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TIFF 2018: One to watch – the dynamite Jasmin Mozaffari and her feature debut Firecrackers

Firecrackers, a bold and incendiary feature debut that echoes – but never imitates – the fearless work of Andrea Arnold and Ashley McKenzie.

Courtesy of TIFF

On Sept. 8, right in the middle of the Toronto International Film Festival’s frantic and carefully watched opening weekend, TIFF will hold its first-ever Share Her Journey Rally on King Street West – a moment for “all who want to see and be part of real change in the film industry.”

The landmark event is just one way in which TIFF is ensuring its 43rd edition is as #MeToo- and #TimesUp-focused as possible. There will be an industry panel on ensuring diverse on-screen representation, another on how to build diverse crews. Industry attendees will be signing codes of conduct. And there will be a TIFF Tribute Gala, honouring outgoing chief executive Piers Handling, but with all proceeds going to the Share Her Journey campaign, which “directly impacts women in film.”

The real test of TIFF’s commitment to feminism and film, though, will be right up there on its screens. And if the festival, and the industry at large, is serious about advancing the antiquated landscape, all eyes should be fixed on Jasmin Mozaffari – and what she does next.

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The 30-year-old Canadian filmmaker arrives at TIFF with the world premiere of Firecrackers, a bold and incendiary feature debut that echoes – but never imitates – the fearless work of Andrea Arnold and Ashley McKenzie. Following the young, desperate best friends Lou (Michaela Kurimsky) and Chantal (Karena Evans) as they attempt to escape their small unnamed Ontario town, the film simmers with the rage of marginalization and is made with an almost preternatural confidence.

"You don't get a first feature at this level, with this kind of eye for detail, for getting a shot," says Steve Gravestock, TIFF's Canadian-film programmer. "You feel you're in good hands from the very outset."

By the time the drama reaches its explosive climax – a tense scene that indicts the patriarchal society entrapping Lou and Chantal – Mozaffari doesn’t merely announce herself as a vital new voice for Canadian cinema. She shouts it from the rooftop, daring gatekeepers to put their money where their newly woke mouths are.

“I think the landscape is getting better, but even women who are directors and writers, we’ve internalized all the misrepresentations about ourselves,” Mozaffari says, sitting in a downtown Toronto café a few weeks before TIFF. “I have to check myself constantly that I’m not regurgitating things that men have written and put out into the world – that I’m checking my own internal misogyny. It can get better, though, and people can still push the boundaries.”

Firecrackers certainly pushes and shoves its way across the screen. Mozaffari’s heroes are raw and unapologetic in both their coarseness and ambitions – they are as furious as they are insatiable. Lou, introduced in the film’s opening minutes nearly beating another girl to pulp, is almost a foreign presence on-screen: Rarely have filmmakers focused on such complex female leads, with nary a sympathetic boyfriend or just-in-time white knight in sight.

“It’s challenging and it’s exhausting,” Mozaffari says of crafting the roles, and of the cathartic act of shepherding them from page to screen. “A common thing in films about teenage girls is that they’re delicate, they don’t often speak their feelings. Those aren’t the girls I’ve known. I wanted this film to pose the question: What is it like to be free as a woman? Is it just playing the game and navigating the patriarchal landscape or is [it] challenging it constantly?”

Mozaffari has been wrestling with that dichotomy for years, even before she left York University to attend Ryerson’s film school (“It wasn’t until I was 21 when I asked myself, ‘Why am I studying films instead of making them?’”). Growing up in Barrie, Ont., she didn’t feel quite as stifled as Lou or Chantal, but “always knew I was going to leave.” Being the child of an Iranian immigrant father, who came to Canada “with nothing” only to become a doctor, it felt as if success was the only option.

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“He’s passed on, but he instilled in me that whatever I do, do it 100 per cent, which is a blessing and a curse,” Mozaffari says. “But that’s how I knew I had stories to tell as a woman that none of my male peers could tell.”

While at Ryerson, she partnered with producer Caitlin Grabham to turn Firecrackers into the pair’s thesis film, which would go on to screen at TIFF in the 2013 Short Cuts program. But playing the festival was no guarantee of future success, and the pair struggled to raise funds to match even their micro-budget vision for a feature-length Firecrackers.

“It was difficult, and we were stretched because of the fact that we wanted to shoot at many different locations, not just one room,” Mozaffari says, noting that the film ended up receiving $127,000 from Telefilm’s micro-budget program (now expanded and rebranded as Talent to Watch) and an extra $123,000 secured thanks to the work of their executive producing team, including industry veteran Paul Barkin. “But it was still a stretch. Myself, Caitlin and [fellow producer Kristy Neville] had to sacrifice a lot. None of us is making money from this, and it is just doing every job yourself.”

By wearing so many hats, though, Mozaffari was able to ensure she surrounded herself with a team – producers Grabham and Neville, plus cinematographer Catherine Lutes, production designer Thea Hollatz, editor Simone Smith, costume designer Mara Zigler – that made Firecrackers as female-driven a production as possible.

“The fact that it was made by a multitude of talented female storytellers says, ‘We’re here, we should be heard and seen,’” says Evans, who, in addition to playing Chantal, is Drake’s music-video director of choice (Nice for What, God’s Plan, and the Degrassi-uniting I’m Upset). “You can see the difference Jasmin’s female gaze makes through and through on this film.”

Adds Kurimsky, who acted for the first time on screen in Firecrackers, “You can tell the entire team made it for the love of it. It wasn’t about business. From the production design to Jasmin’s directing, everyone was there to get this vision made.”

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It is an open question, though, as to where Mozaffari will go from here. The director is hopeful that a TIFF world premiere will lead to further opportunities, but she’s also experienced enough to know that’s not always the case. She’s currently working administrative jobs part-time, hoping to pick up work as a commercial director. And in the days leading up to TIFF, there’s still a significant concern of how she’ll support herself while making the festival’s promotional rounds.

"I'm working, but I'm not making money," she says. "The sacrifices you make can be ridiculous."

Yet Mozaffari considers herself one of the extraordinarily lucky ones.

“I have support systems in place in terms of my family, my partner – what about artists who don’t, but who still have stories to tell?” she says. “I would love it if Telefilm could find a way to support women from an early age. It’s not as easy as picking up your cellphone and shooting anything – it’s about very practical economic things that prevent us from being artists.”

And there is the question of whether one micro-budget feature should lead to another – how, exactly, emerging talent can reach that next level, where ambitious visions meet the commensurate resources.

“We’re trying to keep our expectations in check,” Mozaffari says. “The next feature doesn’t have to be big, but it would be nice not to be squeezed financially, and incorporate elements like a known cast. But I might have something different to say in the next few months. I’m about to go through something, so we can only wait and see.”

Firecrackers screens at TIFF on Sept. 8, 6:45 p.m., Scotiabank, and Sept. 10, 4:30 p.m., Scotiabank (tiff.net)

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