Trans issues in spotlight at Toronto film festival

Michel Comte
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Actor Eddie Redmayne arrives for the screening of the movie "The Danish Girl" at the Venice International Film Festival on September 5, 2015

Actor Eddie Redmayne arrives for the screening of the movie "The Danish Girl" at the Venice International Film Festival on September 5, 2015 (AFP Photo/Tiziana Fabi)

Ottawa (AFP) - The race for the Oscars intensifies this week at the Toronto film festival, where the issue of gender identity will be in focus, with performances from Eddie Redmayne and Elle Fanning generating major buzz.

Nearly 400 feature and short films from 71 countries will be screened at the 40th Toronto International Film Festival, the largest such event in North America, which opens Thursday and runs through September 20.

The event, along with festivals in Venice and Telluride, is crucial for Oscar-conscious studios and distributors, attracting hundreds of filmmakers and actors to the red carpet in Canada's largest city.

In past years, films such as "12 Years a Slave," "The King's Speech" and "Slumdog Millionaire" went on from winning the Toronto festival's audience prize for best picture to take the top honor at the Oscars.

Festival boss Cameron Bailey said filmmakers often seek to address "current social or political realities, whether it's a global conflict or a personal shift."

"This year, they've started telling stories in greater numbers of trans characters," Bailey said in an interview with AFP.

Trans issues burst into the international spotlight earlier this year when Caitlyn Jenner -- the Olympic decathlon champion once known as Bruce -- came out as a transgender woman.

On the big screen, depictions of trans characters -- past and present -- could translate into Oscars gold.

Fanning will star in "About Ray," the story of a girl who struggles with wanting to be a boy. The film, which will premiere in Toronto, also stars Naomi Watts and Susan Sarandon.

Redmayne -- who took home a best actor Oscar last year for his portrayal of British physicist Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything" -- is in the Oscar hunt again, but this time, he is playing a woman.

"The Danish Girl," which had its premiere in Venice last weekend, tells the story of transgender artist Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sex change surgery.

Redmayne could see his Oscar campaign get a significant boost if his performance is well received in Canada.

- 'Stonewall' revisited -

Gay and lesbian rights will also be at the forefront of the event.

Festivalgoers will see the world premiere of "Freeheld" -- the true story of a terminally ill female New Jersey police officer who had to battle in court to pass on her pension benefits to her lesbian lover starring Oscar winner Julianne Moore and Ellen Page.

As well, the festival line-up includes the premiere of "Stonewall," a retelling of the event surrounding the 1969 riots in New York's Greenwich Village that became a touchstone for the LGBT rights movement.

"Filmmakers paid attention to the way that LGBT communities around the world have challenged the notion of identity and the stability of sexual identity," Bailey said.

"It's dramatically interesting because any time you have characters undergoing profound changes, that makes for great storytelling."

- 'Significant shift' -

Bailey said he believes public interest in transgender issues in just the last three years has undergone "a significant shift" -- crediting Jenner's public transformation and Amazon series "Transparent" for changing attitudes.

"There is much more interest in these stories outside LGBT communities than there used to be," he said.

"And I think you've got filmmakers who are really diving into the dramatic heart of the material," he said.

"It's more about trying to understand what someone goes through when they begin that profound a transformation."

Other themes to be explored in Toronto run the gamut from organized crime to drone strikes to the music of Janis Joplin and Yo-Yo Ma.

Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee -- the man behind "Dallas Buyers Club" and "Wild" -- will premiere his "Demolition" on opening night. The film starring Jake Gyllenhaal tells the story of an investment banker coming to terms with his wife's untimely death in a car crash.

The world premiere of Ridley Scott's new interplanetary epic "The Martian," starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on the red planet, is also hotly anticipated.

Six years after his last film, Michael Moore returns with a new documentary, "Where to Invade Next."

Footage of Aretha Franklin's 1972 concert in a Los Angeles church was also scheduled to be screened in Toronto, but was reportedly blocked by the singer.