel to the culinary industry: women running smaller restaurants are sometimes doing that by choice. They are seeking work-life balance.”

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The Heat looks at how several high-profile women are faring in the traditionally male role of chef.

Gallus’s culinary film, which follows several female chefs as they rise in the male-dominated restaurant business, seems a particularly apt way to launch a festival in which half of the directors are women – and for which the audience, by the way, can be expected to be two-thirds female.

A tempting entry in the always-popular category of docs about food and restaurants, The Heat looks at how several high-profile women are faring in the traditionally male role of chef, and includes revealing interviews with Anne-Sophie Pic, the only woman to run a three-Michelin-star restaurant in France, and Angela Hartnett, a protégé of Gordon Ramsay, who runs the high-end Murano in London, as well as chefs in Toronto and New York.

The 2018 festival lineup also includes a retrospective of the work of Barbara Kopple, the American documentarian whose 1976 documentary about a coal miners’ strike, Harlan County, U.S.A., is considered a classic of the genre.

Otherwise, the festival is its usual smorgasbord of offerings, political and personal, timely and timeless, made by both men and women – with one important addition: a program entitled Silence Breakers that gathers together films about women challenging discrimination or abuse.

That is where you’ll find Afghan Cycles, about the young women braving disapproval and harassment – and potentially risking their own security – to join Afghanistan’s small but determined national women’s cycling team. It also includes Time for Ilhan, a documentary about the election campaign of Ilhan Omar, a Muslim woman who conquered Islamophobia to win a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives, becoming the highest-level Somali-American public official. Another particularly topical entry in the program is Netizens, about three American women battling online harassment of such shocking proportions it threatens their livelihoods, their freedom of movement and their physical safety.

The Heat is a tempting entry in the always-popular category of docs about food and restaurants.

A selection like this, full of stories of female empowerment, might seem the obvious outcome of gender equity at the festival, but filmmakers and programmers can’t really say how the documentary realm is changed by the presence of more female filmmakers. Perhaps there is a particular emphasis on personal or intimate stories, following the old feminist truism that the personal is political – but Smith points out strong documentary film is often produced by a personal connection to the subject, whoever the filmmaker is.

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Perhaps there will simply be a wider variety of stories.

“What is so magical about film is that we are looking to see ourselves reflected on screen and the greater diversity of stories that are being reflected the more people will be able to see themselves instead of this limited versions of what narrative is supposed to be,” Gallus said. “I want everyone to see this is what is possible in terms of women’s lives, not just the wife, the mother, the girlfriend, the silent sister, supporting the strong male narratives.”

If there is some more specific style, some particularly female way of making films that emerges, you’ll have to wait to find out. “Ask me after the festival,” Smith says .

Gallus, meanwhile, may provide her answer when her next doc appears. It considers women on both sides of the camera and is titled A Female Gaze.

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