The Venice Film Festival kicked off Wednesday with a debate surrounding the many controversies circling around the otherwise glamorous festival lineup. Festival head Alberto Barbera has been critiqued for the inclusion of men accused or convicted of rape — Nate Parker and Roman Polanski — as well as making room for only two women out of 21 competition films.
Jury president Lucrecia Martel (La Cienaga, Zama) was questioned on whether or not she could separate the man from the art when judging Polanski’s new film. His latest, An Officer and a Spy on the Dreyfus affair, explores anti-Semitism in late 19th century France when Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment.
”I do not divide the artists from their works of art. I think that important aspects about the work of art emerge from the man,” said Martel matter-of-factly. “I also think that, for all of you, the presence of Polanski with what we know about him in the past is somehow difficult to face. But I carried out some research on the Internet and I also consulted some writers, some journalists who have dealt with this subject, and I’ve seen that the victim considers this case as a closed case, saying that Mr. Polanski had complied with what had been required of him. Polanski complied with the requests of the court so I cannot judge him after the court has passed its judgment.”
Polanski, who was convicted of statutory rape in 1978 in Los Angeles, fled the country before sentencing and remains a fugitive of the U.S. justice system, today living in France. The victim, Samantha Geimer, who was 13 at the time of the assault, has urged authorities to drop the case. Last year his membership from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was revoked.
Although Martel supported Polanski’s inclusion in the festival, she made clear that this doesn’t affect any sympathy she may have for the victim, or give her reason to celebrate the director. “I might express my solidarity with the victim and it is difficult for me to understand whether this is a closed event for the victim. I have to say that it won’t be easy for me, and that’s why it’s certain that I will not attend Mr. Polanski’s gala, because I represent many women who are fighting in Argentina on these types of issues. And I don’t want to have to stand up and clap,” she continued. “But I think it is correct that Polanski’s film is here at this festival because it’s a dialogue we won’t give up on, and this is the best possible place to go deep on this type of discussion.”
An Officer and a Spy premieres in Venice on Friday, with a gala dinner arranged to celebrate Polanski, who will not be present as he cannot travel outside of France.
The Hollywood Reporter followed up with Martel on whether or not more recent accusations against Polanski would affect her viewing. In 2010, a British actress claimed Polanski forced himself on her when she was 16. And post #MeToo, a woman claimed Polanski raped her in Switzerland when she was 15, and another woman claimed he sexually assaulted her when she was just 10 years old.
Martel denied finding enough information to sway her opinion. “I have tried to find this information. I only found two isolated comments,” she said.
“Imagine the difficult situation faced by a woman who has to guide this jury,” she continued. “If you have any extra information please give it to me. But I cannot act as a judge here. It is a very difficult situation,” she continued. “We have to take advantage of this festival where all these controversies are discussed.”
“I believe this movie deserves to have a chance,” added Martel, because of the types of humanistic topics that Polanski includes in his films.
Barbera went further to say that not only does he separate a man from his art, but he believes that cinema audiences should do the same. “I am a cinema judge. That is my job and here it stops,” he said. “And the same has to be done by the viewer and the spectators who will see the movie.”
Martel also disagreed with Barbera on the lack of women in competition. Barbera has maintained in countless interviews that he will never enforce a gender quota in the lineup, which he believes would sacrifice the quality of the festival. Martel, however, saw quotas as an imperfect system that could help in the short-term.
“The issue of the quotas is difficult and the answer is never satisfactory,” she said. “There are no other solutions which include the discussion of whether to give women the place that they deserve. And I think that quotas are indeed pertinent for the time being. Do I like them? No. However I don’t think I know of any other system that would force this industry to think differently and to take into consideration films that are directed by women.”
Martel challenged Barbara directly, asking him, “Just imagine a situation where we have a 50-50 lineup. Are you sure that the quality would really decrease, or would this instead lead to a different situation in the industry? This kind of transformation is so deep that perhaps it wouldn’t be too bad if we were to implement a situation such as this.”
Barbara again said no, maintaining that out of the thousands of films submitted, only two met his standards for competition. He said he was unable to obtain a few films, due to studio release dates or marketing decisions, but even if he had been able to obtain them, this would have only added two or three more to the lineup.
THR again questioned Barbera, asking if outside the issue of quotas, he believes that he can judge a film truly without any bias or unconscious bias.
“I hope that I am exempt from any prejudice when I watch a film,” he replied. “I would have loved to invite more directors of some of the films directed by women, but I don’t think they had the quality to be invited.”
Barbara added that his selection committee is made up of 50 percent women and the lineup was made in agreement with all members. “There was no prejudice on our behalf,” he said. “I use the plural because the choices made were shared among the committee and were the results of lengthy discussions.”
He also pointed to numbers of female-directed films in the shorts program, 40-45 percent, as well as the VR section, 40 percent, saying this proves that the situation among female film directors is changing.
Industry groups advocating for women have critiqued this viewpoint, saying it assumes that women need to catch up to the skills of male filmmakers, whereas other major festivals have in recent years significantly increased representation in their lineup.