There’s a big conversation happening about diversity and gender equality in film and the Whistler Film Festival is helping to fan the flames.
The fest, which runs Nov. 28 to Dec. 2, launched its Women on Top series a couple of years ago, when about 100 women ascended the top of the Whistler mountain to have breakfast with Canada Media Fund’s president & CEO Valerie Creighton.
Last year’s guest was Susan Cartsonis, film producer and co-founder of Resonate Entertainment. The goal was to bring inspiring women to speak about issues relating to representation.
“We need to create content that reflects society and includes a gender and diversity pass from script to screen to production,” says the festival’s executive director Shauna Hardy Mishaw. “If we want to change the story, it has to start with the story. Women deserve to work in a safe and equitable environment, and we need to ensure that media is reflective of our society and what is right. Achieving gender parity comes down to choice and action, and we are working to ensure that WFF can be part of that.”
This year’s Women on Top series is in two parts. Earlier this year, Geena Davis, the founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, headlined a packed luncheon. And at the festival, attendees will hear from the institute’s CEO Madeline Di Nonno, who is also attending with the doc she produced, “This Changes Everything,” which premiered at TIFF earlier this year.
In recent years, Di Nonno has noticed an increase in film festivals trying to support and advocate for intersectional women. “We’ve just seen this momentum building and building, so it’s wonderful that Whistler decided to take this on to support Canadian filmmakers and actors.”
The Geena Davis Institute has been a pioneer in research around the issue of representation, both on screen and behind the camera, and festivals such as this could help create a forum for dialogue among those looking to create content, greenlight content, or buy it.
“I think it complements the work that we’ve been doing for 12 years using data analytics to help people understand that there was a problem with inequity in on-screen portrayals and through that we’ve been able to kind of raise a dialogue,” Di Nonno says.
The institute utilizes a machine learning tool that automates a very tedious process and eliminates the margin for error that comes with using humans. This tool allows for an infinite number of data points that can be discerned, including screen and speaking time.
“[It’s] really important because when you look at screen and speaking time, we see that there’s a huge gender inequity there, which then begs another question. Where’s that happening? So it just opens up a whole other layer of unconscious bias. You can only do that with machine learning.”
But according to Di Nonno, unconscious bias isn’t the only explanation for the imbalance. “Everyone has known about those numbers for decades,” she says. “Guilds and various organizations have been trying to work on that problem, and I believe that is conscious bias. So there has to be conscious inclusion and there has to be the willingness to give female directors a chance and also for countries that provide funds for filmmakers to allocate a certain percentage of funding for intersectional women directors and writers.”
In the United States, major studios are starting to really make a difference by creating shadowing opportunities and special incubator-like programs for writers and directors of diverse backgrounds.
“On the agency side, we see more and more agents and agencies looking for female talent,” she says. “We also have a lot of filmmakers and studios coming to us saying, ‘who can you recommend?’ But I think it has to be a conscious inclusion effort.”
As to the festival’s part in creating a more gender-balanced cinematic landscape: “It’s been a natural outcome,” says Hardy Mishaw.
More than 40% of this year’s lineup is directed by women and over 50% of the talent program participants are women. The festival also puts a lot of work into female-focused initiatives including its Women on Top mentorship, Women in the Directors’ Chair Industry Immersion, and the Women in Film + TV (Vancouver) Film Market Preparation mentorship. Each year, the festival also hands out the EDA awards in association with the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.
“At a time when the call for gender parity is more prevalent than ever, we are committed to championing this mandate,” Mishaw says.
This year’s screenings include Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots” and Mimi Leder’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic “On the Basis of Sex.”
The presentation of Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch is one of the fest’s hot-ticket events. On this year’s list: Joe Robert Cole, Bryan Woods & Scott Beck, Ashleigh Powell, Jay Longino, Elizabeth Chomko, Sofia Alvarez, Christy Hall, Jac Schaeffer, Micah Fitzerman-Blue & Noah Harpster, and Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz.
They will be honored with a ceremony at the fest as well as participate in a signature series talkback event on Dec. 1, hosted by Variety VP and executive editor Steven Gaydos.