Venice International Film Festival takes one step forward with Netflix, two steps back with gender gap

Prahlad Srihari

Aug,29 2018 14:30:42 IST

Orson Welles. Coen Brothers. Alfonso Cuarón. Paul Greengrass.

The aforementioned names were some of the high-profile casualties of the bitter standoff between Cannes and Netflix earlier this year. But Cannes' loss is Venice's gain as, unlike the stuffy French traditionalists, the organisers of the world's oldest film festival have taken a more streaming-inclusive approach with the Lido set to debut a record six Netflix releases this year.

The logo of the 75th Venice Film Festival is seen in Venice, Italy August 28, 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile - RC1A238FF3B0

The logo of the 75th Venice Film Festival. Reuters/Tony Gentile

The 75th Venice International Film Festival gets underway from 29 August and among the Netflix releases in competition for the Golden Lion are — The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel and Ethan Coen's western anthology series), Roma (Alfonso Cuarón's impressionistic, black-and-white '70s saga of a middle-class family in Mexico City) and 22 July (Paul Greengrass's terrorism drama). The streaming behemoth is also bringing a reconstructed version of Orson Welles’ Classic Hollywood satire, The Other Side of the Wind, and a companion documentary about its making, They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, to the festival, which will both be screened out of competition. Alessio Cremonini’s Sulla Mia Pelle (On My Skin), which will open the Horizons section, will also get a simultaneous release on the streaming platform and in Italian cinemas.

But this does not mean there has not been backlash among Italian distributors and cinema owners. The country's two major film trade associations ANEC (National Association of Cinema Exhibitors) and ANEM (National Association of Multiplex Exhibitors) have protested against the inclusion of Netflix films and their simultaneous release in theatres and online. They released a statement, rightly noting how it benefits the “short-term interests of one party, to the detriment of other actors.”

And it is true the advent of streaming services has led to more and more people staying at home rather going out to watch the movies. Netflix and Co do represent an existential threat to these cinema owners and it is hard to deny the unparalleled magic of the theatrical experience.

In contrast, how one chooses to watch the movies is their prerogative — be it on a five-inch screen or IMAX. Banning films without theatrical distribution could potentially alienate large segments of festival attendees and the movie-loving public, upon whom the success of such events are largely dependent. They also run the risk of losing out on Netflix's growing roster of high-profile filmmakers.

The six Netflix films releasing at Venice Film Festival this year. Image courtesy: La Biennale

The six Netflix films releasing at Venice Film Festival this year. Image courtesy: La Biennale

With Cannes and Netflix, the conflict is mostly one of two disparate cinema cultures. As Vox's Alissa Wilkinson writes, "There’s the French perspective, which sees cinema as a fundamentally communal experience devoted to an art that is meant to be projected onto a big screen. And then there’s the American one, which prizes choice and individual taste and looks at a movie as something that’s the same no matter the size of the screen and the viewing conditions under which you see it."

So, Venice seems to be embracing the American perspective by allowing streaming services to distribute films. Netflix needs the film indsutry's approval to lure more A-list acting and filmmaking talent, and Venice offers them that.

Alberto Barbera, Venice film festival's artistic director, emphasises on the importance of coming to terms with these "new production realities,” rather than ignoring them. "I see no reason to exclude from the competition of the festival a film by Cuaron or the Coens only because it was produced by Netflix," he said. "In France, the law is different as regards to the windows, but fortunately, here we do not have these problems."

And for the standoff to end, Cannes too must ease up on its rules a little bit, especially its draconian stipulation that permits movies to be shown on streaming services only 36 months after their cinematic release in France. Netflix, meanwhile, should allow their films to have a limited run in theatres before making them available to its subscribers. With Martin Scorsese's gangster epic The Irishman — starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel — releasing next year on Netflix, a swifter resolution of the dispute would certainly be appreciated by the movie-going public.

(From L-R) Stills from Netflix's Golden Lion contenders: 22 July, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Roma. Image via Twitter

(From L-R) Stills from Netflix's Golden Lion contenders: 22 July, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Roma. Image via Twitter

Other than the aforementioned directors, Venice will play host to a rich line-up of films from esteemed directors like Luca Guadagnino (Suspiria), Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite), Damien Chazelle (First Man), Julian Schnabel (At Eternity's Gate), Mike Leigh (Peterloo), Olivier Assayas (Non-Fiction), Jacques Audiard (Sunset) and Jennifer Kent (The Nightingale).

While Venice has led the way in terms of embracing streaming platforms, the memo for more diversity and inclusion of women's voices in its festival line-up seems to have gotten lost. Out of the 21 films gunning for the top prize, Kent — who previously directed the 2014 psychological horror tale, The Babadook — is the only female director in competition. So, the festival organisers came under fire from many advocacy groups for discrimination. Barbera accepted "the problem exists" before remarking that the choices were made based on the quality of the films, rather than the filmmaker's gender.

Cannes 2018, despite boasting a female-majority jury, fared only marginally better with three films out of 18 in competition directed by women. The fact that this is the second straight year where only one woman has been in contention for the Golden Lion proves there is a problem with female representation at the world's most distinguished film festivals. This perpetuates homogeneity at a time when women, through collective solidarity, have finally been able to find their individual voices.

At least, when Barbera was quizzed by a journalist about a possible ban on selfies at Venice akin to Cannes, the festival chief let out a dismissive laugh, feigning amusement.

The Venice Film Festival runs from 29 August to 8 September.

Updated Date: Aug 30, 2018 12:01 PM