In the second of our series of interviews with women at the heart of industry change, we spoke to Doc & Film CEO Daniela Elstner, one of Europe’s most respected sales executives. Just a few months ago Elstner was on a high after her movie Touch Me Not scooped the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear top prize, her second film to do so. The president of French sales agent union ADEF is now in Cannes with Wang Bing’s Official Selection documentary Dead Souls and Directors’ Fortnight entry Samouni Road.
Elstner is an unassuming expert, however. For example, few people know that in 2016 she received the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest civilian honor for services to film. Until recently, even fewer were aware of a dark secret from her past—the fact that Elstner was once a victim herself. Twenty years ago while attending a festival for film promotion agency UniFrance, Elstner was sexually assaulted by a well-known figure in the French film sector. After her ordeal was ignored by the government-backed agency, she kept it bottled up inside her for 20 years until this past November at AFM, when she became the first sales executive in the industry to detail her own painful experience of sexual assault. It proved a cathartic moment for the German-French national who consequently launched Speak Up, a European riff on Time’s Up.
How have things been since AFM?
AFM was difficult. I had to leave early. There was a real physical reaction to me opening up after all that time. I couldn’t sleep. But after a time it became liberating. It was the right time. Many people were supportive.
Do male buyers treat you differently?
I think it’s about how at ease you are with the subject. For those who are at ease, there’s no problem. As we know, the tone of the conversation has changed in just a few months. I’ve heard of women kicking guys out of meetings for inappropriate things they’ve said, for example.
Tell me about Speak Up.
Speak Up is a manifesto for change focusing on workplace conditions and behaviors. It’s also a seven-step best practice guide for businesses. It was conceived with European sales organization Europa International as a European answer to Time’s Up because in my view, Europe has yet to fully speak up. In the U.S., when a very wealthy actor gets behind a campaign, it can instantly change its profile. That’s harder in Europe. We need to mobilize European funding agencies for support.
This has a particular focus on festivals and markets. Why?
After we spoke in November, I heard so many stories from women about their own negative experiences during festivals and markets. At festivals you are often not in your own country or your usual environment; you don’t go home in the evening. Meetings take place in a hotel room, often into the evenings. There is hardly any separation between private and professional life and all the while, you are sleeping little; you’re overworked; you’re stressed. It’s a little similar to the atmosphere on a movie set, but it’s even more concentrated.
Are you speaking to major festivals?
We’re in discussions with Cannes, Toronto and Rotterdam, among others, and industry site Cinando about taking on our principles. Getting people verbally on board is one thing, but getting people to sign something is a different matter. That’s what I want. There are a number of pressure groups out there at the moment, so maybe we team up with one for greater effect. Deuxième Regard, which wants 50/50 gender parity in key parts of the business by 2020, is one of the best.
There are tabs on your site with links to gender equality campaigns in different countries. Italy—where Asia Argento seems to have come in for particularly rough treatment—and Eastern Europe were obvious omissions…
I’ve spoken to people from Eastern European countries who would certainly welcome greater involvement. We launched the initiative in Berlin with Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska. In Italy, the consciousness of the whole issue seems to be different. They don’t seem as concerned.
During my research into harassment in the European industry, French sellers had the most stories about wrongdoing. What does that say about the local business?
France surprises sometimes. There are a lot of things that are said in France that couldn’t be said in the US or UK. But France is partly proud of that. The whole Catherine Millet stuff made me cry. I was so angry. Those discussions put the conversation out of focus. Her comments, and those of Catherine Deneuve, make life easier for those men who don’t want to change.
You mentioned targets earlier. How do you think Cannes is doing when it comes to women directors? There are only three in Competition, for example.
I think the number of women here is not too dissimilar to other major festivals. We need to know more about the composition of the selection committees. It should be 50/50 and we need to have more women running festivals. Virtually no category-A festivals have women in charge. That has to change, especially considering how highly subsidized some festivals are by public money.
Are you in favor of introducing more gender-specific quotas?
In the past, I would have said, “Bullsh*t, I don’t want there to be one,” but now I do. Too much has happened and not enough has changed.
Berlin invited controversial filmmaker Kim Ki-duk to the festival in February. Are you comfortable with Cannes inviting controversial directors such as Lars von Trier—who has denied harassing Björk—and Roman Polanski, who was convicted of sexual abuse?
Lars’s situation isn’t clear. It’s complicated. We’re talking about allegations. If there was a way for Lars to address his situation while he is there, maybe that would make it clearer. As for Polanski, I thought they could have shown his movie without him at the festival. It’s one solution. But it’s very difficult. We don’t have all the answers straightaway.
You didn’t want to name your attacker. Do you expect them to be at Cannes?
Probably. 80% chance.
This interview was conducted on May 13.