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Venice Film Festival Director Alberto Barbera on Gender Disparity, Netflix Controversies, and Steve Bannon

The 68-year-old one-time critic faces a lot of controversy this year, but he's ready to face the hard questions.

Alberto Barbera'The Aspern Papers' photocall, 75th Venice International Film Festival, Italy - 30 Aug 2018

Alberto Barbera

Awakening/REX/Shutterstock

Events at the Venice Film Festival may run from a long, narrow stretch of island known as the Lido, but they hardly take place in seclusion. Celebrating its 75th edition this year, the world’s oldest film festival feels more than ever like the center of action. Though it’s long solidified a position as a key awards season launchpad, Venice has also found itself at the heart of several key debates roiling the industry in 2018 — some well worth having, and other we’d all rather avoid.

And at the heart of it all sits festival director Alberto Barbera. The 68-year-old one-time critic knew the Lido inside and out when he accepted his post in 2011; he had served as director once before, from 1998 – 2002. That first go-round ended in frustration for nearly all involved, and when offered his former gig anew, “I didn’t want to come back again,” he said in an interview this week. “And then I said, if I go back, we should change something.”

In 2011, the festival faced a major threat to its existence. “Americans were skipping Venice, preferring to go to Toronto and to make the domestic promotion of their films there,” he said. “They were saying that Venice was too expensive, too risky, and not profitable for them. At the same time, distributors and other professionals didn’t come to Venice at all. Only the filmmakers were there, and I realized that this could be a major problem. Any big festival needs to have other representatives of the film industry, not only the filmmakers and the talent.”

He embarked on a modernizing campaign, investing in new festival infrastructure, developing production forums, and most notably, significantly cutting down the number of films in selection. “We need to keep it small, to better the quality of the films instead of the quantity,” he said. “We are so poor in terms of infrastructure and logistics that we cannot afford to have too many films too many to support and promote.”

He also went out courting the studios and mini-majors, selling his festival on its newfound openness to a wider pool of films. “We opened the competition,” he said, “for those specific kinds of movies that are more audience oriented but at the same time with a certain quality.” Indeed, this year alone the competition houses several genre offerings, with a variety of westerns, comedies, musicals, and thrillers competing for the Golden Lion.

That hasn’t necessarily changed the festival’s high-art identity, with films like Lav Diaz’s 228 minute “The Women Who Left” and Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary “Sacro DRA” taking home top honors in recent years, but it’s opened the playing field for something like Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” a Venice winner that landed the festival its first Best Picture winner since 1948.

roma

“Roma”

Netflix

That openness has come with a fair share of controversy. Just yesterday, the International Confederation of Art Cinemas (CICAE) put out a scathing press release, chastising Venice for its laxity in giving Netflix such a warm welcome. But Barbera seems unfazed. “They say cinema is not television. But we’re not talking about television,” he said. He pointed to Alfonso Cuarón’s Netflix-produced “Roma,” which has been landing raves all week. “I mean, ‘Roma’ is not television,” he said. “Some of the greatest filmmakers in contemporary cinema are going to Netflix with their projects. They get a lot of money, they get a lot of freedom, which is quite unusual, and they can make a film that they like without any kind of intrusion or pressure. So I think we cannot avoid taking Netflix and their films into consideration.”

One cannot deny that Venice’s loyalty to the streaming giant has paid off in spades this year. The festival didn’t just land buzzy titles from the Cuarón, the Coens and Paul Greengrass; it gave those films the imprimatur of prestige that has helped push Netflix to organize limited theatrical runs for all three films. It might be a modest win, but, as Barbera puts it, “we’re in a brand new situation. It’s impossible to get back to the previous one, so why not? I think it’s a great opportunity.”

Venice has also found itself at the heart of another point of inflection, specifically regarding its lack of inclusion for woman filmmakers. Out of the 21 films in competition this year, only one comes from a female director, but Barbera remains steadfast that the path to parity does not run through gender quotas.

“I am totally against the idea of having quotas for women because I think it would be offensive, even insulting,” he said. “Knowing that you are selected in a festival because you are a woman, instead of being selected because you made a good film, that doesn’t help in any way.”

In fairness to the festival director, he does recognize that the problems are systemic. Out of the 3000 films submitted for Venice’s various selections, only 23% came from female directors. When it came to the official selection, “in the different sections of the festival we have 22% of films made by women,” he said. “So we’re not far from the average on submissions. Which is exactly the problem, in the sense that the film industry is a male world with a lot of prejudice against women, against the creativity of women, which is no less strong or relevant as male creativity.”

Though jury president Guillermo del Toro and “The Sisters Brothers” director Jacques Audiard have both spoken out in favor of greater inclusion initiatives this year, Barbera argues that the problem is outside of his purview. “We can’t do almost anything to change the situation because we don’t have the power to decide who’s going to make a film or not,” he said

Both the changing distribution marketplace and the push for greater inclusion are necessary, and, to a large degree, healthy conversations to have in 2018, but Venice also finds itself, this year, with a problem it never asked for: How do you solve a problem like Bannon?

The far-right Trump confidante and subject of an Errol Morris doc invited himself when news broke that the film “American Dharma” would play out of competition, paying his own way and securing a ticket to the screening as would anyone else for the film’s open-to-the-public screening.

“He’s not an official guest of the festival in any way,” Barbera said. “The fact is, he’s coming, we cannot tell him that he shouldn’t come, and if he comes he will not participate in the press conference, there won’t be a public discussion with him.”

Barbera’s problems in this case are slightly different to those faced by The New Yorker editor David Remnick. While the magazine festival faced accusations that it was capitalizing on Bannon and his xenophobic ideology, packaging hate-speech for fun and profit, the festival stared down a rather different issue: Should the cultural event say who could or couldn’t attend? In the end, it decided that so long as it offered no platform, the festival should be open to all.

“Even though I don’t like his ideas,” he said, “I will never refuse to have a confrontation with him if I would be invited to a public confrontation. In a democracy, this is the only way to face a situation like that.”

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