Venice Stirs Controversy With Only Two Women Directors In Competition And A Place For Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski

The Venice Film Festival has soared in recent years but the 2019 lineup could provoke the festival’s biggest polemic yet after artistic director Alberto Barbera revealed a 21-strong competition selection featuring only two women directors and a place for contentious filmmaker Roman Polanski.

Statistically, two women directors in competition – Haifaa Al Mansour with The Perfect Candidate and Shannon Murphy with Babyteeth – is an ‘improvement’ on the last two editions, which only featured one each. But even Cannes managed four this year. Berlin had seven.

Barbera stressed today that half of the titles in the festival’s Horizons strand are directed by women and that the overall lineup features a number of movies with women characters at their heart.

Venice came under fire last year from the European Women’s Audiovisual Network and other advocacy groups due to the lack of women directors in its lineup. The festival duly signed up to gender parity commitments around programming teams and data collection. The commitments don’t require lineup quotas, however. Barbera has said he’d rather quit than introduce quotas.

Some will view the lack of women directors and Roman Polanski’s inclusion as two separate issues but critics will say they are connected and tone deaf. The awkward confluence was noted on social media.

Melissa Silverstein, author and founder of campaign group Women and Hollywood, tweeted, “1 rapist. 2 women directors in competition at Venice. What else am I missing?”

UK culture journalist Anita Singh posted, “Two women directors out of 21, and the red carpet rolled out for Roman Polanski. Great work, Venice.”

One trade’s reviews editor tweeted, “I think the gender imbalance coupled with the Polanski is really a hurdle for me to be honest. We’re at a point now where it just shouldn’t be acceptable and the Polanski is just like rubbing salt into that.”

Barbera touched on Polanski’s inclusion today, saying that the director’s new film The Officer And The Spy, about France’s notorious Dreyfus Affair, shows him “at the top of his game. He is one of the last great masters of European cinema, and he’s more than 80. At his age, he’s able to make a film that is an extraordinary reconstruction of a historical event.”

While Polanski has faced a cold shoulder from U.S. industry and media, the filmmaker has been welcomed by multiple major festivals in Europe. He was included in Cannes’ lineup in 2013, though that was before the Weinstein scandal and the MeToo and Times Up movements. There was no shortage of European partners aboard for his latest movie, which was quietly sold at the Cannes market this year.

In 1977, Polanski was arrested and charged with drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. He subsequently pled guilty to the lesser offence of unlawful sex with a minor. He has been a fugitive of the U.S. ever since, having fled the country after learning that a U.S. judge planned to imprison him. The Chinatown director won an Oscar in 2002 for The Pianist but in 2018 the Academy voted to expel the director from its membership because of the historical crime.

Barbera has said previously that he prefers to separate the artist and the art. “I’m not a judge. I’m not a lawyer. I’m a festival director,” he said in 2017 about why he invited U.S. filmmaker James Toback to that year’s festival. Tens of women accused Toback of sexual harassment but the American director maintains his innocence and has never been convicted of a crime.

Rightly or wrongly, Cannes had to answer some uncomfortable questions about its decision to fete Alain Delon this year. Venice looks set to field plenty about the makeup of its competition.

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