This is the second in a two part series discussing the Créteil International Women’s Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival. Part 1 focuses on Créteil, and part 2 focuses on Cannes.
On May 12, 2018 there was a “manifestation” of 82 women working in the film industry on the steps of the Palais at Festival de Cannes—a demonstration organized by the French gender equality movement 50/50 by 2020. A bilingual statement read by Cate Blanchett (English) and Agnès Varda (French) emphasized that only the 82 women whose films premiered in competition have climbed the steps compared to 1688 men. There have only been 12 female jury heads in the 71 year history of the festival. Out of the 71 Palme d’Or winners, just two women are included: Jane Campion, who shared her prize for The Piano with Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine in 1993, and Agnès Varda with her Honorary Palme d’Or in 2015.
At the “manifestation,” directors such as Alba and Alice Rohrwacher, Céline Sciamma, Kim Longinotto, Patty Jenkins, Ursula Meier, and Nina Menkes stood in unity. They were accompanied by actresses, producers, and industry craftswomen such as Jane Fonda, Marion Cotillard, Julie Gayet, Salma Hayek, and Rosalie Varda. Jury president Blanchett stood with jury members Ava DuVernay, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, and Khadja Nin. This jury, which consisted of four women, four men, and a female jury president, was described as a “predominantly female jury” in festival reports. The Wonder Woman soundtrack suspiciously played at the Palme d’Or closing ceremony while almost every award was given out—as if the members of this supposedly female-centric jury (5 women out of 9 members) were superheroines who performed a great feat as they selected the winners.
The limited capacity that women in the film industry hold in having their work shown at Cannes was at the core of this “manifestation” against the male gaze that denies female-centric agency. This year, only 3 of the 18 films in the official competition were directed by women: Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice, Italy) tells the story of an exploited colony of tobacco leaf pickers living on the land of a miserly marquise, Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun (France) follows the true story of a female Kurdish military battalion formed after their village is besieged by ISIS, and Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (Lebanon) investigates why an impoverished boy sued his parents for giving him life.
The Cannes selection committee—which sees all the films that are submitted each year—is composed of three French film advisors, four international advisors, and a handful of film experts stationed in various parts of the world. The committee is primarily composed of men with one or two women. The Cannes artistic director, Thierry Frémaux, has the final word. Here’s a shout out to women who have sent in their films to Cannes this year: who are you?
Historically, protests in Cannes have made life-altering waves, from the establishment of the “Directors’ Fortnight” (Quinzaine des réalisateurs) when Cannes closed in solidarity with French workers to this year’s “manifestation” that will hopefully open the door for women in the future. Change is necessary because women are being arbitrarily excluded; it is not based on lack of talent but the content and style of films that defy the historic male gaze taught in film school in terms of shooting, framing, editing, and sound where women do not represent women, but an ideal. Women do not make sensitive portraits of serial murderers (Lars Von Trier), women beaters (Terry Gilliam), rapists (Gaspar Noé), or shoot hours of scenes with trite father and son dialogue (Nure Blinge Ceylan), ignoring the wife/mother, sister/daughter. That is not to mean that there are no exceptional cinematic moments embedded in these recognizable themes and styles, which is part of the seduction. Many of the directors selected have won before and are recognized every time with each new film. This means that when a female former prize winner makes a new film, she too will most likely be selected. However, few winners means fewer women at the festival.
Several non-mainstream events clustered before the first weekend. The Swedish Film Institute (SFI) and Women in Film & TV International (WIFTI) presented “Working For Change: Filmmaking in the New Landscape.” At the Irish Pavilion, sponsored by “Women and Hollywood,” representatives from Eurimages and its “Gender Working Group,” the BFI Film Fund, the New Zealand Film Commission, and the South African Screen Federation discussed “The Fight of Inclusion” by women working in film. Other parallel events included a panel on next moves for #MeToo and the “Gender Equality Movement: “5050 2020,” the movement for gender parity in the film industry by the year 2020.
The official jury delegates and Thierry Frémaux attended the “5050 2020” seminar, a growing cause introduced in 2013 at Cannes by Anna Serner, CEO of the Swedish Film Institute. She revealed at the time that she was ridiculed for speaking out by men in the film industry in Sweden. “The Fight for Inclusion” is a real struggle. In 2015, the fashion conglomerate Kering invited well known and established actresses to “Kering Talks – Women in Motion at Cannes.” The Kering group acquired its fortune through fashion brand names for leather goods, jewelry, and watchmaking for women (Motto: “Kering empowers its luxury houses and its sport & lifestyle brands to reach their potential in the most imaginative way”).
