Ghost Sex and Volcano Taming: Female-Led Folk Films at Fantasia 2021

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Letterboxd’s editor in chief Gemma Gracewood focuses on shorts and features with women in leading roles at the 25th Fantasia Film Festival

When we can safely travel again, one of the first places I would like to visit is Montevideo, based purely on how cute it looks in Ghosting Gloria—and on how horny Uruguay’s ghosts appear to be. My first watch of Fantasia 25, the sexy rom-com-horror set the tone for a varied selection of shorts and features all led by women, many of them leaning into myths and folktales.

Last year, I somehow fell into a crazed pit of movies containing splat-tastic claymation nuclear cattle, or David Arquette wrestling with flourescent lightbulbs, or right-wingers co-opting a gormless cartoon frog. Innocently thinking that this pandemic might be over soon, it was exactly the kind of over-the-top insanity I needed. 

But as time marches on, with the Delta strain racing the clock, I’m digging for something different with my genre scares. Deeper, older, more invisible. In Ghosting Gloria’s case, it is the titular character’s search for the elusive orgasm, or an undisturbed sleep, whichever comes sooner once she moves from her beach-front apartment with its loudly fornicating upstairs neighbours, to a quieter spot. 

Only problem is, the quaint new deco pad still houses a previous occupant, who has unfinished business on this earth. And while he’s attempting to finish that business, he kills time getting all invisibly busy under Gloria’s linen—lending a saucy twist to that old horror classic, the sheet-ghost (thanks to deliciously simple special effects). 

The tone of Ghosting Gloria is adorably all over the place: one minute it is a Tatiesque laugh-out-loud slapstick horror; the next, a Crossing Delancey style bookshop rom-com, complete with kooky best friend; and then it really swings for the fences with a last-act twist on Pixar’s Soul, or Nora Ephron’s Michael.  

The first half is far better than the second, but I was fully entertained—and more crucially, distracted from the woes of the world. I’ll happily see more from writer-directors Mauro Sarser and Marcela Matta (you can watch their 2016 debut feature Los Modernos for free on Vimeo). I would also suggest that we should expect a butchered Hollywood remake of this any minute now. Alas, even ghost-sex is probably too much sex for mainstream American cinema right now. 

Up to Iceland, where, in her black and white short film Aska, Montreal-raised director Clara Milo builds a world in just fifteen minutes that I wanted to stay in for one hundred more. With the ashes of their mother’s bones stored safely in a precious box, two sisters begin a pilgrimage to “heal the mountain’s fever”—and in doing so come to their own understanding of a witch’s power and purpose.

Aska captures the sensual power of a threatening volcano, and the equally sensual power of women who believe that their connection with the earth gives them the green light to offer their own mother’s bone-dust to calm it. Very much here for that. 

Over in Canada, the earth is still angry, this time at a mining conglomerate that seeks to strip the goodness from a local reservation. Don’t Say Its Name kicks into gear after an anti-mining activist is killed and a violent, invisible force begins attacking other locals. Ex-soldier Stacey (Sera-Lys McArthur) is called in by the local cop Betty (Madison Walsh) to help with the hunt. 

As Indigenous eco-horrors go, the set-up is fine, but this script is a few drafts short of a polish. The directing choices betrays Cree filmmaker Reuben Martell’s background in television: small character moments are done well, the bigger scares and action pieces don’t yet show a strong point-of-view. I did appreciate the thematic focus on greedy conglomerates dangling temptations like “training” and “opportunities” in front of a town’s young people as some kind of fair reward for strip-mining native land. Look, women-with-guns kicking ass in the snow is never unwelcome, and the final few minutes pack a satisfying, vengeful wallop. 

Don’t Say Its Name is yet more proof that Fantasia, more than most film festivals, is a place of welcome for films about the living earth, ancestral tales, spirits and rituals, myths and legends. This year’s shorts selection, Radical Spirits, contains incredible voices working in this realm, who will be thrilling to hear more from. All six films are stunners, but in particular, Ana Karen Alva Medina’s At Last, the Sea brings to rich life a centuries-old Veracruz legend about Soledad, a woman imprisoned for witchcraft, who is supported in her cell by many foremothers. Same goes for Mergen, a historical thriller from Kazhakstan featuring a granny with the means to beat the bad guys.  

Also in the Radical Spirits program, Cho Hyun-a’s A Sip of Water explores in utterly gorgeous, rainbow-bright animation a South Korean female shaman’s irresistible call of the gods, while Lifeblood, a product of, and project by, the Indigenous people of Bourke Shire in Australia, animates beating-hot drought, the bends of the Darling River, and the Indigenous artforms of the region’s clans. I could listen to Yuwaalaraay musician Nardi Simpson’s narration all day long; the entire sound design is divine.  

Lest this all feels as if these women characters are calling only on their goddesses for guidance, the two selections from New Zealand, where my Fantasia journey physically took place (all praise the hybrid festivals making press access easy in a pandemic), offer gritty alternatives.

Steven Chow’s short Munkie sees its female lead, Rose, take matters into her own hands when her domineering father creates abusive conditions so that she’ll achieve perfect grades. A little FYI for dads: that never works. Rose, quite over it, calls in some local drug-dealers to act as scary hitmen. Things go awry in the suburban, cookie-cutter house, and Chow is excellent at ratcheting up tension in tight spaces—but, ultimately, Rose herself feels somewhat underdeveloped. (Possibly ‘cos her dad has confined her to her desk all these years.) 

Meanwhile, in James Ashcroft’s absolutely brutal but incredibly well-made feature Coming Home in the Dark, the only woman in the cast is the only character to claim some agency in her threatened fate. The less said the better, as the film, constructed from a noted short story and dark patches of New Zealand’s history, is coming to VOD and select theaters on October 1. Except to stress how very, very good Miriama McDowell is in everything she does. Wāhine toa! 

Finally, it’s worth mentioning—though I haven’t got to them yet—the films in Fantasia’s most celebrated shorts block, Born of Woman. Stacked with emerging talent, it is definitely the place to spot upcoming stars. Plus: my colleagues will be looking at several more witchy, ghostly features with great female characters (Hellbender, All the Moons, Martyrs Lane) in the next few diaries.