Because it’s 2016: the Canadian film industry’s gender gap

Globally, women are making big strides in the movie industry. But in Canada, we're lagging way behind. We talked to a group of fierce, frustrated filmmakers to find out why.



When Canada’s Tatiana Maslany of the hit TV series Orphan Black won the Emmy for lead actress in a drama, she used her acceptance speech to remind the entertainment industry about a glaring problem. 

“I feel so lucky to be on a show that puts women at the centre,” she announced.

Maslany’s moment arrived almost a year after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau implemented gender parity in his cabinet (“Because it’s 2015!”) six months after the National Film Board of Canada announced that 50 per cent of its productions would be by female filmmakers and a week after TIFF hosted a vital Dialogues session called Women At The Helm: “Because it’s 2016!”

The TIFF panel included representatives from other countries who outlined their initiatives for getting more women in the director’s chair and described the very real struggles in getting there.

Sally Caplan, the head of production at Screen Australia, explained the multiple initiatives in place to achieve a 50/50 gender split in the films down under by 2018. The amazing Anna Serner, CEO of the Swedish Film Institute, spelled out how she had already achieved gender parity in her country’s cinema.

Then came Carolle Brabant, the executive director of Telefilm Canada, our primary funding body. Since spring, Telefilm had been hyping a major announcement.

And Brabant delivered it: “Our intention is to have by 2020 a more diverse portfolio in terms of gender, in terms of cultural diversity and in terms of Indigenous representation.”

That’s it. No initiatives. No specific targets. No ideas on how Telefilm plans to improve representation. 

Brabant sounded like that kid in math class who hadn’t done her homework, scrambling for an answer when the teacher called her to break down a linear equation. She latched onto the “50/50 by 2020” movement but left out the essential 50/50 part. Telefilm’s chief representative instead promised a “working group” that will meet this month to discuss how in four years it will achieve some vague sense of improved diversity (from almost none).

“But that doesn’t mean anything,” says Maslany, when I report Telefilm’s some-sort-of-improvement plan to her.

We’re at TIFF days after the panel, and just days before the Emmys. Maslany’s gearing up for the premiere of Two Lovers And A Bear, an Arctic-set drama about a turbulent love affair that opens this weekend. She walked into this interview vibrant and cheery, but her mood gave way to concerned and frustrated. She fought to find words.

“It just baffles me,” she says. “It is really hard for women to get into rooms that men are freely flowing in and out of. There are weird stigmas around female directors, like they don’t have technical savvy. There’s just all this bullshit. It’s like from the fucking 50s.

“This shouldn’t even be a conversation any more,” she adds. “How is there still reticence toward change? We shouldn’t have to get angry because it shouldn’t be happening. I think people are really scared to shift systems. It is such a male system, and it works and makes money.”

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Aisling Chin-Yee, producer


Fear and defensiveness certainly explain why Telefilm and the entire Canadian film industry have avoided this issue for so long. And make no mistake, they have been avoiding it. Brabant’s most tangible notice of improvement from the panel: “We’re not at the point where we’re questioning the issue any more.”

“Well, fucking congratulations,” says Naomi Jaye, a filmmaker and adjunct professor at Ryerson. “I’m so glad you’re not denying it any more.”

Jaye is among several women we talked to who are fed up with Telefilm’s attempts to sidestep the now fever-pitch concern about the industry’s lack of representation. She’s also the activist behind the Telefilm – This is Easy campaign, which started demanding diverse representation last spring in letters to Brabant, Trudeau and several MPs. The campaign has an online petition and sends daily postcards to Trudeau, and its social media pages contain all the information that Brabant acted like she didn’t have access to.

The Telefilm exec was coy with numbers, often citing Canadian privacy laws as the reason why she didn’t have stats on how many female filmmakers the public agency funds.

“If we don’t know what we’re faced with, it’s very hard to act on it,” Brabant told the audience, giving us a great big ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

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Sarah Goodman, director


The thing is, Telefilm publicly stated that it’d been consulting with female filmmakers about the parity issue since last fall. (That’s right, so after a year of consultations, it announced… another consultation.) Those meetings, which began long before Jaye began her campaign, were likely a reaction to the October 2015 report prepared by Women in View’s Rina Fratecelli, the moderator at the TIFF panel. 

