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Cannes Film Festival: Where are all the female directors?

This year, a whopping total of two women (out of 19 contenders) are in the running for the Festival’s top prize, the Palme D’Or

Sophie Ivan
Friday 16 May 2014 13:44 BST

It looked like business as usual on Cannes’ opening night – sun, sea, glamour, tragic princesses – until Jane Campion, 2014’s Jury President, took to the stage and delivered this humdinger: “Excuse me gentlemen, but the guys seem to eat all the cake”.

She wasn’t referring to the audience’s table manners but the “inherent sexism in the industry’, explaining how the Festival President, Thierry Frémaux, “told us that us only seven percent of the 1,800 films submitted to the Festival, were directed by women. He was proud to say that we had 20 per cent in all of the programs. Nevertheless, it feels very undemocratic.”

The issue of gender imbalance, like a pesky black cloud blighting the picture-perfect Riviera horizon, crops up at Cannes annually. Thankfully, we’re not in the same territory as 2012, when not a single woman was nominated for the Festival’s top prize, the Palme D’Or. This year, a whopping total of two women are in the running, out of 19 contenders (Alice Rohrwacher for ‘The Wonders’ and Naomi Kawase for ‘Still The Water’) – so perhaps we should be grateful for small mercies?

It has been much-publicised that this year’s main Jury, led by Campion (the only woman ever to have won the Palme D’Or), is female-dominated, but it’s hard not to wonder if this is a smokescreen for the bigger issue. Granted, the production stats remain shocking – in 2012, just 7.8 per cent of UK films were directed by women - so why should Cannes bear responsibility for the industry’s lack of diversity? Women And Hollywood blogger Melissa Silverstein argues it does: “Cannes is like a special club. Some women are allowed into it; so basically what Frémaux has done is inoculated the Festival against criticism by some of the most high profile women in the industry.”

What about a quota system? Filmmakers like Andrea Arnold (President of this year’s Cannes Critics Week Jury) have said they would hate for their films to be selected because of their gender, while Frémaux recently called the idea “stupid”: “Can you imagine us telling a director, ‘Look, you made a beautiful film but we’re going to take a film directed by a woman instead’?”

As Wednesday’s Euro-pudding opener, Grace of Monaco, reminded us, beauty is in the eye of the beholder; so isn’t it stupid not to consider that there might be films which are being overlooked by the film festival? Silverstein thinks so: “The idea of ‘great’ male-directed films is subjective.” She argues that the same people are put forward each year. It’s true that many of the names in this year’s Competition – Godard, Leigh, Loach, Cronenberg – wouldn’t have been out of place 20 years ago.

Though Kate Kinnimont, of Women in Film and Television UK, is hesitant to criticise Cannes: “We blame the end result rather than the journey for what happens in women filmmakers’ careers”. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, which the UK is taking steps to address. Festivals like Birds Eye View showcase work by women filmmakers, while Beryl Richards, of Directors UK, has been lobbying TV broadcasters: “We’ve found that women directors, get stuck, and just can’t get the work - and they’re extremely well qualified. People are shocked when we show them the figures”. British director Sally El Hosaini agrees: “Everybody knows there’s an issue, but the statistics don’t change. I’ve now come to think that positive discrimination is the only way change will be achieved.”

All agree that research is vital in locating the gaps – then the industry can be proactive in filling them. Silverstein and Richards suggest that anybody receiving public funding (half of Cannes’ 50 million Euro budget comes from state coffers) should be transparent about diversity. Silverstein and El Hosaini point to Sweden, which is working towards a 50:50 gender split in film production; while Richards cites successful examples of UK TV industry targets, like BBC increases in regional production. She says the issue of women directors should be no different. “It’s always a bit awkward to change but once it settles down everyone just sort of forgets about it and gets on with it.” Anyone for cake?

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