When we learned Sarah Gavron’s “Suffragette” would open this year’s BFI London Film Festival, we were optimistic about the rest of the lineup. The full program for the 59th edition of the British has been announced, and compared to other major festivals with premieres of this caliber, female directors are relatively well-represented overall.
Of the 13 films in Official Competition, two are directed by women: Athina Rachel Tsangari’s “Chevalier” and Lucile Hadžihalilović’s “Evolution.”
The First Feature Competition includes 12 films, three of which are female-helmed: Mai Masri’s “3000 Nights,” Eva Husson’s “Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story)” and Esther May Campbell’s “Light Years.”
As is almost always the case, women fare better in the documentary section, where female filmmakers account for five of 12 docs in competition: Mor Loushy’s “Censored Voices,” Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli’s “Frame by Frame,” Sarah Turner’s “Public House,” Jennifer Peedom’s “Sherpa” and Hanna Polak’s “Something Better to Come.”
As previously announced, the festival has teamed up with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media and Women in Film and Television to launch the Institute’s first Global Symposium on Gender in Media to take place outside of the US. The symposium will kick off one day after the “Suffragette” gala premiere.
Festival Director Clare Stewart and BFI Chief Executive Amada Nevill didn’t shy away from addressing questions about diversity at the launch of the LFF Program. In fact, they tackled the issue head-on.
“The programming team has declared this the year of the strong woman,” said Stewart at the launch, citing the films screening at the fest with meaty roles for actresses such as Carey Mulligan in “Suffragette,” Kate Winslet in “Steve Jobs,” Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in “Carol,” Diane Lane and Helen Mirren in “Trumbo” and Maggie Smith in “The Lady In The Van.” What Stewart says of women onscreen is true. While the number of women directors with films in competition definitely leaves something to be desired, we did note that many of the films in competition are female-centric (while others have been rumored to include worthwhile supporting roles for actresses).
“The festival has an important role and a responsibility to be a strong proponent of diversity and to feed the discourse. If we are not doing it, who is?” Stewart told Variety. “Our role is not just in celebrating the achievements of women filmmakers, but also to start to trace patterns,” she added.
Stewart noted that of 238 features in this year’s LFF program, 45 are directed by women, or 19%. Three of the 45 women-directed features in the program are set to receive gala screenings. Of the 182 short films being screened, 64 are directed by women, or 35%.
“We can see an emerging theme that there are a number of women getting the opportunity to make independent, and mostly lowly [sic] budget, features but when it comes to more ambitious, big budget projects that falls away,” observed Stewart. “This points to the fact that something needs to change in the way the industry is structured and how it supports for women filmmakers.”
She described “Suffragette” as the “opening film sent from heaven” because “It gives us a platform to feed and highlight the issue we think needs attention.”
Nevill, meanwhile, called the festival opener an “uncomfortable reminder” of the “pathetic progress” we’ve made on the gender equality front.
Clearly Stewart and Nevill aren’t just paying lip service to the issues surrounding women on screen and behind the camera. They’re invested in progressing the conversation and effecting change. But a major festival where only 19 percent of films the lineup are directed by women — and that’s considered above-average — shows that there’s still a long way to go.