The Cannes Competition line-up of 50 years ago was an extraordinary one; a who’s who of iconic filmmakers. Among the 26 competing for the Palme d’Or were Sidney Lumet, Louis Malle, Andrzej Wajda, Pierre Étaix, Lindsay Anderson, Volker Schlöndorff, Costa-Gavras, Éric Rohmer, Glauber Rocha, Ronald Neame and Dennis Hopper.
While it wouldn’t have seemed unusual at the time, today the maleness of that line-up really stands out. Festival selections hold a mirror up to those who select them as well as the society and culture within which they exist.
50 years on, a zero count of women filmmakers in Competition has haltingly increased to four—a joint-record for the festival, which has still only once awarded its main prize to a woman. Just 86 women directors have played in Competition compared to more than 1,600 men. And it’s not only in Competition that Cannes struggles. Of 24 films in Directors’ Fortnight this year, only four are by women.
The festival has promised to do better in regard to gender diversity one year after jury president Cate Blanchett led women in a Palais red carpet protest over the issue. Like many festivals, urged by the #MeToo and Times Up movements, Cannes signed a gender diversity pledge promising improvement.
If we’re looking for obvious gains in this area, we might want to look toward the evolving ranks of festival programmers and artistic directors, which have traditionally been the preserve of older white men. In the past 12 months, women have been appointed to leading roles at festivals including Berlin, Sundance, Toronto, Locarno and London. Longtime festival chiefs have simultaneously stepped aside or are nearing the end of their mandates.
We spoke to three of the new generation of festival leaders—Lili Hinstin, who was appointed Locarno artistic director last August; Kim Yutani, who was promoted to Sundance director of programming one year ago; and Diana Sanchez, appointed Toronto’s senior director of film this year—about the current climate among film festival selectors and the shifting context within which top programmers choose movies today.
Locarno Film Festival
Has there been significant evolution within the makeup of film festival teams?
I do think there have been significant changes. First and foremost, it’s a matter of generational change. The new artistic directors and programmers coming in are younger. It’s important for festivals. I think those hiring us felt a new energy.
What can festivals do to improve their diversity?
I think it’s a matter of culture. I don’t think it’s a matter of quotas. I wouldn’t like to have a quota of 50/50 male and female directors. I’m looking for strong directorial propositions. That said, I think my background means I’m more aware of certain other backgrounds. I decided to have a 50/50 male-female split on my programming team because I want to have different points of view and knowledge. I want programmers with an open mind.
I’m in charge of our retrospective in Locarno this year, Black Lights, which will explore black cinema through the decades. For me it’s about highlighting the aesthetic representation of political issues rather than making a voluntary militant action as a programmer. It’s about examining how political issues are influencing aesthetic representation rather than privileging the topic itself or the origins of a director.
I’ve heard some artistic directors say they don’t want to know the gender of directors. What do you make of that approach to programming?
It’s not the point at all. You can feel the way a director is related to the world and to gender and representation. We know the gender of submissions. But we could also not know it. I like the utopian side of this idea. It’s like the idea that films should be released without the directors’ name so the film is judged purely on its own merits. Or it’s like sending a script for funding without the name of the director.
How can programming better reflect the society we live in?
I think improvement needs to come at the production stage. Women need to struggle and fight for bigger budgets. Money is a key point. When women are paid as much as men, the perception will change around women accessing positions of authority, and our own representation of that possibility. It’s a question of mentality. If women are able to see women in positions of authority, they will think they too can achieve such a position. This will also change how men view women. This is moving fast. Women in France were only given the vote in the 1940s. There’s a long way to go but there are improvements. I have the same pay as my predecessor in Locarno but this isn’t the norm. Most women in the world are paid significantly less than their male counterparts.
Director of Programming
Sundance Film Festival
Things are changing at the major film festivals, whose programming and executive ranks have previously skewed male, older and white. Do you sense a spirit of renewal?
I do sense a spirit of renewal, and I think a large part of that is due to how we’re interrogating who gets to make choices, and who might have historically been excluded from that process. With so much transition occurring in our industry in general, movement within the festival circuit reflects that larger change and creates the opportunity for us to explore new ideas of who gets to decide how culture is represented.
This year’s Sundance showcased a number of buzzed-about movies by women directors that sold in big deals. What are the keys to finding these movies and ensuring this becomes the new status quo?
Our programmers are intentional and proactive in how they review submissions. When we program, we talk about everything—work that we’ve been tracking, as well as over-the-transom discoveries that we wanted to showcase. We approach curation with respect for each other but also have in mind what kind of program we want to put together for the best festival possible. The fact that so many films—including films made by women—sold in big deals was fantastic, but not our primary goal in programming. We want to support artists who might not otherwise have the opportunity to share their work, and connect audiences with different perspectives and work they might not otherwise see.
What can festivals do to improve the diversity in their line-ups and in their programming ranks?
As programmers we have to approach each project with open minds and be prepared to receive the unexpected. By having a diverse cohort of programmers, festivals can ensure decisions are made by a broader cross section of points of view. If we bring together different expertises, backgrounds and curatorial sensibilities to the table, then we have a great opportunity to create a really meaningful and provocative program that can have huge impact on the culture.
Have we moved beyond the debate about quotas? Should there be more collaboration between festivals?
I think the needed collaboration and debate goes beyond festivals—it’s an industry-wide issue we need to address. We can’t program the work if it’s not getting made. By welcoming bold works from a wide range of voices and visions, by celebrating them and lifting them up, by programming them at festivals, we can encourage more filmmaking by more people.
Senior Director, Film
Toronto International Film Festival
How are the makeup and direction of festival line-ups changing?
I think that many festivals are thinking more deeply about how we program and about reaching more audiences and representing more people on the screen. At TIFF, we’re responding to the continually changing landscape of film and film production, moving from a regional model to a sections model of programming the festival. There are so many co-productions, so many filmmakers making films in different countries that we’re trying to think of films in a broader sense.
Does it follow that the freshest voices will come from the most underserved sections of society?
In the uncertain times that we are living in, fresh voices will come from anywhere and everywhere. Of course, in countries where there are little financial resources for filmmaking, filmmakers are finding ways to continue to make new films. One of my colleagues at TIFF was just telling me about the Wakaliwood phenomenon in Uganda where they are making films for $350.
Do you think North American festivals are more advanced than European festivals when it comes to diversity in their line-ups?
I do believe that North America’s approach is different than Europe’s. Our festivals are newer, our society is younger, and we are countries built on pretty recent immigration. Speaking of TIFF, our diverse line-up reflects the diversity of our audience, and Toronto is one of the most diverse cities on earth, so it follows that that would be reflected in the films we show.
Many festival executives say they are happy to have a gender quota for programmers but not for directors in a line-up. Does that make sense to you?
I think striving towards gender parity is a good thing, but it’s never going to be the only consideration when programming a film. When I’m programming I’m looking for films that are fresh, that explore cinematic language, and that offer something new and urgent in a cinematic way. I just recently finished a festival in Panama where I was artistic director for eight years. When we were done, we realized that over 50% of the films in our Ibero-American program were directed or co-directed by a woman. It happened naturally. Maybe having more female programmers will mean that we’ll broaden sensibilities.