Assessing the 2013-2014 fiscal year, Fratecelli found that women directed in 17 per cent of the films supported by Telefilm. Incidentally, the Ontario region has the most abysmal rates for female participation.

Among films that received an investment above $1 million – you know, where people actually make a living – women directed a mere 4 per cent. Getting into the sandbox is hard. Working your way up to the jungle gym is next to impossible. That’s what’s being referred to as the financial cliff.

Those stats shouldn’t come as a surprise to Telefilm, even if the org pretends not to know what it’s faced with. The situation hasn’t changed much since 2010, when consultant Marilyn Burgess prepared a report called Needs Assessment For Gender-Based Impact Analysis Of The Canadian Feature. That investigation into gender statistics was commissioned by the Department of Canadian Heritage and – wait for it – Telefilm Canada.

According to Fratecelli, who started Women in View in 2010 to increase awareness and find solutions to gender imbalances, screen industries around the world were investigating gender issues because progress had stalled almost a decade earlier. That’s why Telefilm commissioned the Burgess report almost seven years ago. And while Sweden got started immediately on its amazing initiatives, guess what progress Canada has to show.

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Mike Watier

Sarah Gadon, actor


Diamonds aren’t a girl’s best friend

I’m looking at the annual Birks Diamond Tribute.

“The fact that Telefilm puts on this Birks Diamonds Celebration of Women makes me want to vomit,” says Jaye. At the yearly ceremony during TIFF, talented Canadian women working in film against all odds receives a Birks diamond, as if they’re here to enjoy the “Marilyn Monroe in pink satin” treatment. 

“They ally diamonds with women. They pull this out of their sleeve like, ‘Look, we’re supporting women,’ when the truth is they’re actually lagging way behind. Four per cent of the funding at their real budget level goes to women. There’s nothing in their daily actions, in the way they run their business and interact with their clientele, that actually shows they appreciate women in the industry.”

Toronto actor Sarah Gadon was an inaugural recipient of the Birks Diamond prize back in 2012. She sees the positive side of the event, which this year recognized talents like Sandra Oh, Christine Horne and Tracey Deer.

“They’ve created this platform and are shining a light on these women,” says Gadon. “Their work is incredible and should be recognized, when not a lot of people are recognizing them, especially in the media.

“It’s an award, and that’s a great thing. It creates an opportunity for reporters to then write about women. But beyond that, we should also be funding their projects, because they are very talented women.”

Gadon, who has acted in several Telefilm-backed movies (Cosmopolis, The F Word, Enemy, Maps To The Stars), recognizes that the public agency needs to be checked. 

“Telefilm in general is having a hard time recognizing young directors and supporting them,” says Gadon. “They need to take a look at how they’re funding. Instead of just giving money to the same people, they should be willing to take a risk on a younger generation that wants to direct films in Canada.”

Gadon is busy shooting Alias Grace, a TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, executive produced and written by Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron. After that, she’ll be working on a Telefilm-backed project directed by Sook Yin-Lee. That’s a strong showing of female creatives, a reminder that our industry does occasionally rally behind such talent.

“It is rare,” says Gadon. “These women are established artists who’ve been working tirelessly for decades. It’s a really positive thing that, when you talk about filmmakers in Canada, people are really interested in what the women coming out of our country, like Sarah Polley, are doing. She’s widely respected and internationally recognized, but she’s one person.”

Polley is one among a few female filmmakers we regularly celebrate, alongside Deepa Mehta and Patricia Rozema. That’s our 4  per cent, and honouring these women makes it easier for everyone to ignore the widening gender gap in Canadian film.

“We’re under this illusion that we’re doing so well, just because we have a history of great female filmmakers,” says director Atom Egoyan. “But when you look at more progressive countries, there’s a lot further to go.”

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Karen Harnisch, producer


Talk is cheap – and dangerous

Another illusion that we buy into is that all this talk about improving gender and diversity will lead to change. Telefilm backs the conversation-starters at Women in View and the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival and promotions like the Birks tribute, but as British filmmaker and analyst Stephen Follows’s groundbreaking research points out, talk isn’t just cheap, it’s dangerous.

