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The Lion Roars for Chloé Zhao, Tilda Swinton, and Ann Hui at the 77th Venice Film Festival

Developmentally Edited by Alexandra Hidalgo
Copy Edited and Posted by Jennifer Bell

It took a pandemic to change the face of the Venice Film Festival for women who make films. The 77th edition took a strong stance on women from the beginning. Tilda Swinton and Ann Hui both received Golden Lions—Leone d’Oro Lifetime Achievement awards, and Cate Blanchett was the Jury President. These women are smart, visionary, and have done a lot for women in cinema.  Blanchett declared in the opening press conference that the Venice Film Festival was “ground zero” for creating a new festival and a new cinema in this challenging time, and added that “It feels very collegiate, not territorial.”  

Thirty percent of the films in the official competition were directed by women this year. Although this is still far from the 50/50 gender parity we have been seeking for years, the inclusion of almost a third of films by women at an A-list festival of auteurs who write and direct their films, is something that 70-year-old festival director Alberto Barbera has previously refused to consider. He has insisted that the selection of films is based on merit, what he calls “good films,” which happen to exclude a significant proportion of women filmmakers. This year we got closer to having the representation we so keenly deserve.

Ann Hui stands in the middle of the image wearing a black shirt holding the Golden Lion Leone d'Oro Lifetime Achievement award
Ann Hui with her Golden Lion Leone d’Oro Lifetime Achievement award


Venice is the first A-list festival to open to the public this year in a “restrained” environment with temperature checks and masks required in the festival arena and theatres. There was not one reported case of COVID-19 during the festival. This success resulted from the meticulous planning that went into making the festival safe. Everyone in the festival area was required to wear masks, an instruction that the public followed, and if they forgot, guards reminded them. The planning of the event made me realize that this is the opposite of a lockdown. It’s a controlled environment where everything was taken into consideration to keep people safe and was dependent on the cooperation of festival-goers. There were no meals prepared on the festival grounds, no common computers, and no wastebaskets in the press room. You selected a seat in advance for the films you watched and had to sit there and not move around. These are just some of the precautions taken.  

On the first day, a sober documentary screened, a testimony not only to the changes in Venice since the pandemic began to affect Italy this February, but how tourism in general, which keeps the city afloat, has been decimated. Directed by Andrea Segre, Venetian Molecules includes Super 8 footage of Venice shot in the 1960s by his father who studied “free radicals,” which are highly reactive molecules. The molecular movement his father studied and the effects of  COVID-19 are invisible worlds that Andrea contrasts in this city held up by poles. We are taken around the lagoon with a female gondolier. Freed from the rising tourism and cruise ships, Segre reminds us of ­­the 16th century plague which devastated the city with thousands of deaths. The iconic Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute along the Grand Canal was dedicated to ending this plague. Aboard the public Venetian water buses (vaporettos), I passed by this landmark on my daily trips to Lido, where the Venice Film Festival is held. Venetian Molecules was a moving first-day film that set the tone of the 10-day pageant along with the mask-wearing celebrities, accredited film critics, and industry members. Photographers yelled out for “mask on” and “mask off” shots as they stood on the red carpet. 

Mcdormand wearing a blue t-shirt looking towards the camera while standing in front of a mountainous background.
Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved


The Golden Lion Leone d’Oro for Best Film at Venice went to Nomadland by Chloé Zhao, who shot, edited, and directed the film, which­ stars Frances McDormand. Zhao along with Mira Nair, are the only women of color that have won the Golden Lion after 77 editions of the Venice Film Festival. There are a total of five women who have ever won, including: Agnès Varda, Sofia Coppola, and Margaretha von Trotta.  

Nomadland chronicles the people who live on the road, on motorcycles or in trailers, many of them baby boomers, who do not have enough social security to live on and have to rely on odd jobs such as working in Amazon warehouses in remote areas. The travelers are not homeless, they are “houseless,” as Fern (McDormand) said at the press conference broadcast widescreen via Zoom in Venice on September 11. Zhao stated that there were no overt socio-political implications to her film, and McDormand said the film was not an indictment of Amazon. 

