A Beard in Cannes

28 May

When the 2012 Cannes Film Festival announced its schedule, a few cinephiles quickly noticed the absence of any female filmmakers in its Competition lineup. The festival screens dozens of films, however there is a many tiered process, in which its prizes are awarded accordingly. The Palme d’Or is the penultimate prize of the festival, the Grand Prix is the de facto second place prize, and the Jury Prize its third place honor. In addition, the festival awards the Camera d’Or to the first-time filmmaker of its choice, and the Un Certain Regard category provides aid and French distribution to films from varying parts of the globe. All this is to suggest that the festival is a many-armed beast, both invoking criticism and repelling it through its large size, ungainly shape and revered history.

In the opening days of the festival, feminist actionist group La Barbe appeared in protest on the festival’s famous red steps, while also circulating a vociferous petition both throughout the U. S. and Europe: http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/news/2012/05/la-barbes-open-letter-on-women-cannes/                                             At issue for La Barbe is the total shut-out of female filmmakers in the main forum of the festival, which in turn has thrown into relief the festival’s history of male-directed winning and showcased films. The tone of the petition is shocked, sarcastic and aggrieved, addressed to Gilles Jacob, the festival’s president. Remarking incredulously that 4 female directors were included in last year’s Competition, the petition also notes that Jane Campion is the only woman to have won the Palme d’Or (for the 1993 film The Piano). La Barbe concludes its statement by noting that the festival has never had a problem with its inclusion of starlets, listing the several bombshells who have introduced the festival in its last few years.

Despite my own feminist cynical expectations, this claim seemed disputable. After some cursory research I discovered that La Barbe are unfortunately accurate in their claim that Jane Campion is the lone woman ever to be awarded the Palme d’Or. This kind of statistic is shameful, not necessarily because of the exclusiveness it implies, but because there are–and have been–so many wonderful films made by women in the last half century. (I will not bow to cite examples, for as the reader knows from a previous recent post, I feel that the recitation of protested exceptions truly does little to refute existing structures and their rules and ideologies.)

I would like to complicate the argument, however. No doubt, Cannes remains similar to the Oscars in its subconscious prejudices and preferences, hiding under its cloak of expertise and tradition. Further, Jacob’s stated aversion to “quotas” mirrors the French nation’s own refusal to take up or appreciate the uses of affirmative action and inclusionary policies. But any claim of a larger chauvinism manifested by Cannes is offset by the many festival subsets it possesses and presents.

The Festival’s Grand Prix (i.e. second place) has been awarded to a film by the young Japanese director Naomi Kawase; in the 1970’s the Grand Prix was awarded to the woefully little-known Hungarian director Marta Meszaros. The Festival’s Jury Prize (i.e. third place) has been twice awarded to U.K. director Andrea Arnold (who presides on this year’s jury); the Iranian young woman Samira Mahkmalbaf has also been awarded the Jury Prize twice; last year’s Jury Prize went to French director/actress/model/writer Maiwenn for Polisse; and the Iranian-French cartoonist Marjane Satrapi won for her long-form animated film Percepolis. The Camera d’Or has been awarded to 10 female filmmakers since 1985, and since its inception in 1998, Un Certain Regard has been bestowed to 7 female filmmakers.

I list these specifics because I think they are important both to the protests made by La Barbe and others, and to a needed complication of their argument. The many awards and honors that Cannes possesses do much to further the health, exposure and distribution possibilities worldwide. Undoubtedly, the Palme d’Or remains the penultimate honor for any working filmmaker, and its possibility must be available to any working filmmaker–regardless of nation state or sex. However, I would argue that awards such as the Camera d’Or and Un Certain Regard lead to as many possibilities as those connected to the Palme d’Or–they just remain lesser known to the general observer.

I do not agree with Andrea Arnold’s statements last week: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/may/17/andrea-arnold-cannes-film-festival-sexism, in which she claims that she would be appalled to be bestowed an award based on her sex, for they do little to alleviate the concerns expressed by La Barbe, and shed no light on the problem for those who remain blind to it. As a 2012 Jury member, Jury Prize winner Arnold must remain mindful of the Festival’s foundational purposes, to inculcate and inspire cinephilia worldwide, and to remain a central structural institution in the acknowledgement and distribution of films of all kinds. Selections that fall on the side of uniformity (of any kind) cannot be said to adhere to these tenets.

Post-script: It is important to note that there are at least 7 female filmmakers within the ranks of the other categories in the 2012 Festival–it is only the Competition category that remains completely male.

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