Two women sit at a bar and are approached by a man
A scene from Tara Thorne’s film, Compulsis, which is screening at Atlantic Film Fest.

A (very) short list of novels adapted into movies includes To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The English Patient by Michael Oondatje, and Room by Emma Donoghue.

As far as I know, the authors applauded the book-to-screen transformations of their volumes. And then there was Vladimir Nabokov who, peeved by the film version of Lolita, likened the 1962 release to “a scenic drive as perceived by the horizontal passenger of an ambulance.”

Opening Thursday night, the 2022 FIN Atlantic International Film Festival will present, as gala events, screen adaptations of Brother and Women Talking by Canadian novelists David Chariandy and Miriam Toews. Directed, respectively, by Canadian filmmakers Clement Virgo and Sarah Polley, the films — bearing the same titles — turn on themes of race, gender, abuse, and loss.

In a recent interview, Polley emphasized the importance of exposing the harms that women have endured, noting that her film is based on real-life incidents at a remote Mennonite colony. The cast includes four-time Academy Award winner Frances McDormand.

Dear Audrey, a riveting documentary by Jeremiah Hayes, chronicles the love and loss of  Canadian filmmaker Martin Duckworth as he cares for his wife, Audrey Schirmer, an acclaimed photographer living with Alzheimer’s disease. “We all have to stick together!” insists the couple’s adult daughter Jacqueline, who has autism, when her mother one day disappears during a family outing in their Montreal neighbourhood.

Interspersed with images from the works of Duckworth and Schirmer, and candid commentary from Jacqueline, the film stands as a powerful paean to passion and perseverance.

In Category:Woman, director Phyllis Ellis delivers a damning exploration of “sex testing,” a bogus procedure that has sabotaged the careers of several professional female athletes, notably women of colour. “How do you castigate a [group] of persons as insufficiently human?” asks the narrator of the jaw-dropping release. “By throwing their gender into doubt.”

Among others, Ellis profiles Caster Semenya, an Olympic champion runner from South Africa whose success prompted an international sports governing body to suggest that she was a “biological male.”

The film is bolstered by footage that underscores, to infuriating effect, the unrepentant racism and misogyny that many high-performing female athletes have suffered. On that note, here’s tennis legend Serena Williams on the “body shaming” she confronted throughout her spectacular career. “People would say I was born a guy, all because of my arms,” she recalled in a 2018 interview. “I am strong, and muscular, and beautiful. This is me.”

In addition to Semenya, Ellis introduces viewers to Indian sprinter Dutee Chand who was banned from a major competition after a “gender verification” test called into question her identity as a female. Category:Woman tracks the devastating medical, social, cultural, and economic impact that such rulings can have on female athletes and their families.

The film also highlights the legal procedures that Chand and Semanya undertook to clear their names. As such, the documentary serves as an invaluable window into the shady, high stakes world of sports and “science.”

Local luminaries Tara Thorne and Koumbie address gender relations in their respective debut features, Compulsis and Bystanders. Watching Thorne’s trenchant (and at times, hilarious) take on sexual predators, my mind wafted to Hard Candy, the 2005 psychological thriller in which Elliott Page proved that payback (cue: James Brown) is a mother.

The film also earns props as a lesbian twist on Thelma and Louise. Ditto for its evocation of Uma Thurman, “the deadliest woman in the world,” in Kill Bill. Infused with monologues written by the poet laureate of Halifax, Sue Goyette, Compulsis is an unapologetically ballsy “Take Back the Night” romp.

Koumbie.

Koumbie chooses a more subtle approach to male exploitation of women in Bystanders. The scene: a diverse group of friends who have gathered at a waterfront cottage for a getaway. Spirited card-playing, tequila-drinking, and skinny-dipping ensues. As the “vacay” progresses, viewers learn that a member of the group is grappling with the possibility that he might have engaged in non-consensual sex with a woman who is not at the cottage. However, she is known to several of his friends.

Offering their various interpretations of “consent,” the group (some queer and/or questioning) straddles a line between supporting their friend and holding him accountable for a drunken encounter, the details of which he claims not to remember. The release is noteworthy for its cinéma verité styling and analysis of a topic that the “Me Too” movement has rightly elevated. Koumbie’s use, in the film, of a reel of “home movies,” resonates profoundly in today’s fraught racial climate.

Praised and pilloried for her uncompromising stance against pornography, Andrea Dworkin (1946-2005) was one of the most influential feminist writers, public intellectuals, and political activists of her time. In My Name is Andrea, famed filmmaker Pratibha Parmar presents a dazzling, genre-defying documentary that will leave viewers gobsmacked by its eloquence, courage, and virtuosity.

Juxtaposed with archival footage of Dworkin (clad in her trademark overalls), Parmar has cast a cadre of marquee actors who portray the activist at various stages in her life and who recite excerpts from her voluminous writings. The group includes Ashley Judd, Christine Lahti, and Amandla Sternberg, an actor of African ancestry who won an NAACP Image Award for her lead role in The Hate U Give. 

Parmar took nearly a decade to complete her film and thus had chosen Sternberg to embody an adolescent Andrea Dworkin before “equity, diversity, and inclusion” became a thing.  Indeed, Pratibha Parmar is an innovative filmmaker who has long been ahead of the curve. As for visionary, Dworkin’s 1990s-era lectures in Canada and in England provide electrifying moments in a film that never loosens its grip.

“The only equality that the founding fathers of the [US] considered important was the equality of rich, white men,” she told a jam-packed audience at Cambridge University, in the UK. “It is staggeringly arrogant.”

The a cappella group Four The Moment was formed, in 1981, to protest the proposed opening of a Ku Klux Klan office in Halifax. Music Resistance, an inspiring 13-minute documentary by Erica Meus-Saunders, honours the women who used the beauty and lyricism of their voices to combat hate.

“The Klan did not ever show its face,” recalls Delvina Bernard, a founding member of the group. She and her sister Kim Bernard — also an original member — discuss the history and legacy of the ensemble with their respective daughters, Zamani Bernard Millar and Amariah Bernard Washington, both rising vocal talents.

“This generation of young African-descended people are the leaders in music globally,” Delvina Bernard says. “You can’t sell a car, a toothbrush, insurance, or walk across a runway as a model without their music.”

Folks feeling flattened — a la Nabokov — by the cascade of calamities that have beset the world in the past few years will find a balm in the 177 FIN Festival films screening at The Cineplex Theatre in Halifax with (some) also streaming online. The full schedule is here.


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Evelyn C. White

Evelyn C. White is a journalist and author whose books include Chain, Chain, Change: For Black Women in Abusive Relationships (Seal Press, 1985,) The Black Women’s Health Book: Speaking for Ourselves...

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