May 25th, 2012
Check this out. I snapped this shot at the Cannes Film Festival a few days ago. It’s the classic red carpet shot, the men in black tie (required dress for the red carpet), the ushers at attention like foot soldiers, trying not to stare too closely at all the frocks, the Talent at the top of the stairs, posing for all the world. The stars here are all headliners in a violent Western directed by John Hillcoat (The Road) called Lawless. If you know your pop culture you can spot Guy Pierce, John Hardy, Dane Dehaan, Jason Clarke, Nick Cave, Hillcoat, and Shia LaBeouf. And, oh yeah, there’s Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain—Mia in purple and Jessica in, er, something diaphanous. between Hillcoat and LaBeouf.
Like any self-respecting Cannes voyeur, I took a lot of pictures. Celebrities were as common as Kardashians. But this one of the Lawless gang really spoke to one of the scandals generated by this year’s festival selections—the notable absence of women from the pantheon of official selections. Indeed, with 22 films from all over the world in competition, it is just plain odd that not one of them has been directed a by a woman.
I had a few missions at Cannes. Okay, I ate croissants, drank chilled rosé, gawked at celebs, walked the beach, explored Anitibes, etc etc. Hey, I was in the south of France. But I was also there to scope out films by women and meet the filmmakers, inviting them to submit to the festival here with which I am involved (www.womensfilmfestival.com) and get their sense of the women-excluding Cannes of 2012. Some of us had attended the Women in Film panel at the American Pavilion, moderated by Anne Thompson of Thompson on Hollywood and included a bunch of accomplished women in the business, notably producers with big successes on their résumés (Blue Valentine, Kaboom). It’s safe to say the panel was a whimpering disappointment. Maybe it’s because the invited panel were all suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, but I felt a discernible chill in the room, and it wasn’t coming off the azure waters of the Mediterranean.
When women who are the exceptions to the gender-biased rule start saying they don’t see there’s any problem in the industry you know they haven’t walked through the looking glass. Sure, there were hardships in the industry, they agreed, but, come on, it had nothing to do with gender, only lack of merit. Interestingly, the only woman on the panel who spoke a little more truth to power was the entertainment lawyer who admitted she was compelled to start her own firm because she got tired of hanging with only the boys in the office. Discrimination in her legal world, at least, was definitely a fact.
How was it, then, that the women engaged in the film industry were in such denial? The facts are appalling. Every year, Martha M. Lauzen of the Center for the Study of Women at San Diego State University produces a report showing the grim statistics—that women make up 5 per cent of working directors—and the number is actually declining!
Oh, sure, by the end of the discussion at the American Pavilion everyone agreed that although things are better we still had a long way to go and needed to mentor younger filmmakers and be more encouraging, but I felt deflated and disappointed in their general responses. On the other side of the activist spectrum, a group of French feminists had banded together to form a wonderfully subversive group called Le Barbe. True to their name, they staged a few protests during the festival while wearing fake beards, even showing up on the red carpet last Sunday carrying signs with phony fawning text, like “Merci!”, and “Splendide!” Their original letter of protest, also a witty mock endorsement of the whole festival, had been published in the French daily, Le Monde and in the UK’s Guardian. Consequently, they received a fair bit of attention from the French and UK media at the beginning of the whole deal, but hardly a notice outside those hubs of culture and commerce. Even today, someone who I thought would have known all about Le Barbe and the protest admitted she hadn’t even heard of it.
Walking Le Croisette at Cannes, elbowing through thousands of pedestrians and scores of limos, I realized just how impossible it would be to stage a protest of any kind in that environment. The scale of the event is overwhelming and the publicity, glamour, and hype machine is way too large to be noticed. The hundreds of camera-toting media people presented are largely interested in scandals of another kind—can you see through Nicole Kidman’s dress? Is Matthew McConaughe stoned? Why is Brad Pitt alone? That sort of thing.
And so back to the snapshot—compare the number of women and men. See what I mean? This was pretty typical of the red carpet scene, fun as it was to attend.
I learned a few things at Cannes, not the least of which is the importance of continuing the tradition of holding a women’s film festival in St John’s, Newfoundland—or anywhere for that matter.