Women at Cannes Stress Urgency of Gender Gap in Film

At the final press conference of the Features jury, Ava DuVernay thanks Cate Blanchett for her remarkable leadership of their panel.

“Compton to Cannes. Dreamy!” tweeted Ava DuVernay to her two million followers once she arrived May 8th in Cannes, the globe’s most prestigious film festival. The directors of A Wrinkle in Time, Selma, and Thirteenth joined four other women on the jury of the feature competition, forming the majority of the body that selects the Palme d’Or winner, the festival’s most coveted prize. Just days earlier, Michelle Obama was on stage in Los Angeles – a short distance from Compton – at the United State of Women Summit. Tracee Ellis Ross, star of the TV series Blackish, sat across from the beloved former First Lady, leading her in a womanist conversation. The greatest portion of their 40 minute talk centered on a pointed question the actress asked: “Are girls today dreaming differently than we did?”

‘Dreaming’ and ‘Dreamy’ are not exactly equivalents, but they both flourish in a realm that more women are venturing into and in which women are taking charge. Dreams, framing ideas into visual constructs, are core in filmmaking. Many, many women are making films, excellent films, putting their dreams onto film. They just are not reaching key spotlights within the established boys’ clubs.

Until audiences see women’s visions crafted into vast, powerful imagery in film and media, the cacophony of women’s calls for full social, and cultural, parity will go unheeded. Without women and men, girls and boys being able to see the possibilities, hope and dreams from women’s imaginations – as well as women’s rightful place in historical drama – there cannot be equity in the workplace, the political arena, or bodily integrity.

The magic and mundanity of women’s visions are essential, and impact all other things. This awareness – while expressed in one of the very first feminist demands in 1967 at the National Conference for New Politics (Freedom for Women, Giardina) – has simmered on back burners among feminist media activists and advocates for decades. Only now has it finally percolated before the larger, general public, thanks, in large part, to the #MeToo movement.  Now the #TimesUp movement is taking things further by joining film stars with women from all industries, calling both for economic justice along with ending sexual harassment.

The Cannes Film Festival has been especially recalcitrant – as 5050X202, a French advocacy collective and Women & Hollywood, the U.S. based publication started by Melissa Silverstein, among many, have repeatedly pointed out. #Cannes2018, however has responded with some positive strides. Festival director, Thierry Fremaux, for many years has claimed that,“films are chosen on merit and that he opposes the idea of pro-women quotas and ‘positive discrimination.'” However, Jessica Chastian, a juror in the 2017 main competition, has had his ear, and may have finally gotten the message through. “She made me understand the importance of the female gaze,” Fremaux  said in March. He credits the U.S. actress with opening his eyes to creating equity in the selection process. Cate Blanchett, the Australian actress, a signator of the #TimesUp Letter of Solidarity (as is DuVernay), is president of the Feature Films jury. She oversees this key jury of four women, including DuVernay, and four men. The Un-Certain Regard jury is also comprised of a majority of women.

That over fifty percent of women are involved on the juries does not rectify the persistent problem that women’s work is not more often selected by festival staff and committees to be included in the ten day festival. Only three women-directed films are among the 21 films in this year’s feature competition for the festival’s most prestigious award. Jane Campion still (as #Cannes2018 has now closed) remains the sole woman to win the Palme d’Or in 1993 – that is twenty-five years ago – for The Piano. Agnes Varda, the mother of New Wave Cinema, received an honorary Palme d’Or in 2015.

On Saturday, May 12, 82 women – actresses, producers, directors, make-up artists, scriptwriters and other feminist media advocates – stood in a series of rows before the red carpet steps. In protest, the women represented the 82 women filmmakers who have made it into competition over the 71 year history of Cannes Film Festival. This is a mere 5% of the 1688 male-directed works. After marching en masse up the steps, Cate Blanchett, in English, then Agnes Varda, in French, read from their prepared statement.

“Women are not a minority in the world, yet the current state of the industry says otherwise,” Blanchett and Varda declared. The protest, organized by the French based 5050×20202 [here’s the US 5050×20202], was done just in advance of the screening of Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun. This feature, about Kurdish women fighters, was the first of only three women’s films to screen in the Features Competition of twenty-one total films.

