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TIFF 2018: With films from around the world, this is what true diversity looks like

They say that when the future arrives it comes slowly at first – and then suddenly very fast. Maybe we have finally reached the very fast stage of change in the entertainment business when media industries recognize they must reflect the racial diversity and gender balance of the world around them.

Certainly, a sense of rapid change has hung in the air as the Toronto International Film Festival unspools. Just as the festival started last week, Warner Bros. announced a new initiative that would make special efforts to include people of colour and women in the creation of its films and TV shows and, without setting any specific targets, report on progress. In countries such as Sweden, Australia and Canada, where public funding is key to the national television and film industries, diversity initiatives are well under way. But for a Hollywood studio to encourage public scrutiny of its record on diversity is a major breakthrough.

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 08: Cathy Schulman attends the Share Her Journey Rally during 2018 Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

Emma McIntyre

At a women’s rally at TIFF on the weekend, researcher Stacy Smith, a leading American advocate for gender parity in media, praised Warner’s efforts, while Hollywood producer Cathy Schulman, president of the organization Women in Film, talked about ReFrame, a program that gives a stamp to projects with gender-balanced casts and crews. She cited Transparent, Orange Is the New Black, Scandal, The Shape of Water, Ladybird and The Post in a long list of recent television shows and films that met the standard.

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Read more: The Globe’s guide to TIFF 2018 movies

And yet, there was an elephant walking up and down John Street, where the rally was held. In truth, there is always this elephant when the Hollywood circus comes to town. All of the shows and films Schulman mentioned are American; Schulman spoke, as Americans appearing at TIFF often do, as though she had never crossed a border to get here. What about including Canadians – or Swedes, Australians, Iranians or Mexicans – in the on-screen conversation?

In the midst of #MeToo, #TimesUp and the various worthy efforts that have ensued to make not only women but also people of colour more visible both on screen and behind the camera, there is a significant question that has simply not been addressed: After honouring gender balance and racial diversity, will Hollywood be forced to reckon with cultural diversity too?

The term can have several meanings, but one is the idea that all places have a right to tell their stories – and that right is effectively squelched by global entertainment behemoths. In film, the Canadian example is always close at hand: More than 95 per cent of the money Canadians spend at the box office goes to American movies. The federal funding agency Telefilm Canada argues that box office should not be the only measure of success for Canadian film, but it remains a rough indicator of the way stories that originate in Hollywood completely dominate here.

Hollywood is the world’s storyteller and it’s not merely that its stories tend to feature white men as their protagonists, it’s also that most of those protagonists are American and most of the stories are set in the United States. There are only a few other cultures that glorify in globally powerful entertainment machines: India has Bollywood; East Asia has the Chinese-language and Korean film industries; Latin America has the Brazilian telenovela business. And there are countries such as Iran that rejoice in a strong national cinema despite filmmakers' struggles with censorship but where access to Western film is strictly controlled. Yet, most countries – if they produce any films at all – can only support small national industries that depend on public funding to survive. It’s not only that telling Canadian stories isn’t big business; telling German or South African stories isn’t big business either. TIFF represents an opportunity to catch up with Scandinavian, German, French and Latin American film, but the citizens from those places see more Hollywood product than their own. That’s why the European Union is imposing a 30-per-cent European-content quota on Netflix and Amazon’s streaming services.

Hollywood’s dominance may work just fine if all people want to see are big action movies where white men race around in cars and blow things up, but if the world starts to question why women are represented as though they were a minority and why people of colour never have central roles, why not question why so many of these movies are set exclusively in the United States?

Crazy Rich Asians, set in Singapore, was heralded recently as a remarkable breakthrough, the first all-Asian Hollywood film since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. Of course, Singapore (which has a tiny industry of its own) might wish to export more of its stories to the global market, while Asian-Americans might wish there was a Joy Luck Club more than once every two decades. Diversity may be achieved by inviting Hollywood to collaborate in telling other cultures’ stories, but more likely it will require recognition that a cultural exchange isn’t a one-way street.

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Every year, TIFF provides a sneak peek at some big Hollywood titles that will be playing in the multiplexes before Christmas, but the festival’s rarer offering is the vast program of films from around the world. That’s what diversity really looks like.

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