Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.
This year’s Cannes Film Festival comes with a statistic that’s inspiring and disheartening in equal measure: The competition lineup includes more work from female filmmakers than almost any other year of the aughts… but that still shakes out to under 16% of the total competition slate. This year’s 19-film competition lineup includes just three female filmmakers, all of whom have screened their work at the festival before, putting Palme d’Or contenders at a 15.8% female-directed rate.
Sofia Coppola will compete with her Civil War-era drama “The Beguiled;” previously, the festival premiered her “Marie Antoinette” (2006, in competition) and “The Bling Ring” (2013, Un Certain Regard). She’ll be joined by frequent Cannes attendee Naomi Kawase, bowing her “Radiance,” her seventh film to debut at the festival (she won the Camera d’Or in 1997).
Lynne Ramsay will also premiere her latest, “You Were Never Really Here,” in competition. Her relationship with Cannes dates back to 1996, when she won the Cannes Prix de Jury for short film “Small Deaths.” She’s also screened “Ratcatcher” (1999, Un Certain Regard), “Morvern Callar” (Director’s Fortnight, 2002), and “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2011, competition), all to acclaim.
Ramsay also served as a member of the competition jury in 2013. This year, the competition jury includes four women out of the nine-person lineup, including Jessica Chastain, Maren Ade, Agnès Jaoui, and Fan Bingbing. It’s led by the notoriously feminist-leaning director Pedro Almodóvar, who has built his career telling compelling and insightful stories about women. (Elsewhere, Uma Thurman will serve as the president of Un Certain Regard jury.)
Cannes is quite familiar with its female troubles, but something less than aware. In 2016, festival director Thierry Fremaux tried to pass off Cannes’ lack of female-directed films as a simple product of lacking female filmmakers. At the time, he told Screen Daily, “Nine out of 49 of the filmmakers [at the festival] are women. That’s 20% of the selection. What percentage of filmmakers in the world are women? According to a recent report, it’s 7%. I’ve been saying this for four years now but what you see in Cannes is a consequence, not the cause. More needs to be done in the film schools, the universities and the production houses, to favour women, and then you would see results.”
However, the 2016 competition lineup included just three competition titles from female filmmakers – Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” Nicole Garcia’s “From the Land of the Moon,” and Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann.”The Palme d’Or went to Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake,” though Ade’s film was considered a frontrunner throughout the festival, and Arnold’s feature did win a Jury Prize.
Fremaux’s reasoning basically boiled down to bad math, an excuse we took to task with a look at the the 2016 lineup, previous female-directed efforts, and even our own list of other films that could have very well made the lineup. (It’s also worth noting that the 20% was across the board;female filmmakers comprised just 13.6% of the competition lineup.)
This year’s festival has cut down slightly on the competition entries (the section vacillates between 23 and 18 offerings each year), which means the total percentage of competing female filmmakers bumped up without actually adding any more. And it’s telling that each of the women selected to compete with their latest works have been at Cannes before. They’re festival approved, which means Cannes can tout an increased female filmmaker visibility without making visible the filmmakers who need it most — rising stars, fresh names, new talent.
It’s small comfort that 2017 can claim the second highest percentage of female filmmakers over the last 17 years; the high note was 2011, when 4 out of 20 competing films were made by women. That year came only after a series of notably inequities; in 2010 and 2005, there were no women in the competition lineup — a feat that Cannes repeated in 2012. It’s a familiar feeling.
Meanwhile, the number of women working behind the camera in Hollywood has actually declined over the past year. The most recent Celluloid Ceiling study concludes that women make up just 7% of directors working on the top 250 films (a number pulled from the highest-grossing domestic features from each year), which is down 2% from last year. And that number is 2% below the figure from back in 1998.
Similarly, USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative’s latest study about female directors in Hollywood, a 10-year look at various metrics across the industry, included findings as blunt as “the director’s chair is white and male” and “age restricts opportunities for female filmmakers” and “one & done: opportunities for female directors are rare.”
Given Cannes’ rarefied place in the industry, it has the opportunity — even the obligation — to seek out more female filmmakers, all the better to elevate them in a world that so often makes that impossible. A berth at Cannes is a starmaker, or at least a foot-in-the-door-maker.
Other festivals have made it a priority to create more diverse talent slates; 34 percent of all films that screened at this year’s Sundance were directed by women (a major boost from their usual percentage, which traditionally has clocked in around 25%), while the upcoming Los Angeles Film Festival is doing even better. Across the competition categories, 42% of the films are directed by women, and 40% are directed by people of color.
Bad math doesn’t cut it anymore, especially when the numbers stop reflecting what the future looks like.
The Cannes Film Festival runs May 17 – 28.