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Toronto Turns Up the Volume on Women Film Composers

The conversation about gender disparity in film—which tends to crescendo around big festivals and awards season—got some fresh intel last year when a University of Southern California study, looking at the 100 top films of each year from 2007 to 2017 (1,100 titles), revealed that only 16 women worked as composers in those films (43 women worked as directors).

Scan the credits of the 245 features screening in Toronto this year and you will find slightly over a dozen women composers. It may be a small ensemble for now, but these artists are making the kind of ear-catching music and smart career moves that are changing the mix.

The most talked about Toronto title, “The Joker,” is scored by Icelandic composer Hildur Guonadottir. Senegal-born, Kuwait-raised composer Fatima Al Qadiri scored Mati Diop’s Cannes Grand Prix-winning “Atlantics.” Heather Young’s “Murmur”— winner of the FIPRESCI Prize in Toronto’s Discovery strand—is scored by Brit composer Sarah DeCourcy.

Composer Kathryn Bostic (“Dear White People”) is having a banner year with her earthy, jazz-hued score for the timely documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” which Magnolia released this summer, and her sparsely textured yet emotionally taut music for Chinonye Chukwu’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winner “Clemency” (Neon), which has its international premiere in Toronto on Friday.

Bostic’s thoughtful, less-is-more aesthetic should keep her scores in earshot during awards season, despite the more ostentatious movie music that generally blasts forth that time of year.

The day before the Toronto screening of “Clemency,” Bostic explained that her two years serving as vice-president of the Alliance for Women Film Composers (AWFC), an organization formed in 2014, gave her an “incredible overview of the level of talent” out there and shifted her focus in the conversation.

“I discovered a vast resource of women who are phenomenal composers and from all different walks of life—but many were simply not aware of each other,” recalled Bostic, who jokes that she sort of “backed in” to film music after working in other mediums. “My intent was to get people talking to each other about the belief systems; you can talk about racism, ageism, and so on, but you only have progress when you start with yourself, challenge yourself and your perceptions.

“For me the biggest thing in all of these conversations is the importance of autonomy and self-esteem,” she added.

Bostic was afforded ample creative space on Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ Morrison documentary: “When you pay attention to footage, it can start to talk to you. It tells you what it needs — it evokes a dialogue, and the score reflects that information and that feeling. I ended up writing a lot of music, mostly jazz cues, and I thought they would select half but they ended up using everything.”

Bostic was attracted to the emotional content of “Clemency,” especially in the character Bernadine, the prison warden played by Alfre Woodard. “She’s in a constant rite of passage working on death row, so the internal journey of this woman and how she’s had to fracture her life, as well as the idea of incarceration, resonated with me, she said.”

But it took a few passes to hit the right note. “It only came together when I started thinking about the tonality of the sound in the prison, and that’s when I came up with these ambient qualities — processed guitar, weird effects, vocal textures.

“It was daunting initially. The music emerged after a lot of back and forth and thankfully it did. We always had to make sure the music didn’t overstate the intent of the soul reckoning.”

American Son” composer Lisbeth Scott, in Toronto for the Thursday world premiere of the Kerry Washington-starring film, has credits in over 150 movies and TV shows as a singer or songwriter and only recently stepped into her own spotlight.

“My turning point was working with John William and Spielberg on ‘Munich,’ which was a euphoric experience,” Scott said. “Afterwards, a little voice said, you’ve worked with all these huge composers, now you have to take a leap of faith.

Scott, who is also a member of the AWFC, is seeing more of her female colleagues getting steady work. “We’re joining our voices to say this is what we can do, these are the opportunities we would like — and people are listening.

“It’s good to know that, while we are dealing with some challenging issues, some doors are opening for women,” she added.

When she’d go into sessions as a singer, Scott would often feel like “the little schoolgirl,” she said. “On ‘America’ Son’ I had a female assistant, and at one point I was working in a room with seven women. It was wonderful to work alongside women who can relate to your journey.”

Only six women have ever been nominated for original score. The most recent female winner was Anne Dudley, who won for “The Full Monty” in 1997. A woman of color has never been nominated in the category. History is waiting to be made.

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