I attended the press conference and asked  Zhao about the nomads in the film that are baby boomers. Unfamiliar with the term, McDormand defined it for Zhao as “people of her [McDormand’s] age.” The stories of these travelers in RVs are older white Americans and the soundtrack in part represents this demographic, featuring music from the 1970s and 80s. McDormand chose to develop the story as a producer with Peter Spears based on a 2017 novel by Jessica Bruder, and she chose Zhao as director. Bruder writes that “RVing” and camperforce warehouse programs were marketed for a white audience. She said it was harder for people of color to travel the road because they were at a greater risk of experiencing violence and discrimination from police forces across the country. The heart of Bruder’s novel concerns the impact of the recession on older Americans who lost their homes and savings from 2007-2009. McDormand considers both herself and Zhao as “docents” on this journey through the US backwoods, a designation given to them by one of the nomads they met on the road.   

Reporters sit with laptops spaced several seats apart from each other in a theater while McDormand and Zhao are projected onto a large screen speaking remotely from their homes.
Frances McDormand and Chloé Zhao at the Nomadland press conference.


The moderator of the 45-minute Nomadland press conference with McDormand and Zhao was Italian filmmaker Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan. She asked Zhao: “Why did you direct, shoot, write, and edit your film? Why didn’t you hire other people?” This particular question reveals that D’Agnolo Vallan knows little about how women in countries around the world work with financial constraints that eclipse production. Zhao said she loved editing and did so during the lockdown.

When a new film debuts at a film festival, press conferences with the filmmakers are arranged and are important first statements about the films. Women in media need to be present to cover them because otherwise, the larger daily media can influence the public’s views of a film with their perceptions that can marginalize, exclude, or belittle women. The Venice Film Festival has traditionally been accessible to representatives of the press, regardless of whether they are independent or mainstream, unlike Cannes where only select media journalists are given a seat. 

A male Italian journalist wanted to know how Zhao, as the Golden Lion winner, felt in the company of top female directors such as Chantal Akerman and Agnès Varda. Being a relative newcomer, she was unknown to international press and that is evident in one particular editorial in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s oldest and most read newspaper. Paolo Mereghetti, the 71-year-old head cinema critic, declared that this year’s festival is “an edition tainted by Blanchett’s verdict” in bestowing awards, including the Golden Lion, to Nomadland.[1] I include excerpts from this editorial to illustrate bias generated by mainstream media publications against women who win the top awards or are in positions of power. The first reports of new films at festivals by lead critics are important for how a film is regarded in popular culture. Mereghetti slighted Zhao’s history by only pointing out she had “a Marvel film in the works,” but did not mention her 2015 debut film that screened at Sundance, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, about a Lakota Sioux brother and his younger sister that was produced with Forest Whitaker. The film went on to the director’s fortnight at Cannes and competed for the Camera d’Or for best debut feature. Zhao’s second film Rider (2017) is also about the Lakota Sioux and was a commercial success. Her films express the American landscape with tales of its indigenous inhabitants and nomads. 

Swinton wears a white dress and holds the Golden Lion statue in one hand with her other hand pressed to her heart.
Tilda Swinton accepting her Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement award.


I sat in the press room and listened to several male Italian journalists boo the Golden Lion awarded to Mira Nair for Monsoon Wedding at the 58th Venice Film Festival in 2001. Not only have women’s films historically not been shown in proportion to films made by men, they are often unfairly treated in press narratives at their film festivals debuts. More women need to cover the festivals in diverse publications like agnès films. 

