The Venice Film Festival is under fire from the European Women’s Audiovisual Network and other advocacy groups due to the lack of women directors in its lineup.

In a forthright open letter, the EWA and signatories including Women in Film & TV International, WIFT Nordic, WIFT Sweden, and the Swiss Women’s Audiovisual Network, call on Venice to follow the lead of Cannes and Locarno by introducing a diversity pledge and to train staff in detecting “unconscious bias.”

Venice’s main competition lineup only features one female director, Jennifer Kent for The Nightingale. The numbers are getting worse, not better. While women directors made up 22% of the competition in 2012, that percentage has decreased or stayed the same each year since. It has dropped to 4.5% the last two years.

In the letter, which is published in full below, the group says, “Venice, we have seen this film before…these festivals indicate their priorities and values. And they have valued and prioritized films made by males for as long as they have existed…

“We have seen this film before but this year it also came reloaded: “If we impose quotas or gender equality needs I will quit,” [Venice Festival director] Alberto Barbera declared even more defensively than in 2017. Mr Paolo Baratta, the President of the Venice Biennale, gave us the numbers: only 21% of films submitted were by females. The selected ONE made up for 4% but that was all we received as a reply. We will never know how many films by women were seen by their regional selectors and how many really reached the core team of programmers led by Alberto Barbera.

“We want to see diversity pledges put in place to challenge festivals’ self-proclaimed “elevated taste”. We want to put an end to the conversation that says that quotas or diversity targets prevent selectors from doing their job “properly”. We no longer want to hear that equality charters result in the selection of “inferior” female films. Women represent more than half of the world’s population. We are 52% of humanity and we have not been allowed to show our work on a fair basis for as long as culture has existed.”

Cannes and Locarno have pledged to issue statistics on the number of films submitted; to be transparent about the membership of the selection and programming committees; and to set goals to improve diversity at the festivals.

This is the second hiccup the festival is facing in the lead-up to the event following the local disquiet over Netflix’s presence on the Lido. The festival has yet to comment on today’s letter.

EWA, a support and career development network of industry professionals and organizations, is presided over by filmmaker Isabel Coixet. The executive body includes producers Ada Solomon, Zeynep Özbatur Atakan and EAVE executive Kristina Trapp.

Here is the full letter:

Venice, we have seen this film before.

In 2017 when the Venice line-up was unveiled, there it was: Vivian Qu’s “Angels Wear White”, the only film helmed by a female selected at Venice. This was the year that Lucrecia Martel didn’t get a competition slot in Cannes and Antonietta De Lillo’s “Il Signor Rotpeter” was in Venice Out of the Competition. It was also the year when Alberto Barbera announced “We look at the quality and not at the gender”. As if years of repeating that the best films, the best directors and the real masters were male had made no difference to the way quality was judged, and as if bias didn’t play any role, there he was, denying that considerations of gender had any impact on his (and his team’s) selections. In 2018, the same mandate was repeated once again. With only one film directed by a woman in competition, Mr. Barbera persisted that it was, “Quality, not gender.”

We are committed to quality cinema, but those “protectors of quality cinema” know that even when Alberto Barbera is not saying it there is no such thing as an objective “best film.” As Dan Schoenbrun, a former programmer, wrote earlier this year, “All films selected are reflections of the subjective opinions and tastes of those who choose them (plus the tastes of the audience that the festival serves, and in most cases, business interests, too). Every festival has the luxury and the freedom to not worry about diversity. But these festivals indicate their priorities and values. And they have valued and prioritized films made by males for as long as they have existed”.

Female creators from around the world are demanding genuine reform. We want intersectional changes at every level of our industry. We want to create lasting differences in the spaces we occupy as female producers, directors, film selectors. Females make up 50% of cinema students and yet when they hit the market they get seen less and less. Over the past 10 years, no significant market festival has delivered 50 percent of films directed by female filmmakers. Because of this, we must assume that the Venice Film Festival has not offered any Unconscious Bias training to its leading team, nor to its team of programmers or regional selectors. Perhaps they all know about the 1952 experiment where the Boston Symphonic Orchestra had to make females unseen so they could get the same opportunities to be judged as male musicians. Unconscious biases, which shape our conception of “good taste”, have been in place against women for many centuries now and have defined genius (and especially cinema genius) as male. Thus, cultural history is written by male taste, by the male gaze, by the male power of selection.

