Film buffs eager to see and support women behind the camera must check out the Breakthroughs Film Festival in Toronto this weekend. BFF showcases a diverse range of voices in its seventh year and the festival promises lots of up-and-coming talent by women in the Canadian and international scene. The local festival circuit might be jam-packed and saturated far beyond any film fan or critic’s ability to see everything—even a smidgen of everything—but this one really matters for the conversation inspiring change.
BFF offers four documentaries at this year’s festival, all of which are Canadian, and they display a range of personal, intimate topics told in four unique styles. Nana, directed by Ali Kellen, is a touching nod to the survivors and lost souls of the Holocaust seen through visionary animation paired with poignant first-person narration. Vera Reiner recounts in voiceover her experience enduring labour camps after she was taken as a prisoner during the Nazi occupation of Hungary. She recalls the horrors and the hardships she survived after being ripped from her family. The nana passes on her story surviving alongside such a group of strong and resilient women, while Kellen animates the audio with sobering visuals that evoke the spirit of graphic novels. Rendered mostly in shades of grey, the images are powerful as the few spots of colour that flicker in the screen are the stars marking the Jews in the camps. Hopeful, emotional, and frank, Nana is a rich snapshot of history shared between generations.
Family history and storytelling are at the centre of Kerry Barber’s Dear Hatetts, which puts on some X-ray specs to investigate and prod the filmmaker’s body and womanhood. Barber tells audiences in voiceover about having endometriosis, a painful condition in which the liner tissues of a woman’s uterus grow on the organ’s exterior. The filmmaker reflects upon motherhood and womanhood and how society breeds young girls to see themselves as future baby-makers: a woman’s worth isn’t complete until she delivers a baby, they say. Faced with the prospect of being unable to have children, and the implications that this condition may have on a serious relationship, Barber reflects on the legacy of women who shared her condition in stricter times.
The body goes under the microscope in Work, directed by Claire Allore. This sensuous and candid film sees two Toronto sex workers share their stories about the pleasures and pains of making a living with their bodies. Work puts a human face on the city’s sex workers and acknowledges the desire for human contact in an increasingly alienated and disconnected world. Allore confronts sexuality matter-of-factly with an upbeat he said/she said style in which “goddess worshipper” Malcolm Lovejoy and cam girl Vixen Vu speak openly about the rewards and emotional tolls of their careers. As Vu says, when one’s sexuality is out there for the world to see, people are open with you and it’s easy to return the favour. Honest reflections on the inherent racism of the porn industry give Work an extra edge with its smart, intersectional insights. Lovejoy observes that, as a Black sex worker, he’s a subcategory or fetish, while Vu admits that using race as novelty or commodity can be advantageous. The film foregrounds race emphasizing colour, drinking in every inch of the subjects’ bodies as they bare themselves while Allore slathers them with sparkles, colourful light, and paint (or mustard?) that drips sensuously off the skin. Allore complements these frank discussions of pleasure with an intoxicating visual style that highlights the body beautiful. It’s an open and revealing film.
Finally, Living Here by Sarah Baril Gaudet uses its modest visual style to provide an equally frank and personal portrait. The film visits the barren tundra of Nunavik as a young girl named Martha reflects on the hardships of growing up in the North and highlights the hopes of the children living in Canada’s oft-forgotten corner. There is poetry to the simplicity of Living Here as Baril Gaudet’s camera looks inward and outward to offer perspectives of the community’s growth and future. Life isn’t easy here and the images of the cold, unforgiving land complement the perspective that Martha offers in her slow, soft-spoken voiceover. Images of children playing and finding joy, on the other hand, give the community a reason to persevere and thrive. This beautifully understated film is lovely for its unsentimental views.
Breakthroughs Film Festival runs June 15 and 16 in Toronto at the Royal.