Gender Neutral Festival Awards Work in Theory, But Raise Questions in Practice, Say Venice Attendees

Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia/ASAC/Giorgio Zucchiatti/Jacopo Salvi

Once the Venice Film Festival branded this year’s modified version of the event as a trial balloon for future gatherings, industry minds began to wonder: With the festival scene undergoing such shifts, what other conventional wisdom was suddenly less than certain?

One idea in particular struck a chord with Venice attendees. Ever since the Berlin Film Festival announced that it would do away with gender-specific acting awards for its upcoming edition, which will run from Feb. 11-18, questions began to swirl: Was this feasible elsewhere? Was this preferable for the talent? Was this the way forward?

For many, the answers were clear. In Venice’s opening days, jury president Cate Blanchett and lifetime achievement honoree Tilda Swinton — two high-profile performers who have both claimed La Biennale’s Volpi Cup for best actress — offered unqualified praise for Berlin’s gender neutral plan.

“I think a good performance is a good performance no matter the sexual orientation of who is making them,” said Blanchett. “I am of the generation where the word actress was used almost always in a pejorative sense. So I claim the other space.”

“I don’t think in that very gender specific language,” she added. “Not as a political statement, but I’ve always referred to myself as an actor.”

Swinton wholeheartedly agreed. “This is not the way to go: dividing people up and prescribing a path for them, whether gender or race or class,” said the “Human Voice” star.

“I’m really happy to hear that about Berlin and I think it’s pretty much inevitable that everybody will follow. It’s just obvious to me. The whole idea of being fixed in any way, it just makes me claustrophobic.”

The idea continued to percolate throughout the festival, and as Variety spoke with filmmakers, jurors and festival directors, a similar refrain emerged: While all voiced theoretical support for the Berlinale’s plan, no one could say for certain just how it would play out in practice.

American producer Christine Vachon, who is serving on Venice’s Horizons jury, likened the idea to a promising, if as of yet untested, hypothesis.

“In theory, it’s a wonderful idea,” said Vachon. “And it will be interesting to see how it manifests. How do you reset your brain, either as a jury member or an Academy member — and I’m not saying the Academy will do this — to divorce yourself from the whole notion of best actor and best actress that we’ve grown up with? How do you reset?”

She then brought up her still ongoing jury duties. “It would change the nature of the conversations,” Vachon noted.

“Right now we’re talking about a certain set of performances that we feel are very strong by women, and another set of performances that we feel are strong by men. So we would have to meld those conversations. I’m not saying we couldn’t do it, I’m just saying it would be a different kind of discussion.”

For his part, Venice director Alberto Barbera struck a note of caution. “It could seem like a good thing, because it refuses to create a hierarchy based on gender,” said Barbera.

“It’s a way of reaffirming that women and men are the same in everything, and therefore, may the best one win…But I think it could have a counterproductive effect.”

“If the [lead acting] prize were to be won predominantly by men, then what type of polemics will that prompt? The current distinction [between male and female acting prizes] gives women and men the same opportunities.”

Meanwhile, Locarno artistic director Lili Hinstin approached the topic from a slightly different angle. “It’s a basic social question of our times that every festival needs to face,” she said.

“For me, the underlying issue is that, these days, there are more people who refuse the distinction between male and female, and so what acting category do you put them in? We are in a time where we have lots of complex intellectual challenges.”

Implicit in Hinstin’s point is a kind of challenge to global producers, filmmakers and casting directors. While festival organizers can do their part to better accommodate non-binary performers, it is up to industry players further up the supply chain to offer those actors the opportunities to shine.

Until that time comes, however, the industry remains faced with a frustrating, if all too common, disparity.

As “And Tomorrow the Entire World” director Julia von Heinz reminded, Berlin — and in fact, all of the international festivals — have had gender-neutral categories from the very start.

“Over the past decades, more than 90% of the gender-free Berlinale awards, such as best director or best film, were won by men,” said von Heinz. “I truly hope that the new actor award will not only put men to the fore, but also women and transgender people. And that should also be the case in the other categories in going forward.”