New Wave of French Female Filmmakers Hit the Festival Circuit

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Reverberations from the 2018 Women’s March in Cannes echoed all the way to the Bell Lightbox this year, as the Toronto Film Festival played host to a social-minded pack of filmmakers transforming the French industry.

Alongside films from women’s march leaders Céline Sciamma (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”), Rebecca Zlotowski (“Savages”), and the late Agnès Varda (“Varda by Agnès”), the festival screened works from rising talents Justine Triet (“Sibyl”), Mati Diop (“Atlantics”), and Alice Winocour (“Proxima”) – and the fact that they all hit the festival circuit at the same time is not some happy accident.

“There’s definitely a new generation of women filmmakers in France, and they are creating a new wave,” says Iris Brey, a Franco-American author and academic. “Even if they’re all very different, and offer different cinematic experiences, they represent an emerging group that has decided to tell their stories from a feminine point of view.”

If Sciamma’s portrait of queer romance shares few story beats with Diop’s Senegalese ghost story or Winocour’s astronaut drama, as Brey sees it the diverse films exhibit a central animating quality.

“They’re all telling stories that we haven’t really heard before,” says Brey. “All these women are doing something similar – they’re asking questions about the body, and exploring the answers as a gendered experience. And that’s something revolutionary [in French cinema].”

Thematic explorations aside, this new wave – which also includes previous Toronto-selected directors Mia Hansen-Løve (“Maya”), Katell Quillévéré (“Heal the Living”), and Julia Ducournau (“Raw”), all at work on upcoming projects – shares more than a few superficial similarities as well. All are more or less the same age, and almost half of them stem from the screenplay department of the French national film school, La Fémis.

The latter fact reflects a quirk of the local industry that has allowed female directors to make their mark.

“In France, we have a financing system that is based more on screenplays than on director’s reels, music videos, or shorts that we would have made before,” says Zlotowski, whose recent title “An Easy Girl” won the Directors’ Fortnight prize for best French-language film this past May, and who will present episodes from her series “Savages” in Toronto.

“This system is beneficial, in that it allows women to emerge by removing the economic obstacles that could initially limit access,” she continues.

“The thing about our generation,” says Zlotowski, “is that we’re already onto our second, third, fourth feature film. That’s atypical and a little different, because in France there have always been women directors, but they haven’t always been able to continue to make features [in lockstep]. And that I think [our ability to do so] is related to a system that’s evolving.”

Zlotowski, along with Sciamma, has played an active role in shaping that system. Both have served as president of the Society of Film Directors (La SRF), a professional association that works to defend France’s cultural exception filmmaking model, and the two still remain on the board, trying to preserve certain institutions with one hand, while using the other to affect change.

In 2013, the two joined Le Deuxième Regard, an activist network meant to tackle questions of sexism and representation in the French industry. The network helped organize the Femmes de Cinema Lab, a kind of industry-inclusion think tank, and launched the French arm of the Belgian initiative Boost Camp, which offered development workshops to young female directors.

But the group’s focus would change over time, going from asking questions about the French industry – where female creatives have often got a foot in the door, but have had a harder time staying in the room and building a career, and where a 40% pay gap exists between male and female directors – toward acting upon the answers they found.

And so, following the success of the Women’s March in 2018, Le Deuxième Regard merged with the 50/50 Collective, an organization with a stated mission – to equalize parity and wages in front of and behind the camera – and a set of policy initiatives that could help achieve it.

Co-founded by Sciamma and counting Triet and Winocour as fellow members, the collective has sought to move the industry forward while recognizing that reforming France’s particular culture – which has sometimes been at odds with the post MeToo moment — would require a bespoke set of solutions.

“Our cultural paradigm makes it impossible to instill quotas and sanctions,” says Zlotowski. “And positive-discrimination, just by name alone, is a conversation ender. Our method is to ‘scientificize’ a debate that can lose any rationality once the questions of gender and sex come up.”