 Upon receiving her Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, Tilda Swinton announced that ­”Cinema is my true happy place…Wakanda Forever!” At the press conference for The Human Voice directed by Pedro Almodóvar, Swinton, wore a lime green satin jacket and a “Caravaggio”  t-shirt representing the first film she starred in directed by Derek Jarmanin in 1986. One of the first questions asked was about her relationship with Hollywood. “For me, Hollywood is Greta Garbo, and Greta Garbo gave up at 36…. She was bored.” Swinton has longed to work with Almodóvar for years. In The Human Voice based on a play by Jean Cocteau, Swinton’s character waits for her lover, who has abandoned her, to return. In despair she takes sleeping pills, but upon awakening, discovers she has found her own voice. 

A panel of filmmakers sit at a long white table.
Ann Hui at the Love After Love panel.


Ann Hui remarked about her Golden Lion award for Lifetime Achievement, “I never had time to help others. I’ve barely survived! But now I can and I will.” She came to the festival with her latest feature Love After Love out of competition. At her press conference, she said that there are few stories about Eurasians and that the “exactitude and modernity” of Eileen Chang’s 1943 short story Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier creates “an extremely realistic portrayal of fatal love and its circumstances.” Her latest feature, Love After Love, reveals a brilliant mise-en-scène. I asked her at the master class organized by the festival, how we can see more of her work, in particular Boat People, and learn more about her cinematic style. Boat People was selected for the main competition at Cannes in 1983. However, the French government felt the film might interfere with their diplomatic relationship with Vietnam  and in an unprecedented move after a private screening had it pulled it from competition. Hui was given the choice to screen the film in the director’s fortnight or as a “surprise” film and she chose the latter. The film brought her international recognition. Hui told me that Boat People is now out on Blu-ray. The film will also be screened on TCM in the Fall, introduced by Born in Flames director Lizzie Borden. I also spoke to Hui about the retrospective of her work I attended at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy in 2009 and about how Boat People  is briefly mentioned in Mark Cousins’ Women Make Filmadvertised as “a film school by women.” She knew of this and added that she had taught at film school years ago. The Golden Lion award for Lifetime Achievement renews Ann Hui’s importance as a filmmaker, especially to the young film students who asked her questions at the master class she taught at the festival

Vanessa Kirby won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress for Pieces of a Woman, based on a true story with a screenplay by Kata Wéberof about a 13-hour stillborn delivery where the midwife was later sued for negligence. Kirby was in two films in the Venezia 77 competition, both surrounding the loss of a child. Pieces of a Woman by the Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó  begins with a 25-minute home birth scene with Martha (Kirby) assisted by her husband (Shia LaBeouf).   

The stronger of Kirby’s two films at the festival was The World to Come by Norwegian director Mona Fastvold. In it, Tallie (Kirby) is being controlled and confined by her religious husband in rural mid-18th century New York. It is a powerfully crafted film that provides Kirby with clear emotional content, which she brought to life radiantly onscreen. This world to come is a world where two women can live and love and not just in their imagination. Katherine Waterston, who plays Abigail, is a grieving mother who has lost her child. Her emotional core comes to life with Tallie (Vanessa Kirby). The film’s director and producer, Brady Corbet, has been previously selected for the Venice Film Festival for The Childhood of a Leader (2015) and Vox Dux (2018), both co-written by Mona Fastvold. This is a director/writer team who create brilliant work that is highly appreciated at Venice. The World to Come won the Queer Lion award. 

Kirby as Tally lays on the ground on her back while Waterston (right) as Abigail lays next to her.
Vanessa Kirby (left) and Katherine Waterston in The World to Come


One film that stands out for me was directed by the Mexican director Yulene Olaizola. She explains that the setting of Selva Trágica is magical: “The jungle is a living being, harassed by those men trying to steal its treasures; but it takes revenge in different ways, with poisonous plants, swarms of mosquitoes, fierce animals, and with the enchantment of mysterious creatures.” A woman entices these “thieves” to their demise with a role as archaic as the “catwoman” in Jacques Torneur’s and Paul Shrader’s Cat People. This was a film that received significant partnership funding and was technically brilliant. However, it’s still an erotic fantasy of a female interbestial predator. Having sex with all of the thieves and luring them to their death is an alignment with sexualized violence that is historically the territory of the male gaze.

