WHEN TALKING ABOUT gender diversity behind the camera, it’s always been clear that documentary has fared far better than mainstream fiction filmmaking. This year alone, women make up over 40 per cent of the directors represented at Hot Docs, which, according to director of programming Charlotte Cook, is the festival’s personal best. While this is a laudable achievement for the festival, the sad economic reality has been that major studios have proven unwilling to take big financial risks on aspiring female writers and directors of fiction films. Quite simply, documentary is where the funding money is for women.
“When I heard that idea about the money, it was gutting!” says director Lena Macdonald, whose first feature, Mom and Me, is set to premiere at Hot Docs 2015. “It’s funny, until I heard that, I couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to me. My feeling was that women are caregivers, and they want to make films about improving society.”
That’s certainly true of the films by MacDonald, Noemi Weis and Amber Fares, who are among the female directors represented at this year’s festival. Mom and Me is an intimate look at Macdonald’s fraught relationship with her estranged mother. From micro to macro, Weis’ Milk turns the camera outward to examine the worldwide lack of support for mothers and “the first food of humanity.” And Fares revs into high gear in the Middle East with Speed Sisters, an inside look at the first all-girl racecar-driving team in Palestine.
Nearly 15 years in the making, Macdonald’s Mom and Me was begun by the director in her teens, when she envisioned it as a piece of portraiture about her mother, Harriet, a one-time filmmaker from Cape Breton whose ongoing struggles with crack addiction had landed her on the streets of Toronto. “[When I started the project] I didn’t want to be in it,” Macdonald explains, “But it just didn’t work. I’m such a huge part of my mom’s life. I couldn’t remove myself from the picture.” After garnering some initial interest from Alliance Atlantis, Macdonald decided to shelve the project for a number of years to complete film school at Sheridan College. There she explored directing and producing, and landed an internship with the Toronto-based documentary production company 90th Parallel. With their backing, Macdonald felt ready to return to Mom and Me —this time putting herself in front of the camera.
“It was pretty crazy,” says Macdonald upon seeing herself onscreen during the editing process. “I hated myself a lot. There’s that footage in there of me screaming at [my mother] and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty brutal and tough, but really important to include.’” In many ways, the difficulties she has to overcome with her mother are no different than that of any parent and child relationship. “[We have] our cultural differences, our generational differences. I grew up in downtown Toronto and she grew up in rural mining Cape Breton, and at the end of the day there’s just going to be that space between us. And some of what we went through has brought us so much closer than any parent or child ever gets. But it has also created some kind of distance.”
What the production of Mom and Me provided was a space for Macdonald and her mother to forge a tentative connection through their common interest: filmmaking. Amidst the intense episodes of her mother’s recurring drug problems, Macdonald spliced material from her mother’s former life as a director, clips from a film in which Harriet only appears as a shadowy figure. Macdonald describes the discovery of her mother’s early work as “one of the most impactful moments” of her life. “She’s lying in it, and sort of pretending to be a character that she isn’t. But she’s also telling truths,” Macdonald recalls of the experience. “I watched that footage over and over again looking for any clues.”
A natural result of filming her mother’s life for over a decade was that Macdonald culled a raw first-hand account of the vulnerability faced by women who live on the streets. “Relative to male beds, there are no female beds; there are no programs just for women, and there are no detoxes just for women. The support is minute in comparison to men,” she explains, “And I think that in part, it’s because women have more mechanisms for making money while on the street. So they end up falling through the cracks in that way.” As well as being an exposé on her mother’s life, Macdonald would like Mom and Me to encourage audiences to view the city’s homeless population with more compassion. “I still have this very hopeful naïve feeling that I’m not only preaching to the choir. That there are some people who see it and have a change in perspective.”
In the end, Macdonald is adamant that the narrative of Mom and Me belongs to her mother. “I am a feminist and there is no point at which I make work that is outside of that framework,” she declares. “So one of the things that was really important for me was to give my mom the last word, because this is her story.”
The powerful connection between mother and child also concerns Noemi Weis. Founder of Filmblanc, an international production company based in Toronto, the Argentinian-born Weis has staked out a career making social issues and human rights films, working as a producer on documentaries like The Forgotten Woman (inspired by Deepa Mehta’s Water) and Desert Riders (about the trafficking of young boys–turned–camel racers in the Middle East). For her latest project, she interviewed and observed women from 11 countries and over 35 cities—from an indigenous community in Brazil to a typhoon-ravaged Philippines to young mothers in Toronto—to craft a universal tale of the struggle for the medical and social support of infant feeding in Milk.
The production of Milk took place over the course of three years, during which Weis sought out women who were willing to share some of their most intimate moments with Weis and her small crew, including live births, both natural and cesarean. “I think that I was able to talk to the women as a mother myself, as a woman myself, understanding where they come from, why they feel how they felt.”
