It is no secret that gender disparities exist in the film industry. However, the Toronto International Film Festival is taking initiative to close the gap. According to their website, 36 per cent of the films screened at this year’s festival are directed by women, which is a three per cent increase from 2017. Furthermore, in light of the #MeToo and TIME’S UP movements, TIFF has made a five-year commitment, called Share Her Journey, to “increase participation, skills, and opportunities for women behind and in front of the camera.” Women are just as talented as men in this industry and they have important stories to tell as seen in films like Float Like a Butterfly, written and directed by Carmel Winters, and Where Hands Touch, directed by Amma Asante.
Float Like a Butterfly is a story set in Ireland and centers around the film’s protagonist Frances (Hazel Doupe), her little brother Patrick (Johnny Collins), and her previously incarcerated father Michael (Dara Devaney). As a child, Frances loses her mother and grows up idolizing boxer Muhammad Ali. She wants to be a fighter like Ali but in 1960’s Ireland, it’s not very ladylike.
Throughout the film, Frances fights through many difficult situations and somehow survives them all. The boys in the local village pick on the travelers for being “savage” and “uncivilized.” When Frances’s father is released from prison, he develops a drinking problem and the local police always look to pick a fight with him. Frances takes care of Patrick for years while Michael is in prison, so when he is released, he is shocked to learn how “cowardly” Patrick is. Michael tells Patrick to toughen up and that women deserve to be hit to keep them in line. In a shocking moment, Michael makes Patrick hit Frances, who is visibly hurt by her father’s beliefs more than getting slapped by her brother. It was in this moment that the audience realized just how poignant Hazel Doupe’s performance was. Following the film, during a Q&A with Carmel Winters and Hazel Doupe, Winters said, “I didn’t want to go with the cliche that a fighter is always masculine and harsh but actually this girl is everything. She’s as delicate as a butterfly yet she’s tough enough to fight back, and Hazel did a great job with that.”
Another female-directed film at TIFF is Where Hands Touch, written and directed by Amma Asante. The film is an untold Holocaust story about Lenya (Amandla Stenberg), a black German teenager, who falls in love with Lutz (George MacKay), a member of the Hitler Youth. Asante spent ten years developing and researching this film in order to shine light on a lesser-known piece of history from this time.
Lenya’s mother (Abbie Cornish) has done her best to protect Lenya from the Nazis, but like the Jews, Lenya is a target because she is black and not a “true German.” Lenya does her best to stay invisible but when she meets Lutz, she starts taking risks like any young girl in love. They stay out after curfew and kiss on doorsteps, despite knowing that they will be killed if anyone finds them together.
When the Nazis take her mother away for having a black child, Lenya fights back and ends up in a Jewish concentration camp, which is where the film takes an even darker turn. Lenya slaves away in the kitchen in horrible conditions; one of her bunkmates doesn’t even have proper shoes. After some time has passed, she realizes that Lutz has been stationed here against his will. He wanted to fight on the battlefield. When Lenya tells Lutz she is pregnant with his child, the two of them attempt to escape the camp but not before Lutz is shot and killed. The film ends with Lenya reuniting with her mother back in Berlin.
Stenberg’s performance is nothing short of incredible as she took on this challenging role of a young girl who had to grow up so fast. Lenya goes through a lot in the two-hour film, and Stenberg makes the transformation from innocent youth to an abused camp worker to ultimately a mother, look seamless.
If you love strong female characters in leading roles who tell important stories about being strong, loving, and independent, then I recommend watching both Float Like a Butterfly and Where Hands Touch.