Jacques Audiard wrapped up the press conference for The Sisters Brothers this afternoon with a resounding call to action on the gender equality issue that has been front-and-center here on the Lido. And in the process, he took a shot at festivals themselves.

The Palme d’Or winner said he was surprised when he saw the imbalance of the competition selection at this year’s Venice Film Festival — with one woman director out of 20 titles on the roster. “I sent notes to my colleagues of the selection and I didn’t feel like there was a great response.” While he said he was not criticizing the integrity of Venice’s organizers, he noted, “There are arguments that come back over the years, a sort of contrition that’s articulated as ‘Yes, but we honestly did our work. When we watch a film, we don’t ask ourselves about gender. A good film is a good film.'”

Audiard disagreed. “The question we have to ask ourselves is: ‘Do festivals have a gender? Does the personnel of the festival have a gender?'” Simple answer he said, “Yes.”

Audiard’s films “have been in festivals for about 25 years. I’ve seen the east, the west, the south, the north and I’ve not seen any women… so I think that’s where the problem is.”

But another problem, he added, “is that in 25 years I often see the same people, the same men in different roles. That’s not OK.”

He continued, “We should stop thinking about the sex of a film, it makes no sense.
Let’s ask ourselves about simple things, things we can quantify. Equality can be counted, justice is applied.”

When the press corps erupted, he admonished, “No, we don’t applaud, we act.”

Audiard spoke up after Sisters Brothers star John C. Reilly, sporting a 50/50 pin, said “everyone on the movie was a feminist” and that he was “really, really impressed by the female presence on the set. There might have been more women working on the film than men.” That’s despite not having “that many female characters in the film.”

There were, however, a lot of nationalities. Reilly noted, “The construction of the movie was like the Tower of Babel, except we got to heaven.” It was a challenge to build bridges “between all these places culturally, and the language, and it came together beautifully. In a time of terrible division in the world. Our film community was one of great unity.”

The movie, Audiard’s first fully in English and an adaptation of the novel by Patrick deWitt, is a darkly comic western that also stars Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed. Annapurna Pictures has domestic rights and will release it September 21.

Audiard’s follow-up to Dheepan has been warmly received at press screenings, and the press conference this afternoon kicked off with hoots and applause.

The Sisters Brothers follows siblings Eli and Charlie Sisters who are hired to kill a prospector who has stolen from their boss. The story takes place in Oregon in 1851.

Audiard said he didn’t have too many reference points in the genre. “I’m not a big connoisseur of westerns… (The movie) is more a fairy tale story than a western.”

He called the source material “irresistible,” but said if he had found it himself and read it in Paris, he “never would have thought to adapt it.” It was Reilly and his wife Alison Dickey who contacted Audiard to talk about the book a while back in Toronto. “Coming from an American friend, it seemed possible.”

Reilly and Dickey had received the manuscript before it was pulbished and the character of Eli Sisters “jumped off the page as sometone who I related to,” Reilly said.

Reilly had previously worked with Audiard’s longtime collaborator Thomas Bidegain who directed the actor in 2015’s Les Cowboys. Bidegain co-wrote Sisters Brothers with Audiard and noted that westerns provide “a state-of-the-nation of the moment with regard to violence and the law.” Reilly in turn called the story “relevant” to today.