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Cross-Post – Cannes: Festival Opens in a Boys Own Adventure

Cross-Post - Cannes: Festival Opens in a Boys Own Adventure

There are rumbles around the world about the lack of women directors in the official competition. Dr. Lisa French adds an Australian perspective.

The `Festival de Cannes` opened with the usual `lights, camera and action` – unless you are a woman. For the second time in three years there isn`t a film directed by a woman in main competition. Why not?

There are those who`d say that this is simply a merit – based system, and women didn`t make the cut (again). Can`t argue with that – or can you?

Where women take part in international film industries, they do so with great success, but globally, women`s participation in film industries is declining. They are not making progress to increase their numerical participation – in particular, there is strong evidence that women directors are decreasing rather than increasing by percentage. For example, in Australia, my comparisons of data of women directors of features reveals that in 1985 they were 7% of directors, in 1992 this number rose to 22%, but from 1990 to 2008/09, women directors of features in Australia dropped to 18% (based on analysis of 395 features shot July 1990 – June 2009). Therefore, they are not making progress in terms of proportional representation, and more significantly, they are going backwards.

An examination of the reports and surveys internationally reveals that this is a global trend. For example, a 2008 American survey by Martha Lauzen found that women represent between 4 and 23 per cent in any of the following: director, executive producer, producer, writer, cinematographer and editor (thus remaining significantly under-represented). A study of women of gender and work in relation to Danish feature films 1992 – 2002 undertaken by Mette Knudsen and Jane Rowley revealed a marked imbalance: women made up 0 per cent of cinematographers, 17 per cent of screenwriters, 19 per cent of producers, 20 per cent of directors and 38 per cent of editors. Although interestingly, the Danish study did find that despite a decrease in participation in most areas from 1992 to 2002, women directors had increased to a fabulous 20%. Overall, the studies reveal that on top of the low participation, and evidence of a decline in proportional representation, women continue to find it difficult to break into technical fields, and while still the minority, are over – represented in areas such as producing.

So the questions are, do films made by women simply not make the cut to be included in a festival like Cannes because they aren`t good enough, and why are women going backwards?

The Cannes Festival Board of Directors select the films in competition (whose names I cannot find anywhere). A jury selects the prizes, and this year it has four women amongst the nine members (and to her credit, one of them, Andrea Arnold was the first to raise the issue). Because gender is not seen as an issue, there is no consideration given to gender balance in selection (and until the lack of gender equity is recognized, they are probably not going to feel they need to get consider it – unless we all rise up and sign a petition to make them think twice about it!) The festival`s Thierry Fremaux, is reported in `The Independent` as saying that the judges would not select a film that doesn`t deserve it “just because it is directed by a woman”. A response that effectively shuts up the debate, because no-one would want this. But are there particular structural reasons that films made by women directors are not being selected? I would hope that the festival would take up a genuine inquiry into this issue, especially as it seems particularly symptomatic of this particular festival.

The second question in relation to the sliding participation could be accounted for in numerous ways. For instance, a 2006 UK study of screenwriting by Alice Sinclair and her colleagues found evidence of hiring discrimination, including that men in positions of power were more likely to hire men. It found that more often women did not make the most of work cultures, failing to capitalise on networks, to feel comfortable to sell or promote their work, and often women were dissuaded more easily by early criticism, finding `this process more difficult than men as they tend to have less confidence in their work and are less tenacious`. In general, there was a lack of access, a paucity of support, and few efforts to improve gender imbalance. So the reasons for declining participation are numerous and complex, but what can be said is that women in Western film industries experience numerous common barriers to progress and success in the film and related audiovisual industries. Students I teach sometimes reflect on how their opinion gets left behind, and they struggle to make themselves visible within a production team; in this I can see they experience themselves as women, and begin quite early on to see that being women might make it difficult to be a director or cinematographer (something their male colleagues are not usually cognizant of), and they have to be strong to get a place and a voice. Gender needs to get back on the agenda as an issue – URGENTLY.

We have a lot to lose. Firstly, while women do not constitute a single, homogenous group, and have a diverse range of experiences, perspectives, aesthetic approaches and interests, they do share the perspective of being female in the world, and construct stories from this subjectivity – do we want to eliminate stories and approaches of half the population? Secondly, women contribute high quality human capital as innovators culturally and creatively, which is a business reason to adopt a more inclusive approach – on top of ethical, social and cultural reasons that make it vital for global Western industrialised film industries to ensure women achieve equal participation. Another reason we need to advocate for more women is that there is evidence that the more women there are in key creative roles, the more other women are employed – so advocating for more women would improve the participation of women.

On the bright side, St Kilda Film Festival which opens next week has a range of women directors in its line up. On opening night seven of the eight films are produced by women, and three of the eight films screened are directed by women – `Am I Okay` by Matilda Brown; `The Globe Collector` from Summer De Roche, and Amy Gebhardt`s `Into the Sun`. These are talented directors, well connected and supported in the industry. George Miller for example mentored Gebhard. Our industry mustn`t go the way of Cannes, we must keep gender on the agenda, and make the most of women`s innovation in the mix.

If you think, as I do, that Cannes officials shouldn’t get away with this, there is a petition now live online. If you sign there, your name will generate an email to the officials at Cannes.


Lisa French is Associate Professor in Cinema Studies and Media at RMIT. Her books include ‘Womenvision: Women and the Moving Image in Australia’; she produced the short documentary ‘Birth of a Film Festival’; and was the director of the St Kilda Film Festival for 3 years.

Republished by permission from Screen Hub.

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