Small public interviews with established directors or actresses were conducted in a room in a luxury hotel. The first year, basically everyone who signed up got in. The next year, however, it was more restrictive. Kering has profited from these talks, and its money has helped give a few established women a voice to specifically speak out about working conditions. Similarly, the Suffragette movement was certainly marked by powerful men “helping” women to get the vote. Guests have included Jodie Foster, Robin Wright, Agnès Varda, Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert, Claire Denis, Carey Mulligan, and Salma Hayek. Kering’s CEO is Salma Hayek’s husband Francois-Henri Pinault.
This year, a luxury event was held at the beginning of the festival for inclusion, as a grand gesture of co-option, “calming the waters” or “rebranding” the threat of insurgency. Danish actor Mads Mikkelson was in attendance, although he openly criticized the cinema manifesto presented at an equality seminar sponsored by the Swedish Film Institute at Cannes in 2016. Four movie theaters created an A-list rating system that advises spectators if a film meets the criteria for the Bechdel test; that is, the film features scenes with “two women who talk to each other about something other than men.”
Another important ongoing forum at Cannes since 2016 is organized by Women and Hollywood, an independent digital publication created by East Coast journalist Melissa Silverstein. The publication has created forums by partnering with Créteil Films de Femmes, the Swedish Film Institute, the British Film Institute, the Toronto Film Festival, and representatives from women and film groups around the world. This gathering of women is grass roots and female centric and not usually attended by high-profile stars. It is usually held in the international pavilion and was hosted by the Irish Pavilion this year.
Will these peripheral actions get Cannes to start including women? Probably not—and probably not 50-50 by 2020. But it has happened in Sweden and was adopted by the BFI in the UK in 2016. If women aren’t included, Cannes must resign itself to being a sophisticated, well-dressed, and well-heeled dinosaur like James Bond—irrelevant to the needs of today.
Cannes has been characterized in Anglo-American media (such as Variety) as “fighting” for its reputation. They chastise its insulation from US streaming and other markets. French film theaters and directors have pressured the festival to shut out streaming conglomerates, such as Netflix and Amazon, from the official competition unless they release their films in France first. Accredited photojournalists are sovereign this year on the Red Carpet since the growth of narcissistic selfie cell phone pictures has resulted in a cell phone ban while on the Carpet. There is also an embargo on reviews of films before the cast and crew walk the Red Carpet.
According to Nina Menkes, filmmaker and teacher at California Institute of the Arts and USC, women fighting for industry inclusion rub against invisible production codes. “Glamorous Sexual Objects cannot be imagined as film directors or DPs (directors of photography) by those holding power,” she explains. “It just doesn’t click with the Hollywood system. Looks wrong. Feels wrong. Just no. And less than glamorous and/or over-40-year old women are more or less invisible. Not even in the running for Object-dom. Therefore, the beyond-dire statistics we have lived and suffered for decades.” Menkes illuminates how, “an entire culture of visual language supports and encourages this system.” She was invited to speak at Cannes this year—probably the most radical talk of them all at the festival—about the representation of women in film language. Films are shot, edited, framed, and cast by male directors in a system that perpetuates stereotypes for women. Female characters have limited agency, or the ability to influence the narrative outcome. These films are abundant at Cannes.
The ‘Male Gaze’ at Cannes
“The male gaze” is not just how men look at women in film but how film articulates the perspective of the director and creates the look and feel of the film. If women have not been selected in significant numbers at Cannes as directors, it is because men making films that assault, ridicule, and humiliate women are taking their place. The male gaze is at work in the Palme d’Or contender and is identifiable in lengthy scenes and sparse dialogue. It is time to re-read British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), a classic feminist film treatise on how pleasure is created through the humiliation, torture, assault, and disparagement of women. By way of illustration, she uses examples such as Alfred Hitchcock, a favorite guest at Cannes. Examples are abundant—Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, Golden Lion at Venice 1967), Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves (Lars Von Trier, Grand Prix Cannes 1996), Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, Grand Prix Cannes and Best actress 2001), and Monica Bellucci in Irreversible (Gaspar Noé, nominated for Palme d’Or, 2002). This style is considered “high art” and taught in film school, and these directors are often chosen for the official selection at Cannes.
