Venice 2019 Line-Up Reminds Us Gender Equality Has a Long Way to Go (Commentary)

Women go underrepresented in competition at a festival that found room for Roman Polanski and Nate Parker

Last Updated: August 27, 2019 @ 2:36 PM

Since the #MeToo movement began sweeping across the entertainment industry nearly two years ago, few corners of the film world have made as many significant strides in gender equity in film as the festival circuit.

As Hollywood studios move at a pace slower than melting glaciers to hire female filmmakers, curators and organizers have stepped in to give women a platform to screen their movies, find mentors, network with industry insiders, compete for prizes or distribution and so on. Major players like Sundance, Berlin and next week’s Toronto International Film Festival have pushed their programming toward gender parity in percentages never seen at the studio level.

That’s not the case for the Venice Film Festival, whose organizers seem to have washed their hands of the equality agreement they signed just last year. That was when Jennifer Kent was the only woman in the main competition with her film, “The Nightingale.” She was invited to return in 2019 to the festival as part of the team of jurors led by Argentine director Lucrecia Martel.

However, the niceties ended when, once again, the programmers decided that two female-directed movies — Haifaa Al-Mansour’s “The Perfect Candidate” and Shannon Murphy’s “Babyteeth” — out of the 21 titles in the competition would suffice. As Kent told TheWrap, “There are some incredible women out there making films, and we need to see them, and they need to be in festivals, A-list festivals, and have the opportunity that men are having.”

Due to a family emergency, Kent has stepped down from the festival jury, and Mary Harron has taken her place. Although the festival’s top jury is the closest it’s gotten to gender parity, it is small comfort for those dismayed that the festival made just as much room for female filmmakers in the main slate as it did for men publicly accused of sexual assault, like Roman Polanski and Nate Parker. (Polanski pleaded guilty to statutory rape in 1978 but fled the U.S. before sentencing; Parker was acquitted of criminal rape charges in 1999.)

Months before the festival began, artistic chief Alberto Barbera defended the festival’s male-heavy line-up under the sanctimonious claim of prioritizing art over gender. Although roughly 24% of this year’s submissions were made by women, he only found space for just two, or roughly 10%. He told Variety, “What I’m never going to do is take a movie directed by a woman just to raise the proportion…” His comments and his actions felt like a backhanded blow to the other major festivals that have taken real strides to diversify their programming.

In the same interview, Barbera defended his choice to program Polanski’s new film by comparing the Oscar-winning auteur to a 16th-century painter. “When you go see a painting by Caravaggio, you are seeing a work by an assassin who, after killing a man, had to escape to Palermo,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. If you can’t make a distinction between the culpability of a person and that person’s value as an artist, you aren’t going to get anywhere.” The response led to some head-scratching, naturally. Shouldn’t civilization have made some progress since the 16th century?

However bizarre his answer, Barbera’s attitudes toward #MeToo and equality may be more mainstream than you’d think. Italy and France, where Polanski lives out of arm’s reach of U.S. extradition, have faced their own kinds of cultural clashes with the #MeToo movement. Italian conservatives fought #MeToo from the start, viewing the movement as another American invasion through morals. Asia Argento, once a prominent advocate for the #MeToo movement in Italy, became a scapegoat for its demise when actor Jimmy Bennett accused the director of sexually assaulting him. (She has denied the accusation.)

Over in France, public opinion remains contentious over #MeToo, with critics deriding the movement just as advocates call for stricter sanctions against those who commit sexual assault. French journalist Sandra Muller was taken to court by TV executive Eric Brion, the man she accused of sexually harassing her, for defamation. A verdict in the case, which may shape the movement’s future, is due in late September. Other women, like actress Catherine Deneuve, spoke out against #BalanceTonPorc (the French hashtag meaning “out your pig,” through which people shared their #MeToo stories) and called its justice-seeking aim too “puritanical,” although she later apologized to victims of sexual violence.

Even the Cannes Film Festival — which still requires high heels for women on the red carpet — underwent a few changes this year to address the shift in attitudes. Like Barbera, Cannes’ artistic director Thierry Fremaux also took a defensive stance, claiming that the festival was being held to an impossible standard. Even so, progress was seen in the festival’s first attempt at offering childcare for attendees, but the powers that be still granted an award to actor Alain Delon, a legend in France who has also admitted to hitting women and to opposing same-sex couples’ right to adopt children. The festival’s main slate featured four women filmmakers, just one more than in 2018’s festival. These were baby steps toward change that purposefully rocked no boats.

Under an agreement drawn up by Time’s Up and signed last year, both Venice and Cannes (as well as other major festivals) agreed to provide better transparency on gender balance and work toward 50-50 parity in top management and decision-making boards. Despite the fanfare, neither European festival made a public commitment to parity in its film slates.

If Venice is so concerned about the artistic merits of female filmmakers, why not invest in them, widen opportunities at the festival, create resources for them to find work and mentorship and follow up to see what can be done better? Instead, the hands in charge of the festival are using their institutional powers to maintain the status quo, fortify themselves so that when even more women apply for precious space on future slates, there will be only one or two token slots for them to fill alongside abusers deemed artistically worthy.

Whether the Venice festival intended to or not, their organizers’actions defy whatever commitments to diversity they’ve pledged, and at this point, it’s fair to ask those in charge if any of this ever mattered to them at all.

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