Instead, 50/50 has worked with public bodies like the CNC and the Ministry of Culture to create new legal paradigms incentivizing greater gender parity on film sets. Late last year, the collective announced a points-based subsidy, developed in partnership with the CNC, which would offer a 15% public-funding bonus to productions with female directors, cinematographers and key crew members.

The first of its kind in Europe, the scheme went into effect in early 2019, and so far 20 or so productions have benefited from it.

“Working with an incentive structure is more effective than working with a sanction structure,” says Zlotowski, “because once you raise political awareness, it can have a positive spread on all fronts.”

50/50’s efforts in Cannes are a testament to that. Two days after the 2018 Women’s March, Cannes chief Thierry Frémaux signed the 5050×2020 Charter, which resulted in the naming of a transparent, gender-balanced selection committee, and his hiring of Stéphanie Lamome as an artistic advisor with a pointed focus on promoting new voices. One year later, Diop and Ladj Ly, a male director admittedly but one born in Mali and brought up in a working-class suburb of Paris, brought their feature debuts to Cannes’ competition, and left the festival with a Grand Prix, a Jury Prize, and distribution deals with Netflix and Amazon.

Next stop, Toronto, where, along with Zlotowski, Sciamma, Triet and Winocour, they’ll take their places as part of the dynamic generation reshaping French cinema.

Films By Female French Directors at Toronto
“Arab Blues”
Director: Manele Labidi
Producer: Jean-Christophe Reymond
Key cast: Golshifteh Farahani, Majd Mastoura, Aïcha Ben Miled
Description: After years abroad, a woman returns to Tunis with the dream of opening up her own psychotherapy practice.
Section: Contemporary World Cinema

Director: Mati Diop
Producers: Judith Lou Lévy, Eve Robin
Key cast: Mama Sané, Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré
Marginalized young lovers in Senegal desperately seek a better life by any means necessary.
Section: Contemporary World Cinema

“My Zoe”
Director: Julie Delpy
Producers: Malte Grunert, Gabrielle Tana, Andrew Levitas, Hubert Caillard, Dominique Boutonnat
Key cast: Julie Delpy, Daniel Bruhl, Gemma Arterton
A recently divorced mother is driven to extremes.
Section: Platform

“Paris Stalingrad”
Director: Hind Meddeb
Producers: Hind Meddeb, Abel Nahmias, Mike Lerner, Sylvie Brenet
Documentary about refugees living in Paris’ Stalingrad district.
Section: TIFF Docs

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
Director: Céline Sciamma
Producer: Bénédicte Couvreur
Key cast: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino
Hired to paint a portrait ahead of a prospective marriage, an artist in 18th-century Brittany finds herself falling for the reclusive would-be bride.
Section: Special Presentations

Director: Alice Winocour
Producers: Isabelle Madelaine, Emilie Tisné
Key cast: Eva Green, Matt Dillon, Zélie Boulant-Lemesle
An astronaut and mother grapples with her commitment to her daughter as she undergoes gruelling physical training for a one-year stint in space.
Section: Platform

“Savages” (TV series)
Creators: Rebecca Zlotowski, Sabri Louatah
Key cast: Marina Foïs, Roschdy Zem, Amira Casar, Souheila Yacoub
Executive producers: Marco Cherqui, Joëy Faré
On the verge of an historic election victory, an Arabic candidate for the French presidency sees his ambitions threatened by a perfect storm of religious, cultural, and family politics.
Section: Primetime

Director: Justine Triet
Key cast: Virginie Efira, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Gaspard Ulliel
Producers: David Thion, Philippe Martin
A psychologist who longs to be a writer but lacks inspiration begins borrowing source material from a real-life patient and imperils both women in the process.
Section: Special Presentations

“Varda by Agnès”
Director: Agnès Varda
Producer: Rosalie Varda
Agnès Varda traces her career and life with characteristic humour and vibrant energy.
Section: Special Events