In 2021, the Cannes Film Festival programmed movies from an unprecedented number of women and people of color, more than in any other year. Director Julia Ducournau won the Palme d’Or for her film Titane, becoming only the second woman to do so. This win gave people hope that maybe change was coming from the white- male-dominated festival.
But with the initial reveal of the Cannes lineup last month, it appeared things had gone back to the way they usually were, with women and POC content largely shut out. Subsequent additions to the slate included five films directed or co-directed by women in Competition for the first time. But is it enough? Change is happening slowly, but the years of exclusion have proven harmful to many filmmakers who exist on the margins, and few established voices seemed willing to speak up. That is until a new wave of women decided to confront the issue head on.
The difficulty in calling attention to the issues of underrepresentation lies, in part, within French law. The Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés (the French data protection agency) banned the gathering of personal data and statistics that show the breakdown of racial and ethnic origins, health status, sexual orientation and religion. Since the numbers don’t exist, there is no documented evidence that addresses where the French film and television industry is lacking. But just because the numbers aren’t there does not mean the issue is going unnoticed, and the voices calling for change are getting louder. Joining Deadline’s class of Disruptors this year, directors Céline Sciamma and Amandine Gay, and actresses Aïssa Maïga, Adèle Haenel and Nadège Beausson-Diagne represent the vanguard of the fight, using their words, content and activism to challenge the status quo and question the outdated views of a white, male-dominated industry. Here’s how they’ve done it.
Queer director, activist and scholar Amandine Gay continually pushes back against the notion of universalism with her words and content. Her feature film, a documentary titled Speak Up (Ouvrir la voix), puts the lives of Black women living in France at its front and center, providing an intimate portrait and a truthful analysis of what it means to be Black and to be a woman living in France and Belgium.
The film sparked conversations about race and gender, which brought the taboo topic of intersectionality to the forefront. But because her film showed that France wasn’t the racial utopia many wish to believe it is, Gay had to self-produce and self-distribute. In 2017, the film was released in theaters around France, Belgium, Switzerland and Canada. Many accused it of promoting division amongst French society, but the New Yorker praised the film as, “A vital film in itself and a virtual kit for the inspiration of other filmmakers; it’s an opening of voices and of paths.”
Her second documentary, A Story of One’s Own is poised to open a whole new discussion about adoption and adoptees, as the film chronicles five transracial and transnational adoptees and their experiences.
In November 2019, French actress Adèle Haenel accused director Christophe Ruggia of sexual abuse and of attempting to groom her between the ages of 12 and 15. Speaking out is still uncommon among women in any industry, but she was one of the first to speak publicly about the abuses in the country’s entertainment industry, two years after the #MeToo movement created by Black activist Tarana Burke kicked into high gear. Haenel’s speaking out propelled other women to come forward with their stories of abuse as well.
Now, she is one of France’s most lauded young actresses, having been nominated for seven Césars by the age of 30, and winning two. She was nominated for another César for her role in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. She led the walkout at the César Awards that year when Roman Polanski was awarded the prize for best director, and she famously shouted “La honte! [The shame!]” as she left.
The actress ignited a feminist flame within the women of France who continue to demand change from the government in the way it handles abuse and harassment. Haenel is always on the frontlines of these marches, keenly aware of the power her platform gives her to discuss these issues out loud.
Actress, director and producer Aïssa Maïga made her acting debut in the 1997 film, Saraka Bô. Since then, she’s portrayed a diverse range of roles, and every performance is executed with fearlessness, sincerity and confidence. However, in her years in the profession she had noticed a pattern of racist behavior in the French film industry that she could not ignore.
She was one of the participants in the staged protest against racism in the French film industry that took place at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. The actress linked arms with 15 other Black French actresses as they walked across the red carpet to the steps of the iconic Palais des Festivals. Her big Disruptor moment came in an act of defiance on stage at the 2020 César awards. In front of the mostly white audience, Maïga spoke about the discriminatory treatment of actors of color, and how stereotypical roles for Black actors continue to dominate casting choices. “We survived whitewashing, blackface, tons of dealer roles, housekeepers with a Bwana accent; we survived the roles of terrorists, all the roles of hyper-sexualized girls, but we are not going to leave French cinema alone,” she said. The speech left the audience stunned into silence.
Did she make some folk angry? Yes. Did that stop her in any way? Maïga has kept her word, realizing that she must be the change, and now the actress creates the content she wants to see. With her featurelength documentary, Regard noir, Maïga gave a platform to Black actresses around the world to relay their stories of racism, sexism and colorism in the industry.
Writer and director Céline Sciamma started a movement—unintentionally. Her film Portrait of a Lady on Fire brought back discussion of the female gaze and how it had been explored by a male-dominated cinematic history. The movie inspired a generation of young women who raise signs at French feminist marches that say, “We Are the Girls on Fire.” As an out lesbian, Sciamma has never been afraid to criticize the current state of French film and television, acknowledging it is very white, male and bourgeois.
This is why Sciamma, along with others including actresses Léa Seydoux and Lily Rose Depp, backed the 50/50 campaign, which aims to achieve gender parity in the industry. This has caused many industry traditionalists to side-eye her accomplishments. This was evident when she told The Guardian about how the French press reacted to Portrait. “In France, they don’t find the film hot,” says Sciamma matter-of-factly. “[They think] it lacks flesh, it’s not erotic. It seems like there are some things that they can’t receive.”
Her contempt for the status quo came to a head at the 2020 Cèsar Awards at which Roman Polanski—who had been convicted of sexual abuse in the United States in the 1970s—won the Cèsar award for best director.
She left the ceremony in protest with actors Adèle Haenel, Noèmie Merlant, Aïssa Maïga and others. It validated everything she had been saying about the industry’s desire to keep its head in the sand. But now it’s out for the world to see. While change is slowly creeping through in France, none of the naysayers have stopped her from putting queer ideals and women at the forefront of the stories she chooses to tell.
Paris-born actress, singer and poet Nadège Beausson-Diagne has been a loud and proud activist within the French film and television industry. She was present at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, walking hand-in-hand with other Black actresses to protest the under-representation of Black and mixed-race women and the clichés they are subjected to. Throughout her career she’s heard several anti-Black comments referring to her skin color and her language, calling her too Black or not Black enough.
Along with Adèle Haenel, in 2019 she also came forward about her experiences with sexual abuse and sexual assault. Nadège posted to her Instagram account about her experiences saying, “I too was the victim of sexual harassment and sexual assault on two shoots in Africa. It was a very long time ago. The pain was swallowed up. Today, I am ready to speak out to help release that word and reclaim my life.”
The actress has turned her pain into acts of resistance by publicly calling out the issues of race and sex. By sharing her story and putting her feet to the pavement to fight for women’s rights, she stands alongside Céline Sciamma, Aïssa Maïga, Adèle Haenel, Amandine Gay and others determined to make the French industry a better place.
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