Finding girl power at the Toronto International Film Festival has never been easier. The festival neared gender parity in their 2020 lineup with 46% of titles directed or co-directed by women, a high point in the event’s 45-year history. Even when women weren’t behind the camera, many more movies centered on strong women and girls facing impossible odds, standing up to authority and discovering their voices.
One documentary that channeled that persistent energy is Stacey Lee’s industry-wide look at the exclusion of women DJs from the electronic music scene. Even if you can’t remember the last time you went to a club or if you’ve never scrounged up the money for a music festival, “Underplayed” guides viewers through the systemic and historical ways women have been pushed out of the industry, their contributions shortchanged and earlier pioneers forgotten. The film shows the facts and figures to back the stories of the women willing to speak out about the industry’s exclusion and sexism, pointing out that of the top 150 clubs only 6% of their acts and only five of Billboard’s top 100 DJs list were women. The movie then shifts gears into profiling some of the women artists making strides in the industry as well as a few hopefuls who would like to be the next ones to breakthrough. “They have been there all along, but they’ve been invisible,” says one artist about the historical erasure of women in her field.
Despite their many frustrations, “Underplayed” ends on a hopeful high note. Things are changing, however slowly, women are getting more opportunities than in years past. Now the challenge is—as it is across several male-dominated industries—how does that change become sustainable.
“Lift Like a Girl” is a motivating documentary of a different kind and not one that’s always easy to watch. Mayye Zayed’s film follows the complicated relationship between an Olympic coach, Captain Ramadan, and his new protege, Zebiba, over the course of four years in Alexandria, Egypt. After training his daughter to become a world champion at the Olympics, Captain Ramadan built a training school for other scrappy, hard-working girls to follow in her footsteps. With little-to-no-funding, he runs his weightlifting school for street kids with personality, one that’s prone to singing when they win and harsh scoldings when he thinks they’ve given up on themselves. His relentless style can be seen as almost bullying, but there’s a fierce loyalty between the couch and his athletes. However, it’s watching Zebiba grow up on her own that feels the most rewarding.
Although “I Am Greta” is a pretty straightforward documentary about climate activist Greta Thunberg, the documentary captures many of the day-to-day moments you won’t see trending on social media or in broadcast news sound bites. Director Nathan Grossman began filming in 2018 when she was leading small-but-news-making groups of students with her Friday climate strikes. As he follows her meteoric rise to the world stage, he also captures Thunberg’s off-stage side, a young girl who loves her pets and occasionally bursts out in dance. But her focus on climate change remains resolute, and the documentary shows how much her efforts have not only affected and inspired people outside of her home in Stockholm, Sweden, but also how it’s changed her family’s life, from going vegetarian to cutting out air travel. It also briefly looks at her detractors and their attacks on her Asperger’s Syndrome, something the budding activist is not afraid to address. Like Rachel Lears’ “Knock Down the House,” which followed rising progressive politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Grossman’s “I Am Greta” captures the precious last few moments before someone becomes famous and then watches their passionate message find a wider audience.