After Sexism, #MeToo, & Protests, What's Next For Women At The Cannes Film Festival?

Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
As the 2018 Cannes Film Festival comes to a close, questions about what role women will play in the prestigious festival's future remain unanswered.
What happens in a 10-day whirlwind of red carpets and premieres will likely drive film conversation for the next 12 months. The festival has launched the careers of some of Hollywood's most prominent filmmakers (Quentin Tarantino, for example, premiered Pulp Fiction there in 1994; before Sex, Lies and Videotapes won the Palme d'Or in 1989, Steven Soderbergh was a novice no-name director); the exclusive who's who guest list, combined with the glamour of early summer on France's Cote d'Azur, gives it an allure beyond the scrappy (and snowy cold) indie vibe at Sundance. And then, as Vox's Alissa Wilkinson lays out in this very helpful explainer, there's the commercial aspect. The festival is home to the Marché du Film, quite literally a film market, where distributors come to purchase rights to movies. If you're looking for a way for wide, global audiences to see your small foreign film (as in the case of 2011 Oscar-winner The Artist), this is the place to be.
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Even before celebrities, journalists, studio executives, and directors boarded flights to the French Riviera for the 71st iteration of the festival, which opened May 8, it seemed clear that this year would be momentous. As with most film-related events since October 2017, the shadow — or rather lack-thereof — of Harvey Weinstein hung conspicuously over the proceedings. Many of the incidents that have come to light in recent months took place during the festival, including a lawsuit filed by Kadian Noble, which alleges that the producer assaulted her in his hotel room there in 2014.
Likely in response to those claims, as well as the subsequent rise of the Hollywood-led Time's Up initiative, it was announced that this year's competition jury would have a majority of women, led by Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett and also including Ava DuVernay and Kristen Stewart.,. It's a move that, while in the right direction, wasn't quite enough to obscure the fact that only three of the 18 movies selected to compete for the coveted Palme D'Or are by female filmmakers, the lowest number since 2011. Not to mention festival director Thierry Frémaux's response to the criticism, which left much to be desired. “Many of these films directed by women are first or second films,” he told Variety in April. “They are still young filmmakers, and I wouldn’t be doing them a favour by putting their films in competition. It can be very harsh.”
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In its history spanning seven decades, only 82 films directed by women have been selected to compete at the festival, compared to 1,668 male-directed projects. Only one woman, Jane Campion, has ever won the Palme D'Or, an honour she had to share with director Chen Kaige. And a report by Agence France Press found that only 11 of the 268 top prize-winners have been women. And don't even get me started about the heels thing.
Cannes’ woman problem is becoming harder and harder to ignore as conversations about gender equality continue to gain national and international prominence.
In fact, this year opened with its share of sexist drivel. During a press conference for jury members, a reporter directed a question about why movies matter specifically to the four men on the panel, reportedly prompting Cate Blanchett to respond: "So actresses, don’t answer that. Because you have no idea how to answer that."
The actress also had to prompt her male colleagues to answer questions about the #MeToo movement's impact on the festival, queries that were automatically addressed to the women in the room.
Two days later, Carey Mulligan had to field awkward comments about her appearance by male reporters at The Kering Women in Motion Talk –an event that could have been a perfect opportunity for meaningful discussion about the imbalances and injustices plaguing the industry, and which instead devolved into a cringefest.
The emergence of France's 5050x2020 gender-parity movement, which orchestrated the headline-grabbing moment of 82 women climbing the steps of the festival Palais on May 12 — a symbol of the women-directed films that have made it competition over the years — has been hailed by some as a sign that things are changing. On May 14, the festival's main organisers signed a pledge committing to compiling statistics in regards to gender, especially for the films selected to compete, making the selection process more transparent, and striving towards gender parity on the festival's executive board.
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Still, this pledge, while a good start, remains vague in terms of concrete metrics of success. Originally, it seemed like the organisers would agree to track the gender of cast and key crew members to ensure fair representation in films considered for competition, but it looks like that will be something to strive for in the future. And while cautious optimism is in order, Women and Hollywood founder Melissa Silverstein, who stood on the steps of the Palais last week, warns that gestures alone are not enough.
"The key to this is to make sure that these pledges are upheld," she wrote in an email to Refinery29. "It's all fine to allow women to march and to sign something to get good press and say that you are changing, but the key is to actually have the will for change.
"The leadership of this festival does not really understand fully how big a problem this is," Silverstein continued. "Thierry Frémaux was clearly uncomfortable when he signed the pledge, and I'm not sure he really understands how deep a problem this is. What he really doesn't get is that the last six months have roiled the world, and so the pledge is really step 1, and we will be watching to make sure that all that he has committed becomes reality."
Sure enough, on Monday night, hours after the pledge had been signed, more than 100 people walked out of a screening of Lars Von Trier's The House That Jack Built, the Danish director's first film to screen at the festival since he was banned for comments he made about sympathising with Hitler in 2011. (The ban was lifted this year.) In a tweet, Variety's Ramin Setoodeh wrote that the film "depicts the mutilation of women and children," and a number of publications have since weighed in what Vanity Fair called an "empty provocation."
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Less publicised but no less important was a protest staged by 16 French actresses of colour on Wednesday, in response to the lack of diversity in the country's film industry. Standing outside the Palais, the women linked arms in what they called a "historic moment." This was also a chance to promote a new book, Noire N’est Pas Mon Métier (My Profession is Not Black), by actress and activist Aïssa Maïga, which features troubling stories by Black French actresses about their experiences in the workplace. (Nadège Beausson-Diagne describes being told at a casting call that "for a Black, you are really very intelligent. You should have been white.") Burundian singer and musician Khadja Nin, who sits on this year's jury, joined the women in their protest.
Last year's festival ended with jury-member Jessica Chastain taking the festival to task for the lack of woman voices represented. “This is the first time I’ve watched 20 films in 10 days,” she said. "I love movies, and the one thing I really took away from this experience is how the world views women from the female characters that I saw represented.
"It was quite disturbing, to be honest,” Chastain said. “For the most part, I was surprised with the representation of female characters on screen in these films.” She continued, noting the women in her life who have nothing in common with these fictional depictions — which are inherently linked to the lack of females in charge of movies in Hollywood and abroad. "The women that I recognise in my day-to-day life — ones that are proactive, have their own agencies, don’t just react to the men around them — they have their own point of view."
Did that speech have an impact? Will this year's protests and deliberations change things for the future? Maybe. As Silverstein tweeted from Cannes on Tuesday: "Overheard 'how can you have 82 women walk the steps and then 2 days later show a movie where ever woman is murdered' Cannes in a nutshell. 1 step forward. 3 steps back."
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