31 Aug 2018

Venice film festival protects sexism for yet another year

This week marks the start of the prestigious Venice Film Festival, but of the 21 films that are competing, only one was directed by a woman. “The Nightingale,” by Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent, is a gothic thriller about a woman seeking revenge.

Elizabeth Walsh
Elizabeth Walsh International Producer, Europe
Venice film festival protects sexism for yet another year - NewsMavens
Old cinema seats, PixaBay

It would seem that women’s vengeance is welcome on screen, even though it has yet to have its day in the real world.

When this rather dismal statistic was brought to the attention of Alberto Barbera, the festival’s artistic director, last month, he replied that “Venice can’t do anything about [the lack of good films made by women]. It’s not up to us to change the situation.”

That argument might be more compelling if it were not for the fact that several high profile films showcased at Cannes and Sundance this year were directed by women and half of all Short Cuts at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival are directed or co-directed by women.

And even with its own shortcomings, the tone rang a bit differently at the Cannes Film Festival this spring, when artistic director Thierry Fremaux signed a pledge with the head programmers of Directors Fortnight and Critics Week to increase transparency and promote gender parity.

Paolo Baratta, president of the Venice Film Festival’s parent organisation, also made a pledge -- to gather “more statistics.” As if more data is needed to grasp the fact that one out of 21 films is anything other than pathetic and that there is indeed a problem. (An actual plan of action would be quite welcome.)

Barbera’s comments were characterized as “tone-deaf” and ushered in a fresh wave of criticism of “old-world Italian attitudes that have stubbornly refused to change with the times”. For in the wake of #MeToo, when the director of a world-class festival fails to understand that this is not the year to tell women “too bad, can’t help you”, the only sane response is to question that person’s judgment.

Indeed, Barbera also came under fire last year for selecting "The Private Life of a Modern Woman", a film directed by James Toback, who, at the time, was facing well-known allegations of harassment, abuse and rape. Nor was it just a sour political move -- the film itself was reportedly so terrible that just 10 minutes into the screening, there was a near riot as people fought for the exit.

Barbera continued his defense of gender inequality when he argued against quotas:

“We don’t look at films based on [the director’s] gender. We look [and select] them based on quality,” he said. “If we start to operate in terms of quotas or numbers or percentages, I think the first to be humiliated would be women themselves. The day in which I had to choose a film solely because it’s made by a woman, I would change jobs,” he continued.

Perhaps the artistic director is unfamiliar with quotas, but there are a variety of methods to implement them, one of which is as simple as voluntarily setting a target and publicizing progress in meeting that goal. Moreover, as gender quotas have been proven to weed out incompetent men and make the workplace more efficient, they could indeed be used throughout the industry in a variety of ways if not in the festival competition itself.

But the problem isn’t just Barbera’s uninformed argument against quotas. It’s that he chose to defend the existing sexism rather than challenge it.

When the leader of one of the world’s leading film festivals denies the necessity of changing such a horribly unbalanced environment, he sends a message to the industry that there is no pressure from the top to stop this behavior. When he says that Venice “can’t do anything,” the festival turns a blind eye to the barriers that keep women from getting their work on screen. Inaction in the name of neutrality is no longer just when the status quo is biased; such neutrality props up the sexist system.

What Barbera could have done is say, “this is unacceptable”. The Venice Film Festival could have included symbolic empty spots to protest the films that might have made it to the competition were it not for the systemic sexism that bars women from even entering the race. They could have organized talks by women industry leaders to call out that sexism. Barbera could also have stated his support for Time’s Up, the movement led by Hollywood that seeks to hold the industry accountable for the harassment and sexual assault that makes it nearly impossible for women to do their jobs. At the very least, the festival could respond to the open letter signed by international women’s film groups that calls for a pledge for gender equity, unconscious bias training and an open discussion of the obstacles that women in film face.

Instead, the Venice Film Festival has done the bare minimum, grudgingly signing a pledge on Friday to support gender equality only after facing intense criticism for its refusal to take discrimination seriously. That watered down pledge states that the festival “will continue to” practice the policies that it claims are already in place.

Don’t be fooled by the optics stunt. Deliberate obstinacy and defense of inaction in the face of public protest are especially reprehensible in those who have the power to challenge oppression and a tragedy for the evolution of artistic cinema, as well.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

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