Women Fight to Be Seen at Cannes, Other Major Film Festivals

Cannes Film Festival Me too movement
jun cen for Variety

“I’m a supporter of positive discrimination in everyday life, but not in the selection process of Cannes. Filmmakers want to be considered as artists,” said Thierry Frémaux after the Cannes lineup was announced.

Fremaux, director of the fest, is expected to announce further measures in support of anti-harassment initiatives at a Monday press conference in advance of the fest’s opening.

His earlier remarks came in defense of the world’s most high-profile festival selecting only three female-helmed films for its 2018 competition. While observers had hoped that in the wake of #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, gender pay parity and inclusion riders, Cannes would reconsider its attitude toward women directors, Fremaux’s answer is both honest and disingenous.

Honest because women helmers will tell you that it’s true — they are artists and should be considered as such, just as their male counterparts are — but disingenuous because what the debate has illuminated is the lack of avenues for women helmers to create films worthy of Cannes. Or any other world-class festival.

Despite increased scrutiny, the lack of female filmmakers in competition is neither new nor interesting, with the conversation around it at a kind of stalemate — a problem repeatedly acknowledged, but rarely addressed.

Cannes is not the only culprit here, with the Venice Film Festival screening only one female-directed film in competition in 2017 (Vivian Qu’s “Angels Wear White”).

“I don’t think it’s our fault. … I’m sorry that there are very few films from women this year, but we are not producing films,” said festival director Alberto Barbera at the time.

“A differentiation should be made between female filmmakers and Time’s Up,” Frémaux said in April.

While there is a differentiation between the widespread normalization of sexual harassment in the film industry and a lack of female directors, to suggest there is no correlation at all is to gloss over the ways in which women are not welcome in the movie-making workplace.

Several international film festivals have acknowledged this link. Actions include introducing codes of conduct for festival delegates (Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca) in an attempt to create safer spaces for women in environments where booze, parties and dealmaking frequently collide, as well as more deliberate attempts to reach gender parity across film programs.

Eight of 10 films in SXSW’s narrative competition and 46% of Tribeca’s pic slate were directed by women, while this year’s Hot Docs boasts a 50/50 gender split in its filmmakers, as well as a themed strand of films and talks titled Silence Breakers, about female whistleblowers.

Sundance London has responded to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements by asking #WhatsNext. Following Sundance’s lead, in which 21 of 56 competition films were directed by women, the festival’s London offshoot features an 11-film competition with seven of the films made by women.

Sundance London director of programming Clare Binns says: “When we sat down at the end of Sundance back in January and made a list of films we wanted, it was not on our minds to specifically target films made by women. It just so happened also that a large quantity of the invited films were made by women. The quality of the films we invited was also extremely high, higher than it has ever been. Go figure.”

A milder way to put women in the spotlight might be to do so in a literal sense. Cannes officials say they aim for gender balance in the competition jury, and this year is no exception, with Cate Blanchett as president, joined by Kristen Stewart, Ava DuVernay, Khadja Nin and Lea Seydoux.

Binns says of this year’s Cannes: “They have made a great point of their juries being diverse, but the programming to me still seems very skewed, gender-wise, towards older male filmmakers. But I think any steps aimed at balancing things out, achieving some sort of parity, can only be a good thing.”

Yet there still remains the concern that festivals’ interest in #MeToo and Time’s Up is simply political posturing — a cynical attempt to remain relevant without questioning their own practice. This year’s Berlinale saw a dedicated symposium that tackled the issue of gender parity, but was criticized for its endorsement of Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk, who was invited to present “Human, Space, Time and Human” in its Panorama sidebar despite being embroiled in a court case accusing him of assaulting an actress onset.

Similarly, this year’s Cannes sees the return of Lars Von Trier with “The House That Jack Built” — his Zentropa Studios co-founder Peter Aalbaek Jensen (and film’s producer) has faced sexual harassment allegations from nine female employees. Von Trier has also been accused by Bjork of sexual harassment. He denies the allegations.

The suggestion of “no platforming” artists with troubled histories is an unpopular one, though what’s at stake here is perhaps less a question of censorship than it is of legitimization — of who is inoculated by power, and whose professional reputations are at risk.