Another woman honored in the Horizon Section jury led by Claire Denis was Ana Rocha de Sousa, who created a co-production from the United Kingdom and Portugal . Her film Listen received the Special Orizzonti Jury Prize. It also took home the Lion of the Future – “Luigi De Laurentiis” for a Debut Film. Rocha’s film is about Portuguese immigrant parents (Lúcia Moniz and Ruben Garcia ) who move to England with a deaf daughter. The school insists that they speak only English with her and do not understand their need to communicate in sign language. It is a misunderstanding with social workers that Rocha de Sousa says still happens today. 

A Horizons section film that screened in a sold out venue was Anita, a Gujarati film scheduled for the last days of the festival in the short film section. It is about an Indian woman who lives in New York and attends a wedding in India. During the course of the film the titular character, Anita, notes important cultural differences between her homeland and the US. The film also demonstrates that production is different for women. Made by Sushma Khadepaun with an MFA from Columbia in screenwriting and direction, it was to be a feature film, then it became a short film with a script that went through 14 drafts due to challenges in production and funding, casting, and location. These stories of women in film are central to the foundation of agnès films

Alice Rohrwacher’s nine-minute film Omelia Contadina was screened out of competition and is representative of the political and artisanal engagement of filmmakers at Venice this year. Made together with artist JR (Agnès Varda’s Faces Places collaborator), the film is dedicated to the small farmers and dwellers of the Alfina plateau that exist within an increasingly developed, subsidized, and “pesticized” agricultural monoculture. She regarded this area as a cemetery and decided to give it a funeral. 

Cate Blanchett smiles and looks to the left while holding a black headset to her ears.
Jury President, Cate Blanchett


Rohrwacher’s second feature, The Wonders, won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2014 and her third Lazzarro Felice won best screenplay at Cannes in 2018. The daughter of a beekeeper, her films are enchanting tales of agricultural and environmental excess in Italy that reveal through magical realism the negative effects of environmental transformation.

Every film at Venice was screened within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the films that were awarded prizes spoke to a world where change is essential. It was a festival that shouted out to the global film festival circuit and demonstrated that films on large screens could be shown responsibly in a restrained festival attentive to precautions against the virus. At the opening press conference, Venice director Alberto Barbera said that Netflix’s increasing subscriber numbers and the closure of movie theatres due to the pandemic threatens the  existence of film festivals unless the film industry steps in to support them. If this happens, new films risk not otherwise being seen unless they are selected to festivals without territorial rights. This year’s festival became a platform that discussed the shifting direction of film festivals. Golden Lifetime Achievement recipient, Tilda Swinton, welcomed the recent decision by the Berlin Film Festival to eliminate “gendered” acting awards. Jury President Cate Blanchett concurred, declaring that for her, “actress” is pejorative. This year’s festival has historically reversed a tradition at Venice which has clearly limited the selection of films in competition made by women. Hopefully this will increase in years to come.

Read more of Moira’s writing and learn about her on her profile.

[1] Paolo Mereghetti, Mostra del Cinema di Venezia 2020, un’edizione macchiata dal verdetto di Blanchett, Corrierre della Sera. September 12, 2020.­  Return

Nomadland is certainly not a masterpiece, but a good average, crafty film (would it not have been more courageous to delve into the economic crisis that pushed the protagonist to live in a camper rather than just praising nomadic life?). Well acted but directed by a director who seems to be wondering only whether to frame a sunset or choose the sunrise”… One in eight has made it. It is a woman who wins the Golden Lion of Venice 77: Chloé Zhao with “Nomadland” , produced and put together by Frances McDormand. At the award ceremony, conducted like the opening night by Anna Foglietta, they were not there. They connected from Pasadena, sitting in their Vanguard, the van used as a camper with which the actress traveled for four months on the roads of the West, together with modern nomads. “See you down the road”, their greeting. A road that seems direct to the Oscars in May where certainly the work of the director from Beijing, now American by adoption, a Marvel film in the drawer, will not go unnoticed.” 


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