×

Film Festival Preview: Female Directors Tackle Tough Issues

Gender equality remains a hot topic in the film fest world. The industry program of the Toronto fest will focus on the issue, with a series of high-profile speakers discussing bias and female-driven content. Likewise, Iceland’s Reykjavik fest is organizing a panel with its local industry and the minister of culture to discuss the question: “Is a gender quota the answer in filmmaking?”

When Thierry Fremaux announced the Cannes lineup in spring, he once again faced criticism that women filmmakers were underrepresented, particularly in the main competition. However, one could say the same thing regarding this year’s Venice competition, curated by Alberto Barbera, and the main New York Film Festival program announced by fest chief Kent Jones.

Would things be different if there were femme toppers at Cannes, Venice and New York? Or is programming more a matter of personal taste, timing and, of course, politics? Variety talks to some female fest directors to find out their views on the issue and what informs their decision-making.

Janet Pierson is responsible for the vision, programming and execution of the SXSW Film Conference and Festival. Before joining SXSW in April 2008, Janet spent more than 30 years championing independent films in a variety of roles, including those of exhibitor, producer’s rep and executive producer.

“I’m certainly sensitive to trying to include more women directors, but ultimately we make our selections based on the strength of the work,” she says. “There seem to be more women working in documentary and as narrative producers, but less representation from narrative directors. … On the other hand, I couldn’t be more proud of our role in the launch of many women filmmakers, including Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, Amy Seimetz and Kris Swanberg, just to name a few.”

Martha Otte, who has been head of Norway’s adventurous Tromso Film Festival for 13 of its 25 editions, worked her way up through the ranks at her organization. She rejects the idea that a female festival director brings something different to the job.

“The question implies a gender stereotyping that I don’t subscribe to,” she says. “Gender is undoubtedly an important variable in many areas of our lives, and I do think screening films by women (and other marginalized groups) is imperative to combat prejudice and discrimination, it’s just that gender doesn’t help me describe the challenges and rewards I have experienced as festival director.”

Tiina Lokk, founder and head of Tallinn’s Black Nights Film Festival, launched the fest in 1997, raising two daughters and changing Estonian film culture in the process. She, too, disclaims a notable difference between a male and female sensibility as a fest boss. “I’ve never thought in that way,” she says. “(But) the selections of the films do not depend on the sex of the person, for me it has always been important that the film is good.”

Daniela Michel founded the Morelia Intl. Film Festival, for which she serves as both general director and artistic director. “While attending film school I learned how difficult the film world was for women. So in my case, I certainly do pay more attention to the work being done by women filmmakers. Unfortunately, in my country, not even the work of pioneer directors like Adela Sequeyro and Matilde Landeta has been sufficiently recognized. There is a lot to be done, but fortunately there are now many Mexican women directors doing excellent work, being recognized in international festivals.”

Git Scheynius, who co-founded the Stockholm Film Festival in 1990, says, “For Stockholm it’s all about the quality of the movies, not about the gender of the director. Having said this, I have always encouraged female directors and female talent with different initiatives throughout the years. As a result, we have today a 30%-35% share of female directors in the festival program. That is something I wanted to change and I am in a position where I have the power to do it.”

As artistic director of the Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival, Helen du Toit shares a similar philosophy. “In terms of female vs. male artistic directors, all of us will have our own creative leanings and management style,” she says. “I suspect — or perhaps hope — that female artistic directors or festival directors will consciously aim for a healthier balance of stories that appeal to both genders. To me this just seems like good business, as the audience is likely 50% female at the average festival. But there are simply fewer films made by women to choose from — although that is changing slowly but surely — and more in the international scene than in the U.S., sadly.”

Hronn Marinosdottir, who launched the Reykjavik Intl. Film Festival in 2004, acknowledges that there is a big debate about gender equity in Iceland at the moment and feels that it is important to keep the discussion going. RIFF is establishing a filmmaking workshop for teenage girls in order to teach them about filmmaking and raise awareness.

While there are women helming bigger international fests such as AFI (Jacqueline Lyanga), London (Clare Stewart), Istanbul (Azize Tan), Cartagena (Diana Bustamante), Haifa (Pnina Blayer), Amsterdam’s IDFA (Ally Derks) and Wroclaw’s New Horizons (Joanna Lapinska), the heavyweight events — Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance — have always had men as artistic directors. Will this ever change?

Pierson speculates, “Perhaps part of the issue is how little turnover there is in the role.”

Du Toit concurs, “I suspect that the ongoing success of most of those festivals means they don’t see a reason to change. But hopefully when their current leaders do move on, they will give the many excellent international female directors, artistic directors and programmers an equal shot at their top positions.”

Du Toit concedes that “innate prejudices guide everyone’s decisions. When I am hiring, I often hire women — largely because I find them to be better team players. Men likely do the same. Many women have had to work harder to prove that they are qualified, so some have broken through — hopefully opening doors for more women in the power seats.”

Marinosdottir is blunt: “It is a fact that more and more women are becoming festival directors — same as is happening in world sales. And generally speaking, women are probably more collaborative and that is a huge strength. It is the old festivals that are still run by men.”

More Film

  • Matt Damon and Tom McCarthy Team

    Matt Damon Teams with 'Spotlight' Director Tom McCarthy on New Film (EXCLUSIVE)

    Even as buzz grows for his upcoming race car drama “Ford v. Ferrari,” Matt Damon looks to keep the pedal to the metal: the A-lister is set to star in the Participant Media feature film “Stillwater” with Tom McCarthy directing. Damon attached himself in May, and the package was quickly acquired by Participant, who previously [...]

  • US actor Kevin Spacey (C) is

    Kevin Spacey Shouldn't Be Exonerated in Hollywood Even as Criminal Case Ends (Column)

    The news that criminal charges against Kevin Spacey in the Nantucket groping case have been dropped raises an inevitable question: does this mean he can claw his way back into Hollywood’s good graces? Or maybe more importantly: should it?  Spacey’s rapid descent was startling, even as it quickly followed that of the once untouchable producing [...]

  • Movie Ticket Subscriptions

    As MoviePass Fades, Theaters Fall In Love With Subscription Services

    MoviePass may be cratering, but movie theater subscriptions are here to stay. AMC and Cinemark already operate their own online ticketing services. And by the end of July, Regal Entertainment is expected to unveil a subscription plan for customers accustomed to getting all manner of entertainment for a monthly fee. With ticket sales down more [...]

  • This photo shows composer Hans Zimmer

    Hans Zimmer on Recreating Iconic Score: 'The Lion King' 'Brought People Together'

    Composer Hans Zimmer is seated at the mixing board at the Sony scoring stage, head bobbing to the music being performed by 107 musicians just a few yards away. He’s wearing a vintage “Lion King World Tour” T-shirt, frayed at the collar. On the giant screen behind the orchestra, two lions are bounding across the [...]

  • Lion King merchandise

    'The Lion King': Disney Targets Nostalgic Adults With High-End Merchandise

    Does Nala wear lipstick? Probably not, but “The Lion King” fans can celebrate the release of the live-action remake with a new line of makeup that’s part of a whole pride of other items themed to Disney’s live action redo. For about $40, the Can’t Wait to Be Queen eyeshadow palette by Luminess Cosmetics includes [...]

  • 'Cats' Movie Trailer: Watch Taylor Swift,

    'Cats' Trailer Drops: Watch Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson in Movie Musical

    Universal has released the first trailer for its film adaptation of the Broadway play, “Cats,” starring Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson and James Corden. Based on the book “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T.S. Eliot, the musical follows the Jellicle cats, a family of felines who go before the group’s leader Old Deuteronomy to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content