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Beware the Cannes Festival-Gates Foundation Connection


Women Make Movies cofounder Ariel Dougherty, now initiator of Media Equity Collaborative, calls on viewers to join a growing feminist protest against the absence of women directors at Cannes. She warns about gender bias in jury and funding selections that exists beyond film festivals.

When Courtney Martin’s article was published in Women’s Media Center pages May 10 on her mom’s film festival and the documentary “Juggling Gender” about the bearded lady, who could have predicted that less than a week later a cadre of bearded women could raise such a ruckus at the world’s premiere cinema event, the Cannes Film Festival.

“La Barbe”—in French “The Bearded”—is a French feminist activist collective along the lines of Guerrilla Girls. They mock the fact that the prestigious festival once again omits any women directors from the main competition. Cannes had the same problem in 2010—zero women in that competition, too. In the 64-year history of the festival the coveted prize, Palme D’Or, has only once been awarded to a woman, Jane Campion, for The Piano in 1993.

Women and Hollywood first broke the abysmal news on its April 19 blog. Several filmmakers, including myself, registered comments. For a few days I monitored the conversation. On May 9 Marie of La Barbe referred to a petition that circulated in 2010 entitled “You cannes not be serious.” She announced a new effort under way. Via emails for a few days a petition circulated and is now posted at change.org. More than 2100 women—among them prominent women directors like Gillian Armstrong and Ava DuVernay—have signed. Dozens of filmmakers through the global network Women in Film have also signed. Through the writing of this article a steady stream of new signers have added their weight to send a message to the jurors at Cannes. By the time this article is posted the volume will swell.

La Barbe first posted a manifesto, which prompted a response from Cannes festival director, Thierry Fremaux.

I select work on the basis of it actual qualities. We would never agree to select a film that doesn’t deserve it on the basis it was made by a woman… There is no doubt that greater space needs to be given to women within cinema. But it’s not at Cannes and in the month of May that this question needs to be raised, but rather all year and everywhere.

If not Cannes, where? And if not in May, when? The term “quality” hangs as a central parameter. Several contrarians on the Women and Hollywood blog bantered the term as though it is sanctimonious. Andres for instance states: “The Cannes line-up every year is about : QUALITY QUALITY QUALITY.” (He repeats). In comments like this there is no awareness that “quality” remains a subjective evaluation based on many things, including a gendered viewpoint.

Those of us who have been blessed to be exposed to a broad, global cultural view via women’s films for decades know the value of diversity dancing through the lights projected from film emulsion. As Martin describes of her mother, “her imagination lit up with all the independent film plot lines and unusual characters—and so she knew this was a foolproof way to give our god-fearing, soldier-training town a little booster shot of ‘the other.’” Hey, Cannes? But also Sundance, listen! You only had 16.7 percent submissions by women this past year. In both cases the festivals have to examine their culture, make a firm commitment to change the climate for women directors and definitely conduct strategic outreach.

When Lifetime for Women was still one channel and a relatively new cable venue in the early 90s, excited about innovative possibilities, I called up and spoke with a producer about my idea. How about a women’s film festival on the channel? While the producer agreed my idea was worthwhile, she spouted back to me that focus groups tell them that women want stories about their son being kidnapped and returned home an emotional wreck. Really?

While I have watched the discussion around Cannes Film Festival’s exclusion of half the world’s viewpoint, I am actually more alarmed by the new Gates Foundation communications initiative. The deadline just closed May 15. The program is directed at stimulating communications for those of us in the North to increase our aid to the South particularly around issues of development and health—two long terms concerns of this vastly resourced foundation. Where the Gates Foundation intersects with Cannes is that Cannes Chimera are the advisors on this communications program. Women, thereby their families, represent 70 percent of the world’s poor. The Cannes Chimera advisors—creative media experts, considered a “super agency”—for the Gates program are sadly disproportionately male, 13 to one. No women of color are on this advisory panel. None! A huge gender problem is brewing here.

A woman working in advertising, Kat Gordon, commented on Women and Hollywood, April 19: “The gender bias of judges leads to gender bias of award recipients. Part of our battle cry needs to include more women on judging panels.”

The powerful precedent setting Gates Foundation has the potential to influence a whole new direction in media on development concerns. The hearts and being of women are not in their sights. Gates Foundation has already declared a lack of emphasis in the Millennium Development Goals 2 and 3, education and women’s rights respectfully. The key, all too well documented, to lifting women out of poverty is education. Education is also the essential tool in women maintaining a healthy regulated birth rate. And media—being better informed—is the very first form of education. I’m with the bearded ladies. Sign that petition.

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