We have seen this film before but this year it also came reloaded: “If we impose quotas or gender equality needs I will quit,” Alberto Barbera declared even more defensively than in 2017.  Mr Paolo Baratta, the President of the Venice Biennale, gave us the numbers: only 21% of films submitted were by females. The selected ONE made up for 4% but that was all we received as a reply. We will never know how many films by women were seen by their regional selectors and how many really reached the core team of programmers led by Alberto Barbera.

Because when Paolo Baratta or Alberto Barbera say that there are not enough women’s films and that this is a reflection of the broader film industry, they are also saying that this is not Venice’s problem. Regardless of the fact that, like most European film festivals, their team is not trained in gender bias or in unconscious bias for that matter. So with a shrug of a shoulder, Venice, and all the festivals showing a lack of gender balance or regard for equality, can avoid taking a closer look at their selection processes and committees. The discussion on what is “presented” to them and on what they actively look for gets diluted. These festivals are the first window, the amplifiers, the seals of quality our film market will accept.  They are Oscars magnets, the first port of call. Do they ask themselves if they are simply repeating the kind of choices that have been made in the past? Do they question if they are maybe perpetuating bias against female creators?

When Alberto Barbera threatens to quit, he is perpetuating the notion that selecting films by female filmmakers involves lowering standards. He is implying that films made by women are somehow inferior to films made by men; if they must be selected because of quotas or close gender scrutiny, quality will be compromised and HE WILL QUIT.  Sorry, but we don’t buy this anymore. We know it has been proven that instead of preventing meritocracy, targets and quotas help to promote it by widening the pool of candidates. We know that by putting diversity on the table we offer more and not less choice.  We know that if no discussion happens around making room for gender diversity (or any diversity for that matter) or if we don’t confront the way we see films made by diverse filmmakers, we will not advance the conversation nor fix this rigged system which favours mainly white males.

Festival programming teams, festival critics and reviewers have been historically and overwhelmingly male. Reviewers are 80% male and, as of the start of 2018, the top programmer at every major market festival was male, with Telluride and SXSW being the only exceptions. So we want to know: who is challenging these reviewers (many of them film selectors on the payrolls of festivals) and the teams of programmers about their biases?

We want to see diversity pledges put in place to challenge festivals’ self-proclaimed “elevated taste”. We want to put an end to the conversation that says that quotas or diversity targets prevent selectors from doing their job “properly”. We no longer want to hear that equality charters result in the selection of “inferior” female films. Women represent more than half of the world’s population. We are 52% of humanity and we have not been allowed to show our work on a fair basis for as long as culture has existed. Taste is subjective, but numbers are not and if a festival fails to accurately represent the world’s population, if it consistently shows us the world through a predominantly white, male gaze, these festivals are objectively unrepresentative and poorly programmed. #TimesUp for all those trying to cling on to male supremacy as we know it.

More festivals should adopt gender pledges and apply them with leadership and willingness (bravo to the last addition: Locarno). All film festival programmers need to be trained in gender and all unconscious diversity biases. Film reviews, for as long as they affect the market, need to enter a rigorous pledge of unconscious bias training and diversity of representation at least for the main outlets of trades and newspapers.

As Lindy West said in the New York Times: “If we really want to have this #MeToo reckoning — if we’re going to fix what’s broken — these choices are part of it. The movement can’t just disrupt the culture; it has to become the culture.”

So, Alberto Barbera, will you pledge 50/50 gender equity for female directors? Will you have your team trained in Unconscious Bias? Will you have them discuss the obstacles that diverse creators face and will you ask them to address these issues in their selection decisions? Those are the questions needing urgent action and some hard answers. Up until now, we have patiently waited for change. Now we must take action.