Back in September, fresh from a trip to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), I set out to write a Bento post about the long-overdue reckoning major film festivals seemed to be having with their gender equality problem. At Cannes in May 2017, Sofia Coppola had won the best director award, prompting many to wonder why she was the first woman in the festival’s seven-decade history to do so. Also at Cannes, jury member Jessica Chastain publicly called out the “quite disturbing” treatment of female characters in all twenty-one of the films she had to judge for the competition. And just before TIFF began, Venice Film Festival director Alberto Barbera gave a controversial response, seen by many as dismissive and insulting, to the outcry over the fact that only one female director was represented by the twenty-one films in his festival’s competition section.
TIFF’s organizers didn’t directly address these controversies. They just quietly, without fanfare, included a whole lot of really good films directed by women, refuting in deed rather than word the ingrained biases clearly on show in Cannes and Venice. Whether these films were programmed intentionally in reaction to those controversies is an open question: TIFF’s organizers are both modest and committed to diversity in a very non-flashy way.
For a number of reasons, that post never made it to Bento. And little did I know then that the Harvey Weinstein accusations were just around the corner, making these controversies look like the first bubbles rising to the surface of the pot that would boil over into the #MeToo movement.
But I didn’t forget about the films I saw at TIFF. I included one of them, Sadaf Foroughi’s AVA, in our Iranian Film Festival in January. Two others, Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White (the sole woman-directed film in Venice’s competition) and Mouly Surya’s Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, will play here in March as part of a small series programmed in honor of Women’s History Month. Titled Women at the Helm, the series is rounded out by Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time it Gets Dark (which made Film Comment’s best of 2017 list) and Kyoko Miyake’s disturbing documentary about teen pop stars, Tokyo Idols.
It wasn’t originally my intention to present these films together. The idea emerged out of conversations with KimStim Films, the small company that distributes them in the United States, which I contacted to book a screening of Marlina. A feminist Western whose titular heroine kills her rapist and travels through the Indonesian countryside carrying his head in a bag, Marlina is an almost too-perfect metaphor for this particular cultural moment. It’s perhaps no coincidence that, since its premiere in Cannes last May, it has been playing nonstop at film festivals and movie theaters in every corner of the globe. When KimStim offered the other three films as well, Women’s History Month became an excuse to show four powerful movies by four talented Asian filmmakers who happen to be women.