Before the #MeToo movement started shifting social and cultural perspectives, controversies at European film festivals were triggered by the selection of polarizing movies — think Gaspar Noe or Lars von Trier films. But in recent years, festivals such as Venice, Deauville, San Sebastian and Berlin have come under criticism when inviting and/or honoring filmmakers and talent who have been accused of sexual misconduct or domestic violence.
Whereas North American festivals such as Telluride, Sundance and Toronto have been careful about who they invite, either by conviction or pragmatism, their European counterparts have chosen to disregard red flags, underscoring a widening culture gap between the two continents.
Every major fest in Europe has had its share of controversy, including Venice, which selected Roman Polanski’s “An Officer and a Spy” for competition in 2019 and saw the film receive the Grand Jury Prize. Also in 2019, Berlin faced a crisis during the inaugural edition of artistic director Carlo Chatrian with the Russian competition title “Dau,” whose director, Ilya Khrzhanovsky, was accused of harassment and also creating a difficult on-set environment for women.
In most cases, however, the negative press in mainstream media stemmed from the U.S. — and to some extent U.K. outlets — while local media either glossed over such reports or ignored them. Away from the public eye, festival artistic directors are often being applauded for rebelling against the so-called “cancel culture,” as if an ideological war was playing out behind these festival selections.
The Deauville American Film Festival is a good example of how Europe and America are addressing #MeToo-related issues differently, even if it’s ramped up significantly the number of female directors across the program. Deauville’s artistic director Bruno Barde has faced some backlash, mostly from the U.S. press and advocacy groups, when he invited Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and Morgan Freeman at a time when each were facing public accusations of sexual abuse and harassment. This year, the fest kicked off on Sept. 3 with Johnny Depp —- who recently lost his bid to overturn a U.K. High Court’s ruling which concluded he assaulted his ex-wife Amber Heard —- being welcomed like a rock star by local fans as he rolled onto the red carpet on opening night. Depp isn’t being honored in Deauville, but he’s there to present Brad Furman’s “City of Lies” and participate in the masterclass. The French media coverage of Depp’s appearance and the festival’s opening night didn’t allude to the actor’s legal turmoil, and to be fair, inviting Depp to a French festival these days isn’t exactly an act of rebellion by local standards.
Depp also attended the Karlovy Vary festival in late August in support of doc “Crock of Gold” and his own film “Minamata.”
“I condemn strongly any act domestic or sexual violence and I trust the legal system of democratic countries such as France and the U.S. to put people who have been convicted of either in prison,” said Barde. “Justice is where I draw the line. If someone is condemned I don’t invite that person, even if I don’t agree with the ruling, but if there hasn’t been a conviction, I’m not going to act as a judge and neither should social media; my philosophy is that God awaits our death to judge our sins and we should not be more impatient than him.”
In fact, Depp continues to star in the global ad campaign for Dior’s Sauvage fragrance.
San Sebastian Film Festival went a step further than Deauville this year, giving Depp the Donostia Award and scheduling an honorary tribute during its upcoming edition. Last year, the festival also drew some negative headlines when Allen’s “Rifkin’s Festival” was selected for the opening night.
“Society is now becoming aware of the serious problem of male violence and this is very positive. We are of course committed to fighting violence against women but, at the same time, we defend basic principles such as the presumption of innocence and the right to reintegration,” said José Luis Rebordinos, the artistic director of San Sebastian Film Festival.
“We think that it’s not the festivals role to judge the private life of individuals who are part of the film industry,” said Rebordinos, who acknowledged that the controversy has been caused by the “presence of a Woody Allen film at the festival in 2020 and by the Donostia Award to Johnny Depp this year” but added that “none of them have been arrested or convicted for violence against women.”
Melissa Silverstein, the founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood, which promotes gender diversity and inclusion in Hollywood and in the global film industry, says the position of European festivals is surprising because they tend to be particularly outspoken when it comes to improving the gender balance in their respective lineups, whereas “no one in the U.S. really writes about gender at home festivals and only write about it during awards season […] and then, on the other hand, there is this sense of European festivals not being interested in thinking through about who they honor. And it’s almost a different side of the same coin,” said Silverstein.
Silverstein said when programmers argue that “no one’s been convicted and there’s been no court case, it misses an important piece of this conversation, which is the fact that most all of these issues never make it to court.”
“It’s not about adjudication. It’s about believing people and listening to people. And we spent a lot of decades, if not centuries not believing women and not listening to women. And now we’ve entered a place where people are listening to women,” said Silverstein, who added that women are getting pushed back on these issues because they challenge people in power.
“It’s about power. Johnny Depp is a big celebrity, and festivals inviting him are not only getting the pushback, which is press-generating, they’re also getting a person who people still really adore,” explained Silverstein, adding that France is clearly falling behind the curve when it comes to #MeToo. A telling illustration of this is the fact that the country’s national film board is still presided over by someone who was placed under formal investigation for attempted assault a year ago.
Former longtime Warner Bros. Italia exec Domizia De Rosa, the president of Women in Film, Television & Media Italia, said “festivals always have the duty of being extremely aware of the impact of their choices as it is part of their role to highlight [culture …] and controversial decisions are welcome when they raise the bar of a discussion and shatter stereotypes, but controversial decisions with no clear thinking behind them will inevitably appear as pure provocations.”
De Rosa said #MeToo-related issues are being progressively taken more seriously in Italy, “but the growing sensibility is not spread equally across the sector. No doubt there is still much work to be done and tons of patriarchal dust to be wiped away.”
She said Venice’s response to the criticism over Polanski’s selection that “we should always make a distinction between the artist and the man did not surprise [her].”
“The Venice festival has always stated that art comes first in their selections and of course as a general principle I am sure nobody would want differently,” she said.
De Rosa said Italians defending these positions often refer to Renaissance painter Caravaggio, who was a killer, but also a great artist. “We do not throw away his paintings because of his crimes, so we have to respect this contemporary artist who may be a Caravaggio of tomorrow. I believe that the Caravaggio theorem works well for dead artists, who can not attend [festivals]. For the living ones, let’s think twice about the message we are giving today.”