Here’s the (supposed) good news: The Venice Film Festival’s main competition lineup has twice the number of works directed by women as last year. The bad news: That means only a whopping total of two films, out of a slate of 21 titles.
Venice has made a stellar reputation for itself in recent years as a launching pad for award hopefuls, including star-studded Hollywood pics such as “La La Land” and “A Star Is Born.” But of the big-name film fests, it remains a laggard when it comes to gender diversity in its competition lineup.
Last year’s cohort of films vying for the Golden Lion included only one helmed by a woman, Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale.” There was also just one the year before that. This edition’s pair of female-directed movies are “The Perfect Candidate” by Saudi Arabia’s Haifaa Al-Mansour and “Babyteeth” from Australian Shannon Murphy. By contrast, four films competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May, and seven for the Golden Bear at Berlin in February.
Like Cannes chief Thierry Fremaux, who has also been criticized for selecting few female-directed films, Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera contends that fewer works by women are submitted, limiting his choices. He rejects any notion of quotas, insisting that quality alone must hold sway.
During his unveiling of the lineup Thursday, Barbera did not directly address the continued dismal showing of works by women in the main competition. But he clearly knew that the issue would be raised, and took pains to point out the representation of female filmmakers in the festival’s other sections and to call attention to works “dedicated to the female condition.”
He made note of competition title “Ema” by Pablo Larrain – “one of many portraits of females in the lineup” – and the documentary “Woman” by Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Anastasia Mikova, which is screening out of competition. Barbera acknowledged that some of the selections centering on women were directed by men, but he credited the gender-equality movement with helping to bring such stories to the fore.
“Women directors are unfortunately still a minority,” he said. “But these portraits of women, even when they are directed by men, reveal a new sensibility geared towards the feminine universe, as had rarely happened in the past. This is a signal that perhaps the polemics of recent years have made an impact in our sensibility and our culture.”
He also pointed out that half of the titles in this year’s Horizons short-films section are directed by women, “a sign that something is changing within new generations.”
But critics noted not only the low count of female-directed films in the main competition but the presence of “An Officer and a Spy,” the new movie by Roman Polanski, who was recently expelled by the Academy because of his conviction in 1977 of statutory rape. “1 rapist. 2 women directors in competition….What else am I missing?” tweeted Melissa Silverstein, founder of the organization Women and Hollywood.
1 rapist. 2 women directors in competition #Venezia76. What else am I missing?
— Melissa Silverstein (@melsil) July 25, 2019
Barbera defended Polanski’s inclusion, saying that the new film, about France’s notorious Dreyfus Affair, shows the director “at the top of his game. He is one of the last great masters of European cinema, and he’s more than 80. At his age, he’s able to make a film that is an extraordinary reconstruction of a historical event.”
Last year, Barbera joined the other major European festivals in signing the gender-parity pledge drawn up by the French organization 5050×2020, which commits the festivals to transparency in their selection processes and equal representation of men and women in the their senior management ranks.
Paolo Baratta, the president of the organization that oversees the film festival, announced Thursday that Venice would host a seminar on gender equality on Sept. 2 in collaboration with Women in Film and Italy’s #MeToo organization, Dissenso Comune.
The 76th Venice Film Festival runs from Aug. 28 to Sept. 7.
Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.