The world has moved on but I’m still obsessing about why, for the second time in three years was there no films directed by a woman in the main competition at Cannes this year. I mean I know it’s only one festival but it’s by far the most prestigious and really that kind of omission is much more than the sum of its parts. It really does beg the larger question of why? Why are there so few females being recognized for excellence? This is 2012 for God’s sake, we’ve been writing books, winning literary awards, hung in national galleries, directing operas and ballets, running theatre companies for years now so what is it that is denying us a larger quota of recognition of film-making?
I was in France when the Cannes line up of films for the Palme d’Or was announced and I can tell you it was front-page news and became the most talked about issue of the festival. The French feminist collection Le Barbe, those bearded ladies, blocked the esplanade, thousands signed a petition, the festival director Thierry Frémaux was forced to issue a statement and jury member Andrea Arnold, that wonderful filmmaker of Red Road and last year’s Cannes film Fish Tank was deluged by the press asking for a possible explanation. Her answer that she would hate to be chosen just because she is a woman doesn’t satisfy.
Duh! There’s something more complicated here and since Thierry Frémaux did us the huge favor of making the issue so hot I think it behooves us to keep the conversation going don’t you?
Well, I’ve certainly been keeping up my part and you know how they hate women with a cause or a bit of passion in England. First I complained about why every exhibition in London, from Piscasso to David Hockey to Damian Hirst is celebrating only male artists and then I wanted answers to our absence from Cannes. I finally think my massive A380 was lifted into the sky by the collective sigh of relief that I was leaving. Still I did get some theories, all different and I want to know what you think.
So, lets start with the most popular theory which is that if a women had made a good enough film it would have been selected and since none of us saw all of the films submitted, it’s an impossible theory to refute. Still one only needs to view Cate Shortland’s new film, (not selected) Lore beside Walter Salles’s film On the Road (selected) to throw that theory into serious doubt. Of course there are many more men out there making films and as Tropfest founder John Polson once said, when I took him to task for the paucity of female finalist in Tropfest. He said the numbers were commiserate with the numbers that submitted films. So perhaps it is simply the case of hugely disproportionate numbers of male to female filmmakers and we should accept that most women seeking a career in the arts (because we surely agree that there is no disproportion of creativity between sexes) aren’t interested in being filmmakers and instead of worrying that the only way they’ll get to Cannes is on the arm of Prince Charming or that we won’t leave behind a film making heritage for the next generation, we should just have another cup of tea and a good lie down.
Well I’ve had my lie down and, really, I’d like to change the subject, but some things still have me a bit baffled.
- Why does the number of women going to film schools nearly equal that of men if women are so disinterested in being filmmakers?
- Why is it that anyone who has been lucky enough to make a film will tell you, as I would, that it is the most exciting, most influential, most frustrating position they could dream of being in but that they would give their eye teeth to do it again and again.
- Why is it then that only 5% of working directors in Hollywood are women?
- Why has the Cannes festival steering committee had only male presidents since its inception.
- Why is the Oscars voting academy still 77% male?
- Why did distinguished chair of the Hay Literary festival and producer of War Horse, Revel Guest tells me after a long reluctant pause that the film business is fair and square a boys club.
Well perhaps the French feminist collection Le Barbe were right to say that “men are fond of depth in women, but only in their cleavage." That’s a relief, I would hate to think it was lack of talent or spine that was stopping us. But then our boys aren’t adverse to a bit of cleavage either and in 15 years I have never felt misogyny to be an obstacle to progress or practice as a filmmaker here in Australia. In fact I have felt, dare I say, if anything, an active encouragement because I was a woman. A recognition that men and woman are different and that, despite a woman’s leaning towards niche rather than the more commercial genres or markets, their voices are worth hearing.
But what is it about a woman’s voice that’s worth hearing and the question is does the female perspective really offer anything that the male perspective cannot? I mean it’s not as if we lack female driven stories with strong female archetypes, written and directed, often brilliantly, by men like John Schlesinger’s Far From The Madding Crowd, Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Jason Reitman’s Juno. Really other then the old bugbear of equal opportunity for a few would be/could be female directors out there does a woman’s way of looking at and receiving the world really add much to our collective culture or indeed to our humanity?
Bear with me; I may wander off course to delight in purely visceral paths, I may retrace my steps to bask in the aliveness of Gaia, goddess of mother earth instead of plodding through some second act. I may hang out some white sheets or release butterflies and indulge in their aimless beauty. I will chase whispers of psychological meaning and worry their social underpinnings. And, in the end, I may come back to the beginning empty handed, the journey or the unveiling of some simple emotional truth the prize. But perhaps worth more than all the special powers of the Holy Grail or all the treasure of the Sierra Madre.
I wish. Truth is, as a film-maker trying to grab a piece of the action, I too am much more likely to follow the timeless linear path of the hero’s journey, a path of quests and crossing thresholds and tests with allies and enemies, of supreme ordeals, of resurrections and corporeal prizes, than my own. I understand. I too was baffled and sometimes impatient when I first stumbled across the heroine’s journey and I don’t necessarily mean a female protagonist although of course they often are. Lynne Ramsey’s Morvern Callar, Karin Adler’s Under the Skin, Jane Campion’s Sweetie and Liliana Cavani’s Night Porter, confused me. They thwarted my expectations of plot, of timing and of recognizable cinematic archetypes but, slowly, I began to recognize how to receive them.
Sometimes now, with startling affinity, I am midway through a movie (I often don’t look at front credits) and know, just know that it is written or directed by a woman. Sometimes I am wrong, as I was with Sean Durkin’s wonderful Martha Marcy May Marlene or Drake Doremus’s Like Crazy, so I can not entirely lay claim to gender exclusivity but, nonetheless all these films boast very female ways of seeing the world. One that I, for one, now wholly enjoy, seek out and, as a filmmaker am emboldened and inspired by. Of course you don’t have to be female to appreciate this sensibility in the same way you don’t have to be male to appreciate Tarantino, Christopher Nolan or David Fincher but perhaps our absence on the world stage of film means that too many committees, selectors or critics aren’t quite attuned or supportive of this particular voice yet.
Female writer/directors who can hear and obey their true instinctive female narratives are rare and brave, some are deaf to it or have reluctantly compromised to stay in the game, while others think the whole concept of being creatively different is a load of baloney. I’m glad I’m not one of them because otherwise I’d have no choice but to accept the claim that we are either crap at making films, sexist victims or too daunted by the difficulties and demands of the career to want to be in it.
Recommended Woman’s films
An Angel At My Table – Jane Campion
Rain – Christine Jeffs
Head On – Ana Kokkinos
Morvern Callar – Lynne Ramsey
Red Road – Andrea Arnold
Fish Tank, – Andrea Arnold
Under the Skin – Karin Adler
Elles – Malgorzata Szumowska
The Taste of Others – Agnes Jaoui
Somersault – Cate Shortland
Winter’s Bone – Debra Granik
Away From Her – Sarah Polley
City of God – Katia Lund
High Tide – Gillian Armstrong
Nowhere Boy – Sam Taylor Wood
Nowhere in Africa – Caroline Link
Lost in Translation – Sofia Coppola
Proof – Jocelyn Moorhouse
In her former life as an actress, Rachel Ward was the recipient of several international drama awards and nominations, which includes two Golden Globe nods. Today Rachel focuses her experience and knowledge of film making into writing and directing. She won the Australian Critic’s Circle Award for two of her short films, The Big House and Martha’s New Coat. In 2008, Rachel adapted and directed, BEAUTIFUL KATE, from the novel by American author, Newton Thornburg.
Reprinted with permission by the author.