“If you talk about solutions that don’t actually create change, it’s worse than doing nothing,” Follows told the TIFF panel. The talk allows the industry at large to assume the problem is being taken care of. They’re like the guy who figures politicians and Leonardo DiCaprio are handling climate change as he hops into his Denali. “They relax and don’t do anything.”

Follows explained how talk without action makes things worse just as Telefilm announced its plan to keep talking. Women have been talking for decades, but white men still dominate the conversation.

“I think it’s being heard and trusted that is the most difficult,” says Maslany, describing her experience as a woman on the set. The Two Lovers And A Bear star has had the opportunity to work with female directors like Helen Shaver (“my mentor and icon”), Kate Melville and Anita Doiron, but recognizes that the system is hard-wired for women directors to fail, and why we rarely see them climb that financial cliff.

“There are extra hoops to jump through,” says Maslany. “A woman being on set, leading a group of mostly men – there can be weird power struggles. I’ve witnessed that first-hand.”

So has Gadon, who’s worked with celebrated men like David Cronenberg, Denis Villeneuve, Michael Dowse, as well as talented women like Amma Assante and Harron.

“If a male director has a unique process or a specific way of working, everybody without question adjusts to his directing style,” says Gadon. “But when a woman has a unique way of working or a distinctive style, people tend to question it more and seem less willing to adapt to it unless they are coerced into that perspective.”

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Laura Nordin, director/producer


Unconscious bias

Every female filmmaker I talked to has some unfortunate version of these stories to share.

Laura Nordin is at TIFF with Cleo, the Canadian Film Centre short she produced. She recalls occasions when a male director of photography or assistant director tried to take over her set, not necessarily intentionally but revealing a certain lack of confidence in her.

“I’ve been in a meeting as a producer,” Nordin recalls. “I throw out an idea, and the ball doesn’t get picked up. A day later a man brings it up verbatim, and everyone is on board. I’m like, ‘Didn’t I just say that yesterday?’ We say something and it’s not taken seriously. Somebody else regurgitates it, and all of a sudden it’s the best idea in the world.”

Black Bold And Beautiful director Nadine Valcin recalls producing a television segment and getting into 30-minute argument with an editor who wouldn’t cut a scene according to her plan. 

“He absolutely refused,” Valcin says. “I had to go get a male administrator to come and say, ‘Do what she tells you to do.’”

Rhymes For Young Ghouls producer Aisling Chin-Yee remembers the condescending way a production manager would call her “boss” whenever she would pull rank during unproductive arguments. She’s a collaborative sort, but she’s not going to let the older white men she hires chafe against her opinion. 

“The ones that have a problem working for me, I’m like, ‘I’m not twisting your arm to work for me and I can fire you, too, so deal with it. If it’s a fucking issue for you, then you’re going to have a problem making films.’”

These are instances where the industry’s dismissal of a woman’s opinion is obvious. But how do women and minorities fight unconscious bias that is far more subtle and pervasive? As Follows reports, most people don’t think of themselves as sexist but are unconsciously guided by biases against women and minorities. 

“It plays into everything from funding decisions to situations at cocktail parties, where the expectation is that you’re a girlfriend instead of a fellow professional,” says Porch Stories director Sarah Goodman. “These things are ingrained in our society, where the people who are assumed to be important or successes are white guys. You see that play out at a micro-level along gender and race lines.”

Karen Harnisch is one of those women who’s constantly dismissed as a girlfriend at cocktail parties and on the festival circuit. Her youth and long, glowing, platinum blond hair even had me pegging her as a marketing intern. (Yes, I need to check my biases, too.) She is, in fact, the lead producer of Sleeping Giant, the scrappy little indie made without production financing from Telefilm that’s gone on to become a celebrated hit critically and at the Canadian box office. 

“People assume I’m dumb when they see me for the first time,” says Harnisch, very aware of the gaze she’s receiving. “Over time, I’ve developed slightly more ‘masculine’ behaviour in my work in terms of the way I talk and use body language. If I were acting more feminine, with my big head of blond hair, I fear people wouldn’t take me as seriously.”

