Every major film festival has a programming team; at Cannes, the festival identity is usually embodied by one person. Since Thierry Fremaux was promoted to General Delegate of the Festival in 2007, the festival leader has become its sole public face, addressing every question about its selection process, responding to backlash about its choices, and guiding filmmakers up the red carpet each night.
But the festival has always relied on a network of programmers, and in the wake of conversations about the need for gender parity around the world, Cannes revealed its gender-balanced programming team earlier this year. The news came with a new position: Former film journalist Stephanie Lamome had been promoted from an earlier role on the eight-person selection committee to serve as artistic advisor of the film department. The new role requires her to comb through submissions and oversee many of the finer details of the programming process. While riding the train from Paris to Cannes ahead of the 2019 festival, Lamome answered a few questions via email.
This interview has been translated, edited, and condensed for clarity.
There are more American films in the lineup this year than in 2018. How important was it to find American films for the festival?
The U.S. cinema is one of the largest in the world and is part of the legend of Cannes. This year, American films were ready. That’s the only difference with last year. Ignoring the widespread obsession with the Oscars — though it worked out well for Spike Lee last year — Terence Malick said he was just getting [his film “A Hidden Life”] ready when we programmed last year. Quentin Tarantino has worked day and night to be in Cannes this year, because that is what he dreams about above all else. Moreover, at Un Certain Regard and with our Special Screenings, we are happy to be able to unveil four films from young American directors — Danielle Lessovitz, Annie Silverstein, Pippa Bianco, and Michael Covino. All four are first-time filmmakers.
Taking into the cultural impact of the #MeToo movement and other movements, how much does the content of a film matter when you program it? If a film depicts something immoral or offensive, can you still show it?
Of course. A festival is not meant to be chilly, which does not mean that it should not be responsible. When we decide to select “Nina Wu” from [Burmese] filmmaker Midi Z from Un Certain Regard, it’s not because the film revolves around the humiliation of an actress in the film industry, or to surf on any post-Weinstein wave, but because the film’s narrative deserves a place. Of course, we will debate its content, but that is not what gives it its place in the Official Selection. It is not us who chooses the subjects but the subjects who choose us. When we see the female characters in the films made by women that we have selected this year, we have nothing to do with it, but it turns out that they all aspire to a certain freedom of self-determination — their desires and their becoming, without shame or fear, fiercely modern. It is they who define the “editorial line” of the festival, not us.
How do you feel about the conversation surrounding the lack of women directors in the lineup in recent years?
I am always surprised that this subject is seen only through the prism of the Cannes Film Festival, which is the most progressive in this area. Why don’t we talk about it the rest of the year? It is a perennial subject. Agnès Varda would never have wished for us to select a film because of its author’s gender. There are no false good reasons to do that. There are only subjectivities. I have been on the committee for over a decade, and I can assure you that when we are debating a film, we never have a discussion about the gender of the filmmaker. For some time, we have noticed that more and more women are submitting their films because there are simply more and more women in the cinema and we are delighted. We are starting to see things change in the industry and the Cannes Film Festival is naturally a reflection of this evolution. It is a virtuous circle.
How did the programming process change to address that?
In the selection committee, an additional woman was recruited to achieve parity. The list of our members is known. Moreover, the films submitted for the selection are now filtered by gender, so that we can accompany the movement with pragmatism and reliable statistics. We work from this point of view hand-in-hand with the 5050×2020 collective. Finally, in its management, the festival ensures parity and equal pay.
What else needs to happen to improve the gender and ethnic diversity of the program?
Incentives must be found in film schools and production companies so that we can reap those benefits. Someone like Ladj Ly, whose film [“Les Miserables”] we selected in Competition, has been working on this. In November, he created a free school in Montfermeil, with no requirements for prior diplomas or age restrictions. There are encouraging signs everywhere. We cannot wait to see these seeds grow and people who are not used to telling their own stories take a chance to do so. Instead of always talking about the same topics, we would hope the press is interested in describing — to take one example — the emergence of the new generation of filmmakers in Africa. It is wonderful and fascinating to see that, for the moment, this is very much due to the emergence of women filmmakers.