The failure of the Cannes Festival to be more equitable is a policy issue. That Fremaux on many occasions emphasizes “merit-based” as the barrier for women reflects the failure to recognize male bias, with a false nod to ‘professionalism’ and a thorough lack of understanding about how the entire structure of filmmaking  — from funding to distribution — discriminates against women. LA Times reviewer, Justin Chang, too, disputes Fremaux’s premise, “All sorts of factors and favors come into play when programming a festival, and I’ve long suspected that if the process were strictly merit-based, we would routinely see more female filmmakers in competition.”

Before she could even get into the Cannes competition, Eva Husson, for her feature about the Kurdish women warriors taking on the Islamic State, needed to raise 4 million euros. She had immense difficulty. Twice as much could be raised for a war picture by a male director, she stated in an interview.

Take for instance the MEDIA Programme — a major public fund that supports European films, a division of Creative Europe established by the European Union. 84% of their awards went to male directors, with the men getting 86% of the monetary awards. Lecturer in Film Studies at University of Southampton, Huw Jones, documents this appalling data in an April article for The Conversation. He analyzed 1,473 films funded through a distribution process that promotes films across Europe.

The European Women’s Audiovisual Network – EWA – has been hammering at this problem for a number of years. In August 2015, as a major step, they worked with various stakeholders to create the Sarajevo Declaration. In a recent email to Philanthropy Women, their Project Manager Cecilia Johnson-Ferguson outlined the study they conducted in 2016 about public funding provided to projects led by women directors in Europe. Jones’ analysis is based on this study, she underscored.

“We are continuing to shepherd our recommendations through the EU process,” Johnson-Ferguson reported. Their contribution to the MEDIA Programme can be found here. Overall EWA seeks “an integration of gender equality among the priorities of the next Media Sub-Programme.” They conclude their request: “The imbalanced presence of women in the European audiovisual sector should be urgently addressed at the European Union level through concrete action.”

In the US, little is being done to ensure that women receive a fair share of the public funding for filmmaking. Two structural challenges hinder this. First there is no national, unified organization quite like the EWA leading the charge to both analyze the current public funding picture regarding women films – or other art forms for that matter – and then armed with such data taking the lead to correct the situation. Second, the agency structure in the US – in comparison to Europe where most countries have cultural ministers, even ministers of women’s issues – is a hodge-podge of different agencies with different interests and constituencies. So, it is hard to lasso them collectively into any unified effort. Last, an agency like the National Endowment for the Arts, which in this author’s opinion could best lead the collection of data across federal agencies, is so politically hand-tied to have the smallest of mandates. Its current Congressional Authorization would never allow such a study or correction. How sad. How discriminatory.

Women in the US have a lot of work yet to do to achieve equity in the film business. The most significant steps are policy issues. Maybe all the women this year running for political office is a sign of change that will impact this problem. With more women in office in 2019, perhaps they will enlarge America’s cultural mandate and the funding for cultural activities.

Women are not moving fast enough to significantly change the public funding picture, not in Europe nor in America. The directors of three important sectors of Cannes, however, did sign a pledge to: 1) create a more transparent selection process; 2) keep records of key filmmaker’s and key crew’s gender in submissions; and 3) to work toward parity on the executive board. One small step for womankind. This is not policy, but a promise.

The French minister of culture, Françoise Nyssen, one of the 82 women in the red carpet protest, announced after the action that she would work to assist women filmmakers to raise funds. She was following the lead of the Swedish Film Institute, headed by Anna Serner, “the first public film financing body to achieve parity in its allocation of funds”. Viva La France! Viva La Sweden!

Post Script:  We can all play a role on an individual basis to fund women filmmakers. Here is a feature narrative that deserve support, large or small. 39 1/2, now in post-production, is Kara Herold’s first feature. Filled with comic irony and high drama, it splendidly mixes live action with lyric animation. She’s just half way through raising $30,000. Your support can assist in making her dream a reality.

Related:

Confidence is Key: Female Filmmakers Discuss How to Get Financing

#MeToo and the Power Shift Women’s Funds Helped Create

Thought Leaders Discuss Origins of American Feminism, Parallels to Third Wave

 

Author: Ariel Dougherty

Ariel Dougherty is a teacher, filmmaker, producer and mentor for women directed media/culture of all stripes. SWEET BANANAS (director, 1973) and !WOMEN ART REVOLUTION (Producer, 2010) are among the hundreds films she has worked on. She writes at the intersections of women-identified media, especially film production, women's human rights, and funding for film. Currently, she is working on a book entitled Feminist Filmmaking Within Communities.

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