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The big smokescreen 

Seeing through talk of the heavy political line-up at the Toronto International Film Fest, our TIFF correspondent finds a true story of social change: Female filmmakers featured in force, finally.

The media coverage of this year's Toronto International Film Festival is taking great, self-important strains to point out how political this year's slate is. On the documentary side, you've got Operation Filmmaker and Heavy Metal in Baghdad, two films about Iraqis trying to find culture in the face of war. You've got Jonathan Demme's Jimmy Carter portrait Man of Plains, Phil Donahue (yes that one) and Ellen Spiro's Body of War, about a disabled soldier, and even though it's about a recent tour of American university campuses, Michael Moore—and his Captain Mike Across America—can't disingenuously put on a crappy hat without inciting discussion. On the narrative side, actor Stewart Townsend makes his directorial debut with Battle in Seattle, about the WTO protests of 1999; while Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal topline the torture drama Rendition.

But while wags trip over themselves pointing out the throughlines between all these films—easy since the festival always falls during the 9/11 anniversary—something more extraordinary has been overlooked: Women are all over this shit.

There's never been a great time for women in film. Even music had the Lilith Fair era, long since forgotten in the misogynistic wake of rap-rock, hip-hop and emo, but at least it happened. Like, recently, not 1932 or something. Every year there are a dozen stories at Oscar time about how the ladies' categories appear considerably less complex than the men's, but we're not talking about acting. We're talking about how the Director's Guild of America is made up of more than 90 percent men. We're talking about this Judd Apatow breed of comedy currently burning up the box office—yes, the films are funny, but two sincere scenes in 90 minutes doesn't give a movie heart, and there's not a single woman in them that any other woman would find interesting, want to hang out with or make small talk to in the bathroom. Now that this is the norm—dick drawings and catchphrases and man-boys who don't want to grow up and still get great girls despite it—the next few years, it appears, will be torturous for women in movies, whether they're acting, writing, directing or, especially or, watching (and we just came out of the torture-porn reign as it is).

Or so we thought, until we came to Toronto, and noticed that a predominant number of big-buzz films were written and/or directed by women. What's also noticeable is that while TIFF attempts to build a social conscience here, these filmmakers are keeping things closer to home.

First off there's Tamara Jenkins' The Savages, about a pair of adult siblings faced with putting their father in a nursing home. Jenkins, whose last film was The Slums of Beverly Hills (1998!), readily admits that the film is not a sexy sell, but it's defied that shortcoming and has already drummed up Oscar buzz for the long overdue Laura Linney, who plays compulsive liar Wendy. (Phillip Seymour Hoffman is her intellectual brother Jon.) Actor Helen Hunt makes her directorial debut with Then She Found Me, about an adopted woman's search for matriarchy for herself and for her own unborn child. Screenwriter Robin Swicord moves behind the camera for the ridiculously girly The Jane Austen Book Club, which uses literature to facilitate discussion about relationships and intimacy (and a little bit of that battle of the sexes shit). Writer Diablo Cody presents a unique, exquisitely dialogued look at teenage pregnancy in Jason Reitman's Juno. Danish film star Paprika Steen takes us into a darkly comic relationship in With Your Permission. And Austrailan Gillian Armstrong follows Charlotte Gray with Death Defying Acts, about the Scottish love (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of Harry Houdini's (Guy Pearce) life.

And that's just what we've seen. There are many others—amid films by festival staples such as Allen, De Palma and Sayles—young and old female voices with movies to give. And maybe their messages aren't as obvious, or as big, but it's the little things that keep us going: the details. Festivals like TIFF, and the Atlantic Film Festival, are important because only in this context, in this carefully researched and programmed 10 days a year, do we see the real art being created all over the world. And maybe none of these films will ever make it outside four theatres in New York or Los Angeles, but the point is this: they exist. Thankfully.

Thanks to the marvel that is email, you can reach arts editor Tara Thorne at tarat@thecoast.ca.

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