It’s no secret we live in a digital age. One of the benefits is that if one group feels they have been done an injustice, you better believe the entire world (okay, internet) will hear about it immediately. While I am not fortunate enough to attend the Cannes Film Festival, I have been keeping an eye on the blogosphere rumblings. There were many complaints over the lack of female directors in festival competition for the Palme d’Or for Best Picture (the number went from 4 in 2011 to ZERO this year). Fun fact: Only one woman has won this top prize. Jane Campion was a tied winner with THE PIANO in 1993. This is of course a familiar observation. Yet another platform to showcase exemplary filmmaking looks a lot like an old fashioned boys club. It’s the Oscar’s Best Director debate all over again. History always repeats itself, I guess.
I’m always torn in taking a side in this long-standing debate, especially a female filmmaker. I truly see the whole picture as a “nature vs. nurture” scenario when it comes to balancing the playing field for female filmmakers.
“Thierry Fremaux, who as general delegate of the festival is charged with selecting the films each year, responded by saying that he would never allow a system of quotas to be introduced in order to promote female film makers. He did concede that the lack of female directors was a problem, but not one particular to Cannes.” — Chicago Tribune’s Regret but no surprise Cannes lacks women directors
Film has a history a LONG history of being dominated by men. Just look around. There are more male studio execs, filmmakers, film festival directors and film school graduates. One can’t even begin to turn that tide without first acknowledging this business is sexist in origin. For example, what we today call “script supervisors” were once known as script girls and women were originally hired as early film editors because of their slender fingers. Even in 2012, we have studios pumping out more films targeted at the “under 25 male” demo than any other audience group. This industry is far from perfect, but that doesn’t mean women artists have to keep quiet about this sad status quo.
NURTURE: I refuse to believe that it’s all doom and gloom when it comes to furthering equality in the film industry. We have to recognize/celebrate each woman who’s worked damn hard to make a step towards progress like:
- Julie Dash (first Black woman to have a full-length general theatrical release in the U.S. with DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST in 1992)
- Kathryn Bigelow (first woman to win Best Director Oscar for THE HURT LOCKER in 2009)
- Ava DuVernay (first Black female director to win 2012 Sundance’s Best Director Award for her second narrative feature MIDDLE OF NOWHERE)
- Sophia Coppola (first American woman to win the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival for SOMEWHERE in 2010)
- Dee Rees (winner of 2012 Spirit Awards John Cassavetes Award, awarded to features budgeted at less than $500,000 for her short film-turned-feature PARIAH)
- Jennifer Yuh Nelson (most successful female director in Hollywood history with KUNG FU PANDA, which made $700 million at box office)
- Kasi Lemmons (her directorial debut EVE’S BAYOU was the highest-earning independent film of 1997)
And that’s just off the top of my head. Hell, any young woman brave enough to speak her mind in a classroom overflowing with male peers and professors in film programs across the globe should get a round of applause too.
As in any solid fight against adversity, it doesn’t do any good to place all the blame on the “enemy”. It’s true that the numbers don’t lie. This industry is male dominated. The question now is “What can we do about it?”
The cynic in me says “Well anyone with enough money can buy their way into any festival, right?” The more vocal optimist, however, remains faithful that the real solution is to build a strong professional support network for women filmmakers. I mulled about this right around Oscar time in January (read here) and I’ll now adapt a film festival version of my call to action.
We NEED more female gatekeepers. It’s crazy to keep putting all the weight on women filmmakers to produce a quality project AND screen at the premiere festivals. We have to go a step further if we’re truly going to level the playing field. Who are the today’s influential female fest directors & programmers, publicists, critics and agents/managers? I aspire to work as a film festival associate and even I can only recall two names without going into an exhaustive Google search: SXSW film producer Janet Pierson and AFI FEST Director Jacqueline Lyanga. Bottom line, it truly takes a village to see real change.
I do agree wholeheartedly with this Twitter-blasted rebuttal from Andrea Arnold, Cannes jury member and filmmaker (FISH TANK) on the whole situation:
“I would absolutely hate it if my film got selected because I was a woman. I would only want my film to be selected for the right reasons and not out of charity because I’m female.”
We definitely do not need to be promoting reverse sexism. If there weren’t any high-caliber films directed by female filmmaker worthy of contending for Best Picture, then festivals shouldn’t just pick one out of pity. That doesn’t mean the system isn’t still flawed. I have to believe that securing at least a few women to watch submitted films alongside their male counterparts in the top film festivals of the world couldn’t hurt. While a love of cinema may be universal, one’s reaction to a film is subjective. What a man might deem quality might be judged differently by his female counterpart and vice versa. Throw out gender for a second, any two people rarely react the EXACT same way to one film. Perhaps if we have more females in decision-making job titles in addition to holding roles behind the camera, we’ll see a rise in more fest selections helmed by female-led productions in prestigious competitions. Just maybe.