The Toronto International Film Festival used to be known as the Festival of Festivals. It’s a name that still describes it; there are so many disparate tracks within TIFF that 10 attendees could spend the event’s 10 days seeing completely different fare.
Most visible are the star-powered vehicles. This year’s event kicks off with Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce in Outlaw King, and includes such acting dream teams as Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem in Everybody Knows, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born, and Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy in the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man.
But look past that glare and a whole host of alternate festivals come into focus. If you want to see what female directors are doing, TIFF’s one-third representation delivers. There are big names such as Nicole Holofcener (The Land of Steady Habits), Patricia Rozema (Mouthpiece), Sam Taylor-Johnson (A Million Little Pieces) and Jennifer Baichwal (Anthopocene: The Human Epoch).
But there are also lesser-known women breaking ground in unexpected genres. Take French director Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun, the true story of an all-female battalion fighting ISIS in Iraq. Or two gritty police procedurals: Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, starring Nicole Kidman; and Carol Morley’s Out of Blue, with Patricia Clarkson.
Then there’s the trend of female-helmed science-fiction at TIFF this year. Endzeit — literally Last Days, though the English title is Ever After — is a German zombie movie written by Olivia Vieweg, directed by Carolina Hellsgård, and featuring two strong female leads. ANIARA, co-directed by Swedish filmmakers Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, tells the story of a passenger liner to Mars that goes off course. And Claire Denis steps into sci-fi waters with High Life, a space adventure starring Robert Pattinson.
Two documentaries look at women behind the camera as well. Tom Donahue’s This Changes Everything explores the #TimesUp movement, while Mark Cousins follows up his 15-hour epic The Story of Film with the first four hours of Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema.
And you could stock an entire festival with the documentaries in play this year in Toronto. There’s American Dharma, Errol Morris’s one-on-one with Trump advisor Steven Bannon; Divide and Conquer, about Fox News mogul Roger Ailes; Meeting Gorbachev, in which Werner Herzog sits down with the former Soviet leader; Putin’s Witnesses, about the Russian president’s rise to power; and Fahrenheit 11/9, Michael Moore’s examination of how the U.S. president got into office. And those are just the political docs!
In fact, it’s almost impossible to see a screening at TIFF without noticing that it’s part of a trend. Indigenous films? First Nations actress Tanaya Beatty stars in Through Black Spruce from director Don McKellar; it’s the story of a woman from Moosonee looking for her missing sister in Toronto.
Tantoo Cardinal appears in that film but also stars in Falls Around Her, a drama about a famous Anishinaabe singer who returns to the reservation. The Grizzlies, a first feature by Miranda de Pencier, is based on the true story of an Inuit lacrosse team. And Edge of the Knife, from First Nations directors Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown, is a story told entirely in the Haida language of the Pacific Northwest. There’s also a retrospective screening of Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner.
And don’t believe the periodic death knell that sounds for the western. This year’s festival includes The Sisters Brothers, based on the novel by Patrick deWitt and starring Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly and Jake Gyllenhaal. From Denmark, Michael Noer’s Before the Frost is a kind of Norse-western. And Emma Tammi’s The Wind, playing in the Midnight Madness section of the fest, combines images of the western and horror.
But the amazing thing about the Toronto festival is that you could skip all those trends and still find something of interest, be it the gala world premiere of Bollywood rom-com Husband Material; a documentary about an all-female crew sailing around the world in 1989 (Maiden); or the latest from Shane Black, whose first credited role was as the victim of an alien killer in 1987’s Predator, and now returns the favour as writer/director of The Predator. Even when the films defy easy categorization, they’re out there in the dark, waiting.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from Sept. 6 to Sept. 16. More information at tiff.net.