In 1946, the inaugural year of the Cannes Film Festival, Barbara Virginia’s surrealist film, “Tres dias sem Deus” debuted in competition. Over the subsequent seven decades, as it has grown in stature to become one of the world’s premier film gatherings, Cannes hasn’t matched that early promise in highlighting female artists.
Finally, the powers that be at the Cannes Film Festival appear to be getting the message. After being criticized for failing to spotlight female directors, four will have their work in the main competition in 2019 – “Atlantique” by Mati Diop, “Little Joe” by Jessica Hausner, “Sibyl” by Justine Triet, and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” by Céline Sciamma. That may seem like a paltry number, but it’s the best showing since 2011 and represents more than 21% of the 19 competition entries that have been announced so far. That’s up from 14% in 2018 and 16% in 2017. It could also improve if more competition titles are added at a later date, as is often the case.
Overall, 13 female directors are represented in the 47-film official selection unveiled Thursday by artistic director Thierry Fremaux. (Two of the women were co-directors on the same film.)
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Cannes’ numbers lag behind those of other prominent film festivals. For instance, women directed 46% of the competition films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and 40% of the competition titles at the Berlin Film Festival.
But Cannes’ new lineup offers a sign that, in its 72nd year, the festival is beginning to foster a more inclusive environment for artists of different genders, races, creeds, and sexualities. In a nod to the changes afoot, the fest’s official poster features an image of pioneering filmmaker Agnes Varda, showing her perched precariously on the back of a technician in order to get a shot for her first film, “La Pointe Courte,” which she made in her 20s.
Cannes still has a lot of ground to make up. Over the festival’s first 71 years, the numbers were abysmal. A mere 4.3% of competition entries were directed by women, or 82 movies. By comparison, more than 1,600 men vied for the Palme d’Or, the festival’s highest honor, over that period. Only one woman, “The Piano’s” Jane Campion, has ever won it.
Any progress in terms of representation of female filmmakers is partly attributable to protest and pressure. Last year, 82 women walked the red carpet at Cannes to sound off on the lack of representation for female directors. Their ranks includes Ava DuVernay, Kristen Stewart, Marion Cotillard and Salma Hayek. The star-packed group listened in solidarity as Cannes jury president Cate Blanchett and Varda read a statement that said: “Women are not a minority in the world, yet the current state of our industry says otherwise. As women, we all face our own unique challenges, but we stand together on these stairs today as a symbol of our determination and commitment to progress.”
A day later Blanchett, Stewart, DuVernay, and others looked on as Fremaux signed a pledge to improve gender parity at international film festivals. On Thursday, Fremaux said that this year’s selection committee was equally balanced between men and women.