Terry Gilliam’s The Man who Killed Don Quixote, the closing film this year, was “spectacular” with colorful, at times overstuffed, mise-en-scène, but the roles for women were still medieval—actress/model/high-class escorts (Olga Kurylenko and Joana Ribeiro). Although Cervantes wrote the novel, Gilliam, a former Palme d’Or nominee, did the time jumping modern spin.
Danish director Lars von Trier’s student examination film at the Danish National Film School was about an aging flasher who enters a room full of women. His first film Orchidégartneren (1977), financed and starring himself, is about the long nosed Jewish artist Victor Marse with sexual identity problems who dresses as a woman and Nazi to get attention from a woman he loves. Afterwards, he attacks a little girl on the street when he is rejected. Von Trier was banned from Cannes for anti-Semitic remarks made at a press conference, but he was invited again this year and presented his latest film The House the Jack Built out of competition this year and traces of Orchidégartneren are there to discover.
Another example is the director of La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Color), which won the Palme d’Or in 2013. In a film criticized by the actors for invasive cinematography by Sofian El Fani, the French Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche references several sculptures and paintings of female buttocks that parallel multiple shots of Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos making love or shots of Adèle sleeping, showering, changing clothes, or walking. El Fani, who has worked with Kechiche since 2003, has had a strong career after La Vie d’Adèle. Although the film features a love story between two women, in Kechiche’s mise-en-scène, it is evident that he is unable to allow Exarchopoulos to be a lesbian because he introduces male characters who are interested in her. Seydoux and Exarchopoulos publicly revealed they would never work with Kechiche again because of multiple takes of scenes, in some cases 100 times. Exarchopoulus spoke out at Telluride right after Cannes, “Kechiche warned us that we had to trust him—blind trust—and give a lot of ourselves. He was making a movie about passion, so he wanted to have sex scenes, but without choreography—more like special sex scenes. But once we were on the shoot, I realized that he really wanted us to give him everything. Most people don’t even dare to ask the things that he did, and they’re more respectful.” Seydoux remarked that “In America, we’d all be in jail.”
A complaint was also leveled by Björk after filming Dancer in the Dark, directed by Lars Von Trier and awarded the Palme d’Or with best actress to Björk in 2000. She revealed on Facebook 5 October 2017: “i became aware of that it is a universal thing that a director can touch and harass his actresses at will and the institution of film allows it. when i turned the director down repeatedly he sulked and punished me and created for his team an impressive net of illusion where i was framed as the difficult one because of my strength.”
Equality for women in Cannes and the film industry is predicated on this raw reality. At the closing ceremony this year, a bold and audacious declaration was made by Italian actress and director Asia Argento, words and truths that made even Cate Blanchett wince. According to Argento: “I was raped by Harvey Weinstein in Cannes in 1997. I was 21-years-old. This festival was his hunting ground. I’m going to make a prediction: Harvey Weinstein will never be welcomed here again. He will never disgrace the community that once embraced him. Even tonight there are those that still need to be held accountable for his behavior. You know who you are. But more importantly, we know who you are. And we’re not going to allow you to get away with it any longer. You do not belong in this industry.” Cannes shivered from the statement. It could also be noted that like Björk, Argento has been scorned by the media in Italy and had to flee with her children.
The Films of Women at 71st Cannes
I knew when I saw Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum that it was clearly a strong contender for the Palme d’Or with powerful innovative shots, editing, and music. References to Sweden and its humanitarian efforts for immigrant refugees did not go unnoticed. When the Palme d’Or awards were announced, I sat in the company of film critics—primarily French male critics—who talked throughout the ceremony and guffawed or joked about the female winners and presenters. All the men who won were loudly applauded, but for Asia Argento’s declaration, they were silent. Capernaum’s Jury Prize win by Nadine Labaki was loudly booed. A neanderthal comment heard around Cannes was that it was “poverty porn.” Alice Rohrwacher, who won Best Screenplay for her film Lazzaro Felice, shared the category with Jafar Panahi for Three Faces. Her winning side by side with the revered Iranian director who is under house arrest for making films his government condemns met no resistance.