Ambitiously covering a topic with an international scope, Weis was at first unsure of how the film would take shape, and often had to be open to following the story wherever it took her. “With women it’s very wonderful because one woman tells you a story, but she also knows about another woman who has another story.” Forging trust with her subjects has always been Weis’s main concern. “That is something I’ve been able to do with all my films,” she explains from her office in downtown Toronto, “I speak in their own language, I speak many languages, I can relate to them. And when I could not speak the language, I made sure that [they knew the] intentions of why I was making the film and the reasons why their voices were important.”
What the voices in Milk reveal are the strikingly similar difficulties that women face when it comes to the medicalization of breastfeeding. “There is very, very little understanding, and there’s very little education when it comes to the doctors themselves when it comes to nutrition and when it comes to mother’s milk.” While speaking with doctors and so-called lactation “experts” in North America and abroad, Weis found that there is little consistency with the information and advice being doled out to mothers. From getting reluctant babies to latch, to when to make the decision to bottle-feed, to the appropriate age for weaning, infant feeding has been warped from a natural biological instinct into the corporate regulation of women’s bodies. “There is a lot of judgment as well that is placed on women for what they do,” explains Weis, be it the body-shaming of public breastfeeding or the stigma of infant formula. It is Weis’s hope that Milk will change minds. “I think we have to bring awareness to the society at large: respect the choice of the women and allow them to do what they decide to do.”
It was another group of women who bravely made their own choices in the face of social unrest that caught Amber Fares’ attention. The Canadian-born director was making short films for NGOs in Ramallah when she first heard about the speed races going on in Palestine, and the young women who compete for the title of “Fastest Woman Driver.” Fares was inspired: “What if we made a film that wasn’t the typical documentary of this place?”
Fares’ first feature-length project, Speed Sisters, follows drivers Betty, Mona, Marah, Noor and their team manager Maysoon, all of whom formed a lasting bond with Fares. Even after the story of the Speed Sisters broke in the local media, the team remained loyal to Fares and her crew. “Being a woman filmmaker and dealing with subjects that are women, it automatically creates a different type of relationship than it would be with a man,” says Fares, going on to explain, “I thought it was so important to keep it an all-women crew.” While male cameramen were present for multi-angle coverage of the races, Fares maintained an all-female production team when going into the racers’ homes. “One-on-one, we really got to know them as fellow women, and really got that kind of intimacy.”
With the built-in intensity and suspense of racing, Speed Sisters is structured like a sports film, as the drivers compete in local qualifying rounds in which only the top two women will advance to the next stage. Yet in a film concerned with high-octane freedom, movement throughout their West Bank home is severely restricted. Situated near the Israeli border, encounters with soldiers, issues with travel visas, and mounting UN protests are all a part of the everyday reality of lives of Palestinians—and Fares’ camera was there to capture it all. She recalls one particularly violent incident between Betty and a border guard: “We kind of got into the thick of things. But I’m pretty sure I was wearing flip-flops, just not prepared for that shoot at all. And it was all transpiring in front of me, and half the time I was hiding behind a car, or the like. It was really super intense.”
In the initial social-media run-up to the film’s release, Fares was floored by the overwhelmingly positive response, not only from Middle Eastern interest groups but online racing communities. “[Social media has been] a really amazing way to access those types of groups that probably know very little about the Middle East. Out of those girls, four of them are Muslim, and at a time when Islamophobia is on the rise, I think it’s important to see films that show women as they are.”
The distinctly Canadian adventure that is funding an independent production was an experience shared by all three directors. Documentary may be where the money is for women directors, but that isn’t to say the road is an easy one. “You can’t take it personally,” says Noemi Weis, who spent nearly two years filing grant proposals. “Although you put your heart and soul into every application, you cannot win all the time. With the way that films are financially structured, you may win 10 per cent, but you’re still missing the other 90 per cent. It can be a long process until you achieve the 100 per cent.”
Weis, Macdonald and Fares all had similar tales of the slow, piecemeal process of filing applications, gaining television presales, soliciting crowd-funding and (in the case of Fares) initially having to self-fund. It is heartening that Hot Docs has made an increasingly conscious effort to bolster female filmmakers in their programming. But the hard work has only just begun. As actress and screenwriter Greta Gerwig declared at the Sundance 2015 premiere of her latest movie, “We need women writers, because men don’t know what we’re doing when they’re not there.” Macdonald, Weis and Fares have all risen to that clarion call, tackling distinctly female-oriented issues. And the end results tantalizingly tease at the depth and breadth of women’s stories that are still out there, waiting to be given a voice.
Hot Docs 2015 Screenings
Mom and Me
Thu, Apr 30 7:00 PM – Scotiabank Theatre 10
Sat, May 2 5:00 PM – Scotiabank Theatre 10
Mon, Apr 27 6:30 PM – Isabel Bader Theatre
Wed, Apr 29 11:00 AM – Isabel Bader Theatre
Wed, Apr 29 6:15 PM – TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Thu, Apr 30 7:15 PM – Hart House Theatre
Sat, May 2 4:00 PM – Isabel Bader Theatre