'Elle' Producer, 'Amour Fou' Director Discuss the Challenges Facing Female Directors

Jessica Hausner

Diana Elbaum and Jessica Hausner were on a panel that was part of the Les Arcs film festival's initiative to boost female filmmakers.

With Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann dominating this week’s European Film Awards, panelists at the Les Arcs European Film Festival focus on women filmmakers expressed lingering disbelief that the film was shunned in Cannes.

While Anna Serner, director of the Swedish Film Institute, Elle producer Diana Elbaum and Amour Fou director Jessica Hausner addressed the challenges facing women filmmakers, they couldn’t avoid the Cannes controversy, calling the snub "inconceivable" but acknowledging it was a symptom of the continued focus on established, older and male directors.

“It’s unbelievable with the number of submissions that the Cannes film festival gets every year that out of 22 films in competition they cannot find more women,” said Elbaum.

This year Les Arcs required a 50/50 gender parity in the competition, proving it can be done, the panelists said. They also noted when film funds create initiatives to fund women, producers suddenly manage to find female directors.

"The talent is there, the ideas are there," said Serner.

Moderator Geoffroy Grison, co-president of Le Deuxieme Regard association, which works toward gender parity in film, cited The Hollywood Reporter’s interview with Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux, in which he said Cannes’ gender disparity is “not the problem…it’s the consequence” of structural problems throughout the filmmaking system.

Even though the question can seem repetitive, the panelists agreed that it’s important to repeat it every year, as well as expand it beyond Cannes.

“Keep on asking, and don’t let them get away with not answering. I think it’s getting very problematic, even for Thierry Fremaux, because he gets the question and he steps up and answers like that,” said Serner. She referenced the Kering Women in Motion talks and said that while it was great that women had a voice, a side discussion was potentially marginalizing.

“We have to keep on asking and asking," said Elbaum. “Thierry is the perfect target, but I don’t see people asking the same question to other film festival directors. We need to question every single organization that puts together people where there is no parity.”

She cited Brussels’ “Into the Future” TED Talks last year, where just one of 27 speakers was a woman.

The panelists also agreed that women tend to have limited chances to make their mark, and have to be better prepared — even if that doesn't pay off.

“We let the young, cute, nice female directors debut, but then they are blocked,” said Serner, citing a disappointing film festival competition she witnessed where a well-prepared female candidate was told she was inexperienced because she had only one film under her belt, and a male candidate who presented only a vague idea was praised for his ambition after having directed only one film. Ultimately he got the prize money.

“Women are picked on experience and men on potential,” she said.

Funding, too, is a male-dominated field, and despite multiple studies saying female-directed films are more profitable (though mostly because they have lower budgets, the panelists acknowledged), financiers are still reticent to give money to women — especially if they are directing a film with a female lead character.

But even male protagonists pose a problem, and it seems like women can’t win for trying. Hausner, now working on her fifth film, said that when looking for funding for 2015’s Amour Fou, she was explicitly told by funders that a female director could not portray a male poet. In the end she received funding from Luxembourg’s points system because it did not look at gender, and the film went on to compete in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar.

Elbaum discussed her Boost Camp initiative, a program designed to pair young directors with mentors by having them live and work together for a few weeks out of the year. The project aims to bolster not only craft, but also business sense as well as what might be most elusive for women — an established network.

A study commissioned by the festival found that while women directors still account for low numbers across 30 European countries, the proportion of films by women grew rapidly between 2012 and 2015. The outstanding example is Sweden, whose film commission has made gender parity a goal and has changed its selection criteria, where the number of women filmmakers has increased 137 percent, from 15 to 37 percent in four short years.

But while such studies are helpful, and continue to bring the issue to the forefront, they aren’t making change if people aren’t paying attention. “We don’t need more arguments [for women filmmakers]. We need to listen to the arguments,” said Serner. “We need to start believing the studies. We already know that women can direct films.”