Venice Film Fest Director Defends Lack of Female-Helmed Movies

Courtesy of Kerry Hayes/Twentieth Century Fox; Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Paramount Pictures; Arclight Films

"I don't like to think in terms of a quota," Alberto Barbera tells THR about the debate over gender parity within the competition lineup, which includes only one title directed by a woman.

Over the past four years, none of the world's major film festivals has been as consistent as Venice in picking future Oscar winners. Seventy-two Academy Award nominations and 23 wins is Venice's tally since fest director Alberto Barbera's streak began in 2013, with either a best picture or best director win from each of the past four years (for Gravity, Birdman, Spotlight and La La Land).

And with new entries from George Clooney (Suburbicon), Darren Aronofsky (Mother!), Alexander Payne (Downsizing) and Paul Schrader (First Reformed), Venice's 2017 mix of anticipated studio and independent fare still is crushing it compared to most festival lineups.

But is the festival's focus on award launches coming at the expense of larger concerns about gender equality in cinema? In a year that has seen Patty Jenkins smash box-office records with Wonder Woman, Hungarian director Ildiko Enyedi win Berlin with On Body and Soul and Sofia Coppola take home best director in Cannes for The Beguiled, Venice still looks like yesterday's old boys club.

Of the 21 films screening in competition this year in Venice, only one — Vivian Qu's Angels Wear White — was directed by a woman. That makes even Cannes' lineup, whose 18 competition films included three from female helmers, look progressive. And remember, Cannes was called out by the likes of Jessica Chastain and Nicole Kidman for not giving sufficient exposure to women behind the camera.

"I don't think it's our fault," says Barbera, who adds that he screens films without knowing who the director is and believes there isn't anything wrong with there being only one female-helmed movie good enough to make the competition cut.

Barbera did name Annette Bening as president of the competition jury this year, the first female head in a decade, but he says he is staunchly against any moves to introduce a female quota when it comes to his festival lineup. "I don't like to think in terms of a quota when you make a selection process," he says. "I'm sorry that there are very few films from women this year, but we are not producing films."

Qu agrees with Barbera that the Venice male-dominated lineup is a symptom, not a cause, of the problem.

"Of course I wish there were more female filmmakers presented in the festival," she says. But, "to go to the root of the problem, if more women were encouraged to work in film and had the opportunity to take on major creative roles, I'm sure we will see more and more films by women."

But not everyone believes that responsibility for gender parity should fall solely on the production side of the film industry. "I've heard festival organizers and programmers from some of the larger festivals take very defensive positions on this issue, stating that women's underemployment as directors is a reflection of the larger film industry and thus not their problem," says Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. "This posture strikes me as a case of passing the buck."

Instead of a collective shrug, Lauzen believes festivals have to take a closer look at their selection processes and committees. "Do they favor choices that have been made in the past? If so, it is likely that they may be perpetuating bias," she argues.

Venice has also been accused of relegating female directors to sections far from the limelight of the main competition. Lucrecia Martel's Zama and Antonietta De Lillo's Il Singor Rotpeter are screening out of competition, and there are several women represented in the Horizons sidebar, including Nancy Buirski with The Rape of Recy Taylor, Anne Fontaine with Marvin and Susanna Nicchiarelli's Nico 1988, a biopic of the legendary Velvet Underground singer, which will open the section.

But Barbera defends the move, arguing the best place for these films is out of the competition spotlight.

"When you are in competition, for example, the expectation from the press is higher. If the film is not good enough it means that the response from critics and audience will be worse than in other cases," he says. "I think it’s the only way to think in terms of programming. What we ask ourselves is will we help the film by putting it in competition or outside the competition?"

Barbera admits he can make mistakes ("It's impossible not to") but insists he will not value diversity and gender representation more than the artistic integrity of the fest. "I won't put a film in competition only because it's a female film or whatever," he says. "I don't think that will help the film."

But Lauzen argues that there is implicit bias in the notion that including films by female filmmakers somehow involves lowering standards. "It implies that all films made by women are somehow inferior to films made by men," she says. "Making room for gender diversity or diversity of all kinds does not also require the lowering of one's standards."

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A NEW REALITY DAWNS ON THE LIDO
Three VR projects not to miss as Venice adds a competition.

Building on the success of its 2016 VR screening room, Venice is expanding further into the genre by launching a dedicated competition this year. Spanning everything from fine art to gang warfare, three entries look like standouts:

Gomorrah VR — We Own the Streets
Director: Enrico Rosati

Based on the popular Italian TV series (it's been called the best mafia show since The Sopranos), Gomorrah VR offers fans the opportunity to roam the paths of Naples' infamous drug slums in a full 360-degree experience alongside the show's characters.

Bloodless
Director: Gina Kim

Kim's harrowing short looks to test the boundaries of VR by chronicling the last living moments of a sex worker brutally murdered by a U.S. soldier at the Dongducheon Camptown in South Korea in 1992. Probably not for the squeamish.

The Argos File 
Director: Josema Roig

This futuristic sci-fi noir uses VR technology to drop the viewer into a world where augmented reality is the norm and recording one's memories — and then sharing them with others — can become an obsession. Roig invites the viewer to help solve a murder mystery in an advanced world gone mad.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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