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.”

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