As part of Cannes Film Festival’s new Cannes Classic category, a documentary about cinema’s first-ever woman director is premiering later this week. For many in the audience, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché will likely be their first introduction to Alice Guy-Blaché, a French woman who directed 1,000 silent films and owned the largest production studio outside of Hollywood. Blaché — and many other women directors working in the silent era – pioneered the contemporary model of a movie director.
There’s an undeniable irony in a documentary about a trailblazing woman director premiering at Cannes, of all festivals. In 1993, Jane Campion became the first woman filmmaker to ever receive the Palme d’Or, the festival’s highest honour (actually, she shared the award with director Chen Kaige). And to this day, Campion remains the only woman to have won a Palme d’Or. In the 63 years that the glistening Palme has been handed out to directors, only Campion’s The Piano has been deemed worthy of what festival director Thierry Frémaux calls the “grail that makes filmmakers dizzy with desire.”
This statistic is representative of Cannes’ larger problem with gender parity among its lineup. This year, only three of the 21 movies in the Competition category are directed by women — an improvement from the 2005, 2010, and 2012 festivals, when no women were included in the Competition category at all. While over 20 women are premiering films across categories at Cannes, most of these filmmakers are represented in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard category, which recognises up-and-comers. These films are not eligible for the Palme d’Or.
Last year, Campion expressed shock about being the sole woman winner, still, after all this time. “Too long! Twenty-four years! And before that, there was no one. It’s insane,” Campion said in an interview with Vulture. At least at the conclusion of last year’s festival, Sofia Coppola scored a victory for women. With her film The Beguiled, Coppola became the second woman filmmaker to walk away with the Best Director prize (the other winner occurred in 1961). Coppola and Campion find themselves in an exclusive club. Across the board, women don’t frequently win awards at Cannes. According to an analysis conducted by Agence France-Press, of the 268 filmmakers who have won Cannes’ top three awards, only 11 have been women.
Compared to other high-profile film festivals, Cannes is somewhat of an outlier. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, 21 of 56 competition films were directed by women. The 2018 Tribeca Film Festival’s lineup included a tremendous 46% of women-directed movies, the highest percentage in the festival’s history. These festivals boast about their efforts toward inclusion. Keri Putnam, director of the Sundance Institute of which the festival is a part, said the Institute was “proud of the diversity in this year’s lineup.”
You won’t encounter similar boasting from the director of the Cannes Film Festival, where inclusion seems to be pitted against artistry. Fremaux, the festival’s director, is adamant that Cannes’ selections are, and always will be, “chosen for their quality,” not for who made them. But what constitutes “quality” for Cannes’ team of programmers? “The core values of Cannes’ ancient regime remain, so far, unchanged,” Kate Muir, movie critic and Time’s Up activist, told The Guardian. “The celebration of the male auteur above all; the marginalising of women’s work.”
It’s easy to see where Muir draws her conclusions from. Cannes is a festival notorious for pardoning controversial male auteurs. Last year, Cannes premiered a Roman Polanski film. This year, Lars Von Trier is making his return after being banned from the festival in 2011 for making Nazi jokes during his movie's press conference. In the ensuing span of time, Von Trier was accused of sexual harassment by Björk, an allegation he denies. Von Trier won't get a press conference — but he will show his film, The House That Jack Built.
Can we expect a change in this department? Addressing the question of gender parity among directors at Cannes, jury president Cate Blanchett said, “The selection committee now has more women on board than in previous years, which will obviously change the lens through which the films are chosen. But these things are not going to happen overnight.” Here, Blanchett brings up an important point: Diversifying the team of festival programmers could broaden Cannes' notion of “quality,” and open the door to a more inclusive festival lineup.
Otherwise, Cannes will be stuck in the same loop Muir identified. “If the gatekeepers are not recognising all different kinds of films, just the same types of films and the same types of filmmakers, over and over again, the standard becomes whatever that film is,” producer Stephanie Allain told Refinery29.
As Blanchett said, change doesn’t happen overnight — but it does require a willingness to do so. We have yet to see how seriously Cannes takes its intention to "ensure the selections are well-balanced and diverse," as Fremaux stated.