Harnisch is someone I take very seriously. Her commanding voice and wealth of information always leaves me feeling like I didn’t bring enough to the table. Ditto Chin-Yee, who is great at cutting past the crap so you don’t miss the point.

“There is no such thing as a mild-mannered woman director or producer,” Chin-Yee points out. “We’re pretty loud-mouthed and can take up a lot of space in a room. We’ve had to grow that type of personality to say, ‘Hey, we’re here. We’re making films. Take us seriously or get out of our fucking way.’”

These women are working in an environment that will either dismiss them as pushovers or deem them as too difficult to work with. It’s a problem that can only be fought with more women and diversity in creative and decision-making roles. Ushering them in requires radical change, and those that drag their heels at the prospect will predictably claim that there just aren’t that many women in the pool for these jobs. 

Well, that’s just bullshit. 

I dropped by a TIFF cocktail hosted by several women-in-film organizations. You could build a whole new Canadian film industry with the diverse women in attendance.

Women represent half of enrollment in Canadian film schools

Half the students enrolled in Canadian film schools since the early 2000s are women, according to that 2010 Burgess report. But Harnisch noticed how young women in her Ryerson program who start out wanting to direct would often give up and slip into gendered roles like costume or set design. Harnisch is writing her MA thesis on the subject, looking at how the social dynamics that keep women down in the industry start setting in at the formative stage of their careers.

Jaye witnessed the same gender dynamic at play in her Ryerson class last winter. Her students were representative in terms of race and gender, but the short films they produced weren’t so diverse, casting 81 per cent white males. Realizing that a new generation was internalizing the lack of representation on screen, Jaye started her Telefilm – This Is Easy campaign.

Filmmaker and VR content creator Nyla Innuksuk has to keep reminding herself about the biases she unconsciously internalizes. Innuksuk won Telefilm’s Pitch This! competition at TIFF for her development project Qalupalik. It’s a Goonies-style genre movie about Indigenous girls in Nunavut chasing down aliens on their bikes. 

She originally conceived of the movie with male leads. Her little brother reminded her that in Nunavut, strong female figures are more likely to be hightailing it after monsters.

“Inuit men are shy and quiet,” says Innuksuk, “but I hadn’t thought about having girl protagonists because I’ve never seen an all-female Goonies.”

While the Pitch This! competition won her $15,000 in development funds, I’m curious to see if she ends up landing the $1.6 million needed to turn it into a feature. That would be a rare feat for an Indigenous filmmaker.

The First Nations film community is thriving in the short-film scene. They’ve already achieved gender parity and are over-represented in terms of awards and festival exposure, according to an October 2013 report by ImagineNATIVE. But filmmaker Lisa Jackson explains that none of that success amounts to a chance at feature filmmaking, where Indigenous filmmakers hit a wall. Go ahead and count the features you know made by Indigenous Canadians on your fingers and see if you need to use two hands.

While you’re at it, count how many Canadian films you know made by Black filmmakers. And now you’re scratching your head wondering when was the last time Clement Virgo or Sudz Sutherland made a movie.

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Nadine Valcin, director/producer


What happened to Black filmmakers? 

Both Virgo and Sutherland were part of a 90s group called the Black Film and Video Network. Nadine Valcin was also a member.

“It disintegrated,” she says. “As you get older, people drop out of the industry. A lot of women of colour who aren’t getting anywhere, they just become massage therapists or whatever because they don’t see the open doors.”

Valcin has stuck with it, though. She has a few short films, an NFB documentary and a lot of TV work under her belt. She’s also part of a couple of new organizations for women. Robust alliance Film Fatales Toronto hosts workshops and networking events. Black Women Film! is another network. Grassroots organizations like these are the most solid support women get in our industry.

“White men take it for granted that you go to an event and everyone’s going to look like you,” says Valcin. “So it’s really empowering to see a group of Black women all doing different things and fighting their own struggles. It’s really powerful in the same way that it’s powerful to see that you’re reflected onscreen.”

Valcin has two feature film projects with Black protagonists that are stuck in development limbo, waiting on producing partners. She doesn’t necessarily want to blame the system for that – there are myriad reasons why these films are still waiting to get off the ground. None of the women I talk to can pinpoint why certain projects just couldn’t get traction. Maybe they just weren’t good enough?