It is not just the filmmakers or the Cannes selection process at work to preserve the male gaze, but (male) critics who elevate the work of filmmakers. The official Cannes Festival history book is written by men. The daily trades (Screen, Variety, Le Film Française) that rate films are written by men. Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun, which was based on real events, received low scores from male film critics who were particularly hard on the narrative structure that shows how Kurdish women take to arms against ISIS after they are taken hostage. More women film critics and writers are needed at Cannes.
In other sections, the presence of women was more visible. In the “Un Certain Regard” section, there were eight films directed by women (two of which were co-directed by a male/female team): Rafiki by Wanura Kahiu (Kenya), a film centering on two Kenyan lesbians (banned in Kenya); Sofia (awarded best screenplay) by Meryem Benm’Barek (Morocco); Euforia by Valeria Golino (Italy); My Favorite Fabric by Gaya Jiji (Syria); Angel Face by Vanessa Filho (France); and Manto by Nandita Das (India). Little Tickles was made by Andréa Bescond and Eric Metayer, (France) and The Dead and the Others (awarded Jury Special Prize) byJoão Salaviza and Renée Nader Messora (Brazil).
Originally, the Cannes Film Festival was held outdoors on the Croisette. The beach theater “Cinema de la Plage” remains. Of seven films, including Hithcock’s Vertigo (1951), there was only one film screened that was directed by a woman—Agnès Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977)—and one special event directed by Latetitia Carton—Le Grand Bal (2018).
In the Cannes Classics section of restored films and documentaries devoted to important films and directors, which does not bestow awards, several films directed by women have screened for the past few years. This year it was Margarethe von Trotta’s documentary Searching for Ingmar Bergman that was proposed by the “Ingmar Bergman Foundation.” Von Trotta met Bergman in 1977 when he was in exile in Germany for a tax evasion claim that was later dismissed. Her film Marianne & Juliane (Die bleierne Zeit 1981) was one of the films the Swedish director admired. Also featured in this section was Swedish writer and director Jane Magnusson’s Bergman A Year in the Life and Susan Lacy’s Jane Fonda in Five Acts. The most outstanding film of this section was the documentary on the very first film director Alice Guy Blaché: Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché by Pamela Green. The filmmaker said the biggest hurdle was financing for a film that was partly crowd-funded. She stated that “if Alice and many other female filmmakers were known throughout the years, we would not have to right the severe imbalance of male to female makers or even make a distinction between them.” In the restored classics section, it is really obvious that films directed by a woman are rare—Fad,Jal, by Senegalese director Safi Faye, a former guest at Créteil Films de Femmes was one of 20 films.
An event that Cannes has still not acknowledged as an official parallel event, even if it is one at Berlin and Venice, is the “Queer Palm Award,” which is part of the struggle for inclusion of LGBTQI representation. This year, it went to The Girl— Lukas Dhont’s “Un Certain Regard” entry winner for best artistic interpretation (Victor Polster) and the Camera d’Or recipient, a bold narrative on a trans teen ballerina. Carolina Markowicz’s O Orfao (The Orphan, Brazil) won the short film prize. Part of the “Director’s Fortnight” section, it chronicles the return of an adopted boy by a couple who consider him too effeminate. The Queer Palm Jury president, French producer Sylvie Pialat, led a team consisting of Guadalajara Film Festival programmer Pepe Ruiloba, French producer Dounia Sichov, A Taste of Ink director Morgan Simon, and The Hollywood Reporter film critic Boyd van Hoeij.
Cate Blanchett, the outgoing Madame President of the 71st Festival de Cannes was teased on protocol and pronunciation by Edouard Baer, Master of Ceremonies at the closing ceremony. She could only smile. Officially, this was the year for women at Cannes. It is a year that will only be meaningful if the number of films made by women selected to the festival increases. The realization that Cannes is a hunting ground for sexual predators can never be erased thanks to Asia Argento, but those predators are still there and will continue to roam. Male directors will continue to harass women on their sets, and we will only discover this after the film is released and any awards are given. This showcase of original cinematic artwork may not continue under the same exclusive terms of the past, but this is a year where the work of women is of great importance to its future. Between the protests and the awards, the underrepresentation of women at this luxury pageant poses the question: why fight for equality in an event that is just not interested in equally promoting the work of women? Is the “fight for inclusion” worth it?