Is Cannes 2012 sexist?
None of the 22 directors nominated for a Palme d’Or is female. Can Cannes 2012 be accused of sexism? movieScope editor Nikki Baughan reflects on the glass ceiling.
As Cannes nears its halfway point, we are being bombarded with a constant stream of festival news, reviews and images. While there are hundreds of photographs – every day – of beautiful women on red carpets, not to mention the recurring sight of that provocative official poster featuring iconic bombshell Marilyn Monroe, there has been very little heard about the women behind the camera.
It’s summed up by one fact; not a single one of the 22 directors nominated for a Palme d’Or is female. And this raises a difficult question – can this year’s festival of festivals be accused of sexism?
Many commentators have levelled this criticism over recent weeks, including a group of high-profile female filmmakers – including Virginie Despentes (Baise Moi) and Coline Serreau (Three Men and a Cradle) – who, in an open letter to the Cannes organisers, made their feeling more than clear. “Men love their women to have depth,” the letter pointedly states, “but only when it comes to their cleavages… Above all, do not let young girls think that one day they might have the nerve to make films and climb the steps of the Palais other than on the arm of a prince charming.”
Festival director Thierry Frémaux was quick to respond, making it clear all Palme d’Or contenders have been chosen on merit alone, and Cannes would ‘never agree to select a film that doesn’t deserve it on the basis it was made by a woman.”
British filmmaker Andrea Arnold – one of the four women on the nine-strong judging panel – has also spoken out. “I’d absolutely hate it if my film got selected only because I’m a woman,” she unequivocally states.
I share her opinion; to me, the idea of judging panels of mixed gender competitions picking a movie simply to tick the ‘female filmmaker’ box is sickeningly patronising, and should sit uneasily with anyone concerned with genuine equality.
To my mind, statements like those of Fremaux and Arnold hold the most value, rather than those of the women who penned the letter of outrage. Although I can understand what prompted their frustration, to so specifically accuse the Cannes Film Festival of sexism seems, to me, to be missing the bigger picture; that the all-male Palme d’Or playing field is not a deliberate misogynistic statement, rather another symptom of the gender imbalance that is at the centre of our industry.
There is no doubt there are many strong female directors out there, making exceptional films. But it is also a fact that they are woefully outnumbered; according to Birds Eye View, the UK body devoted to supporting female filmmaking talent, women directors make up less than 10 per cent of the industry, with female screenwriters accounting for less than 15 per cent and female producers around 25 per cent.
The same goes throughout all sectors of the industry. In the UK, for example, we have several influential female executives of who we should be extremely proud; Amanda Nevill, Head of the BFI, or Christine Langan, Head of BBC Films, for example. But, again, these essential film decision makers are outnumbered by men, everywhere from government departments to funding bodies and beyond.
The film industry, like so many others, has been built on money and power, and run by those who have both; traditionally, white, affluent men who did not need to concern themselves with matters of the home.
While that is an increasingly obsolete assessment of a man’s role in society, the effect on the industry is lingering; it has an elitist and masculine outlook that benefits just a small proportion of those making movies. It is, at best, virtually impossible to crack and, at worst, actively exclusionist. And while it’s by no means just women who lose out – indeed, any non-white, non-affluent filmmaker could likely make a case for being sidelined – this patriarchal status quo remains, in the 21st Century, one of the industry’s most glaring embarrassments.
(Incidentally, while the family/career debate may be seen by some as outdated, it remains a fact that, for many women, a difficult choice has to be made about where to focus ones attention. Many find that they simply can’t devote all of their energies into pursuing an extremely difficult career that needs total and utter commitment. It’s by no means true in every case, and many male filmmakers undoubtedly feel the pressure of providing for their families, but it is certainly a hurdle that many men may not need to consider.)
Sure enough, things are changing at grass roots level. The democratising nature of evolving technologies and the increasing emphasis on community funding and exhibition are allowing more female filmmakers to emerge than ever before.
But, as we know from long-held experience, it will take some time for that change to reach the highest echelons of the industry. As such, this should not be an issue that rears its head only when women filmmakers are overlooked for high-profile recognition; or, indeed, when they are on a winning streak.
While Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar success, or the critical acclaim heaped on filmmakers like Lynn Ramsay and Andrea Arnold are to be celebrated, the success of female filmmaking cannot – and should not – be measured by awards success.
It should instead be measured in direct comparison with the successes of their male counterparts; by studying the number of women making movies; getting the funding and support they need; securing big screen releases in multiple international territories and establishing successful careers – and holding that up against the number of men receiving the same opportunities.
In short, we should be making sure all female filmmakers have the tools they need to grow their career, and enabling more women to choose this career through wider access to education and training.
In the meantime, female filmmakers should not be put off by the glass ceiling that – despite the assertions of some –still exists; only through the brute force of many will it finally crack. And only when female filmmakers can stand shoulder to shoulder with men in equal numbers will festivals like Cannes – not to mention the cinema-going public – have a level playing field from which to make their selections