That’s the thing about being part of a marginalized group. You can never figure out where personal failure ends and systematic oppression begins. Kind of like whenever I get pulled over (about every two months), I can’t tell when it was about my taillight or something else.

Seeing past the male gaze

The stats don’t lie, though. Women and minorities don’t get to tell their stories because a white male gaze dominates the entire film industry. Most directors, producers, financiers and distributors apparently don’t see the value in these stories. That’s a problem Chin-Yee runs into constantly, because she defiantly only makes movies about women on the margins.

“When you have an older white man reading a story about a young girl trying to make it in the world, he often looks for a male character who’s going to save the day, or he suggests ways to make the girl more likeable,” Chin-Yee says about feedback she’s received. “They’re so used to finding those story elements to help them relate.”

Telefilm caters to that system. In its corporate plans from 2011 (after the Burgess report) and 2015, about 16 pages talk about the priority to build demand by fostering commercially appealing content. In both plans, gender representation never gets mentioned, while diversity gets one negligible name-drop in the conclusions.

For a woman to get a feature film off the ground, she needs to land a producer and distributor and alternative financiers before Telefilm comes in typically with 30 per cent of the budget plus marketing funds for the distributor. 

All these parties are predominantly white males looking for what they deem commercially viable, what they think will click on a Netflix blurb. It’s assumed stories about women and minorities won’t make money, even though the industry rarely gives them a shot to find out if they can.

So when Telefilm announces that it’s going to address the gender and diversity issue this month in a working group with its stakeholders, it’s essentially saying it’s going to figure this out with the people who are part of the problem. 

It’s going to talk about solutions with the CMPA (Canadian Media Producers Association) and the AQPM (Association Québécoise de la production Médiatique) – the guilds representing mostly male producers who already have a poor track record of working with women and minorities. Telefilm has added the Writers and Directors Guilds ACTRA the Société des auteurs de radio, télévision et cinéma Réalisatrices Équitables Women in View and Women in Film + Television Vancouver to the working group.

That’s a promising improvement, but it’s still a conversation dominated by the old guard.

Telefilm’s communications manager says that Brabant would be open to speaking on the matter sometime this month. In the meantime, the CMPA’s VP of outreach and strategic initiatives, Marguerite Pigott, says her org’s enthusiastic about working toward representation. (Read the full interview online). According to Pigott, the CMPA and Telefilm are ready to put their best foot forward, but she can’t commit to a 50/50 target. They can’t even set their sights on a goal that should come naturally.

If I’m still wary, its because I’m wondering whether Telefilm intends on easing its mostly male partners and stakeholders toward some unspecified improvement, rather than taking a firm stance to shake up the funding structures and institute real change. After waiting years for the problem to be acknowledged, I’m wondering who in this working group is going to grow a fucking spine and take drastic action.

“Telefilm is the backbone of the film industry,” says Gadon. “It has a responsibility to not just look into representing diversity but actually be an agency that represents diversity and gender. We deem ourselves a pretty forward-thinking nation. This is supposed to be a reflection of our country.”

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Nyla Innuksuk, producer


Finding diversity shouldn’t feel like pulling teeth 

While representing our country with all its diversity on screen should be a given for a publicly subsidized film industry, Chin-Yee insists that trying to find diversity shouldn’t feel like pulling teeth. 

“To be continuously addressed as a problem is something that gets on my nerves,” says Chin-Yee, pointing out that the entire industry is struggling to stay economically viable and looking for ways innovate. “Fifty-one per cent of the population is not represented properly. Any other business-savvy human being would say, ‘You do realize that’s a huge untapped market we are not capitalizing on.’”

Harnisch agrees. She sees so much opportunity in undiscovered voices that we’ve been too dumb to notice.

“All of these conversations about decolonization, racial inequality, police brutality, violence against women and rape culture are incredibly potent for narrative interpretation,” she says. They could also provide alternatives to the typical story about white people trying to find themselves in the countryside.

“We are not the problem,” says Chin-Yee. “We are the solution to your problem.” 

Read our Q&A with Marguerite Pigott of the Canadian Media Producers Association here.

movies@nowtoronto.com | @freshandfrowsy

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