Fact: Men directed all 22 films in competition for the Palme d'Or at the 65th Cannes International Film Festival. Fact: The only woman to win that coveted prize was Jane Campion for "The Piano" in 1993 -- and that was a joint victory. Cannes, we've got a problem -- and when I say "we," I mean women and men who love film.
Four weeks ago, I first raised this controversy in my column "Thelma Adams on Reel Women" at AMC Filmcritic.com, a site that has since folded. At that time, I wrote, "I love David Cronenberg, whose 'Cosmopolis' has been welcomed into the competition and who headed the Cannes jury in 1999. I was a champion of his cerebral period drama 'A Dangerous Method,' which had a terrific star turn by Keira Knightley. But, really, not a single film by a woman? I'm just gobsmacked."
Now that I've migrated my column to Yahoo! Movies, the world's most viewed movie site, I want to expand the debate for our larger audience. In Cannes, where the festival opened last Thursday and will run through Sunday, the quotes on the gender controversy have been surprisingly subdued from the country that decapitated Marie Antoinette as part of its revolution.
The head of the boys' club: The Boys Are All Right
Festival Artistic Director Thierry Fremaux explained: "I don't select films because the film is directed by a man, a woman, white, black, young, an old man. ... It wouldn't be very nice to select a film because the film is not good but it is directed by a woman." Fremaux lacks the self-awareness that his lock-hold on selecting the films may impact which movies get rewarded and which get tossed back. In every society, the gatekeepers determine the definition of quality.
The female director on the jury: Could it be Stockholm syndrome?
As the sole female director on the nine-person competition jury, British filmmaker Andrea Arnold ("Fish Tank") got to field the "woman question." While she decried the "pity" of gender inequality, she told a Cannes press conference, "I would absolutely hate it if my film got selected because I was a woman. I would only want my film to be selected for the right reasons and not out of charity because I'm female." What she was doing, having achieved her spot in the inner circle (congrats!), was echoing Fremaux's sentiment about the evils of "positive discrimination."
The academic apologist: The glass is half-full
Columbia University professor and Cannes fixture Annette Insdorf took a wait-and-see approach: "For me, the question is less 'How many women filmmakers are selected?' than 'Do the films illuminate female experience?'" After mentioning such Cannes projects as Marion Cotillard ("Rust and Bone"), Kristen Stewart ("On the Road"), and Jessica Chastain ("Lawless"), Insdorf continued: "It may turn out that the 'female auteur' presence in Cannes this year is the prolific international actress." Having already seen Chastain in "Lawless," a strong, well-made testosterone-driven film that showcases Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf, I can say that Chastain plays a runaway dancehall girl with a heart of gold. She's great, but really, Annette, I'm not pinning any hopes on this role as a gender game changer.
[Related: Cannes' buzziest movies]
Meanwhile, there has been an outcry from the French feminist group La Barbe (translation: The Beard), which published a satirical letter in the French newspaper Le Monde. The letter and attached petition accused the festival of sexism while joking, "Is it not enough for them [women] to aspire to be mistress of ceremonies someday during the festival's opening night?" Clearly not, as La Barbe members in bright beards continue to protest on the Cannes red carpet.
Melissa Silverstein of Women and Hollywood took a more straightforward approach in the e-petition she drafted (and which I signed). In part, it stated: "We call for Cannes, and other film festivals worldwide to commit to transparency and equality in the selection process of these films. We judge films as human beings, shaped by our own perspectives and experiences. It is vital, therefore, that there be equality and diversity at the point of selection." In pushing for transparency in the decision-making process, Silverstein's petition strikes at the heart of the issue: the gatekeepers.
The point is not to assign quotas for women in film -- to present films by women because they are by women. The underlying problem is: Why are women so drastically underrepresented among filmmakers, jurors, and entrants? Why do women with a record of success as filmmakers find it so hard to get projects produced, while men, even after significant failures, can still get the green light for their next projects? If there is nothing "special" about women filmmakers and writers, then there should be nothing "special" about either their presence OR their absence.
Unfortunately, it's their absence that is special.
Again, the answer is not quotas for women. It avoids addressing the real problem. The answer is that, given the absence of any normal distribution in their selection process, the programmers, the selection committees, the gatekeepers are biased, not for quality or talent -- since we all agree there's a pretty good chance that that's not gender-specific -- but on gender.
If we all agree that quality and talent are not gender-specific, and the results of the gatekeepers' selections is so gender-specific, then it must be the gatekeepers themselves who are at fault. They can't see past the sex. Lacking any therapeutic insight into their problem, they should be removed and replaced by those who can, in fact, make judgments on talent and quality -- and leave gender issues to those situations when gender selection matters. Like "birthin' babies," or finding a date.