Venice 2019: Greater transparency in selection process may help address gender parity at film festivals

Baradwaj Rangan

Aug 01, 2019 18:12:47 IST

The issue of gender parity has come up again after the Venice Film Festival announced its line-up, with only two Competition titles from women filmmakers: Haifaa Al-Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate and Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth. (If you want to make a grim joke, you could say it’s a full 100 percent increase from last year, which saw only Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale competing for the Golden Lion.) I think everyone agrees that one would like to see as many female filmmakers as male in every given scenario, whether at the Oscars or at these speciality film festivals. I think we also agree that tokenism has no place in art, that a film cannot be included simply because it has been directed by someone from the minority, i.e. anyone who is not a white male. At least from the viewpoint of whoever is doing the selection, the film has to be good, it has to be worthy and not just representational.

 Venice 2019: Greater transparency in selection process may help address gender parity at film festivals

Venice International Film Festival 2018. Twitter

Before the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, artistic director  Thierry Frémaux had this to say when asked about the domination of male filmmakers: “A differentiation should be made between female filmmakers and Time’s Up. The question of a quota in no case concerns the artistic selection of a festival. Films are chosen for their quality.” The same year, Jury President Cate Blanchett was asked how the jury would sit in judgement of the new Godard film [The Image Book]. “With an open mind,” she said. “By trying to remove names and pasts and just dealing with the present.” The same thing could be said about any director. Remove the name (and thus, the gender). Just see the film for what it is.

The last word on this subject, in my view, comes from the Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller. In a 2017 interview published in Lenny, she said, “We are directors, not female directors. It doesn’t make sense to me to mark differences between men and women filmmakers. The question is to make good movies. I always say that a good writer should be able to identify with all the different characters he or she may create. We should always remember [Gustave] Flaubert’s provocation: ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi’. [Madame Bovary is me.]” While this is certainly the ideal, it’s important to note that Wertmüller is the first female filmmaker to be nominated for the Best Director Academy Award (for her 1975 World War II drama, Seven Beauties) – which means that for nearly five decades since the first Oscar ceremony was held in 1929, no female filmmaker was even nominated.

That is certainly a troubling statistic. Now, take this other statistic. Since Wertmüller’s nomination, only four other female filmmakers have been nominated: Jane Campion (The Piano), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), and Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), who became the only female director to win an Oscar. Or take this other troubling statistic. Since 1929, it isn’t all the way until 1991 that we find the first African American to be nominated for Best Director (John Singleton for Boyz n the Hood). And since then, there have been only a handful of nominees (Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele, Spike Lee) and no wins. You could come up with troubling statistics for every minority group.

There are many reasons for this. For one, there simply aren’t that many minority filmmakers. The white-male director pool is infinitely bigger, and the chances of finding a festival-worthy film (say, at Venice) made by this demographic are greater. (It’s just maths.) And I think instead of asking a film festival why there are so few female filmmakers in Competition, we should ask (1) how many quality women filmmakers are actually out there, and (2) how many of these filmmakers submitted their films for consideration by the Venice Film Festival (maybe some of them did not have a film ready for Venice, or maybe other festivals had already snapped up their films for world premieres), and (3) whether there is the evidence of bias when it comes to female filmmakers. In other words: What if a men’s-only club has systemically overlooked female directors, just the way women have been stepped over in many aspects of life for the longest time!

A still from Babyteeth, one of two films by women directors in Competition at Venice 2019. Image via Twitter

A still from Babyteeth, one of two films by women directors in Competition at Venice 2019. Image via Twitter

Now, this last question has no satisfactory answer. For instance, I did not care for The Nightingale at all, and I couldn’t see what it was doing in the Competition section at Venice. But then, I was utterly underwhelmed by Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows, too, and that film opened the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. So woman or man, this is a very subjective area. But at least with the Oscars, we know what the playing field looks like. So when the final list of nominations is announced, we can say (with some subjective authority) that “X film was wrongly overlooked”. But with festivals, we don’t even know what the playing field looks like. We only hear about the end result: the line-ups. So maybe the first place to begin is to demand that the entire list of submissions be made known. Again, this is not a perfect system. With the Oscars, we have seen those films, whereas festivals deal largely with films unseen by the world. But at least, we’d know some basic things, like... How many female filmmakers submitted their films, versus the number that made it to the final list?

It’s important to keep asking this question on the behalf of every minority simply to protect the art, simply so it doesn’t get tainted by wilful bias. Personally speaking, the number of Great Films (i.e. films I think are great) I’ve seen are mostly by men, and when I think of female-directed Great Films, I can’t, offhand, think of too many. (A partial list would include Winter’s Bone, The Babadook, The Piano, The Hurt Locker, Meek’s Cutoff, Portrait of a Lady on Fire... Again, it’s just maths.) But then, a film festival is more than an individual. It stands for achievement in filmmaking. And the more transparent the processes become, the more specific the debate will become. We may still end up saying “X film was wrongly overlooked” or “Y film has no place in the line-up”, but at least we will know what X and Y had to fight against. Right now, the whole thing is just a game of shadow-boxing.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

Updated Date: Aug 01, 2019 19:17:23 IST