"Completely Tone Deaf": How Venice Became the F-You Film Festival

HOW VENICE BECAME THE F-You - Illustration by Michael Burdick - H 2019
Illustration by Michael Burdick

Already under fire for its lack of female representation, the event stunned the global film world by setting premieres with Roman Polanski and Nate Parker. Some say it’s an intentional provocation: "The message is loud and clear."

Who's afraid of poor optics?

Apparently, not the Venice Film Festival. One year after signing a gender-parity pledge as #MeToo and Time's Up concerns swept the film industry, the festival has raised eyebrows with a series of moves that are being met with condemnation.

First, fest director Alberto Barbera drew fire by inviting Roman Polanski to premiere his latest film, An Officer and a Spy, in competition at this year's edition. He then upped the ante by adding Nate Parker's American Skin to the official lineup, in the (noncompetitive) Sconfini section. The film marks Parker's first since his debut feature, The Birth of a Nation, which Fox Searchlight bought for a record-breaking $17.5 million after its 2016 Sundance premiere, only to see the movie tank amid renewed scrutiny of a 1999 trial in which Parker was charged with rape and ultimately acquitted. Polanski infamously pleaded guilty to a statutory rape charge in California in 1978 but fled the country before sentencing and remains a fugitive from American justice. All the while, Venice continued to show little welcome to female directors, selecting only two for its 21-film competition roster this year.

"Venice is completely tone-deaf about issues related to #MeToo and Time's Up," says Melissa Silverstein, founder of the advocacy website Women and Hollywood and director of the Athena Film Festival. "This is all part of the world we are living in now. You can't just pretend that having a person like Roman Polanski or Nate Parker in your lineup is not going to cause a huge reaction."

In an era when Hollywood has little tolerance for talent swept up in a #MeToo scandal — as when Amazon dropped Woody Allen's A Rainy Day in New York amid resurfaced allegations from his daughter Dylan Farrow that he molested her when she was 7 — and even notoriously macho Cannes has made strides with female award winners, Venice stands alone as the last major un-woke film festival.

"It's like they enjoy being the last dinosaur standing," says Laura Kaehr, co-president of the Swiss Women's Audiovisual Network, SWAN and a documentary filmmaker currently working on Becoming Giulia, a look at gender discrimination in the world of ballet.

"Personally, I have a problem with celebrating work from men who have had a problematic relationship to women," Berlin-based producer Janine Jackowski (Toni Erdmann) tells THR. "You can see how in America, if you don't play by the rules, you're out. Here in Europe, there's still the idea of the 'genius' who is allowed to do anything and should be celebrated for it."

Jackowiski adds that she isn't calling for a ban on films from "problematic" men but says "the issues surrounding them should be discussed, and their films should be seen in that context."

Both Polanski and Parker have been persona non grata in Hollywood. Last year Polanski was expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. For his sophomore feature, Parker couldn't land traditional Hollywood funding and relied on financing from Tunisian producer Tarak Ben Ammar, a former investor and board member of The Weinstein Co.

But both filmmakers will be honored guests in Venice, even if Polanski can attend only via Skype given that he would likely face extradition if he sets foot outside France, where he resides.

"I can't believe Venice pulled this shit again," one female filmmaker tells THR. "Not only do they basically snub women, but then they put Polanski in competition. I think the message they are sending is loud and clear: They want to continue celebrating people who have been convicted or accused of sexual assault."

The Venice festival does not seem bothered. Speaking to THR after the official lineup announcement, Barbera defended Polanski as "one of the last great European filmmakers, one of the last true artists from the classical period of 20th century cinema." He then compared Polanski's criminal record to that of Italian painter Caravaggio, who was convicted of murder. "He was a killer, but he's one of the major painters of the Italian Baroque period. It's not so different."

This comparison strikes Alessia Sonaglioni, network director for the European Women's Audiovisual Network, a group that promotes gender equality across the film and TV industries in Europe, as out of step with the times. "Caravaggio lived in the 16th century; we're in the 21st. You'd think things would have changed," she says. "But in Venice, it's the same old mantra. … They don't really care about the gender issue."

Sonaglioni, and others, point to the counter example of Cannes, another traditional European festival that long resisted calls to address gender imbalance in its lineup but, this year, appeared to have made strides, with a competition that included up-and-coming female talent such as Mati Diop — whose debut, Atlantics, won Cannes' grand prix honor — and Céline Sciamma, winner of this year's screenplay prize for her feminist period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

"Other festivals — Cannes, Berlin, Locarno — are really making an effort and they are making progress. It just seems like Venice is the only festival not making an effort," says Kaehr. "I feel they are out of touch. Either that or it's a publicity stunt."

Barbera has built his reputation, in part, by thumbing his nose at industry convention. When he took over as fest director in 2011 — returning after a short, tumultuous term as Venice head from 1998 to 2002 — he transformed the world's oldest film festival, once a haven for European art house titles, into a brazen platform for Oscar contenders including Gravity, Birdman, La La Land and, last year, Roma, The Favourite and A Star Is Born.

The festival has courted controversy in recent years well outside gender-equity issues. When Netflix's Roma won 2018's Golden Lion, a national uproar ensued, with Italian exhibitors blasting Barbera for turning Venice into little more than a "marketing vehicle" for the streaming giant. Undeterred, this year Barbera has selected three Netflix films: Steven Soderbergh's The Laundromat and Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story in competition and, in an out-of-competition slot, David Michôd's The King.

So far, Barbera's Oscar play seems to be working. Venice is back on top among the world's most prestigious film festivals — on par with Cannes, and with an impressive awards-season pedigree.

"Maybe we should all be like Venice — just ignore everything you journalists and the PC media say with regard to gender equality and Netflix and do whatever we want," the head of another major A-list festival tells THR, "and then sit back and hear how we are the best festival in the world."

"I would love to see a festival stigmatized for not taking a progressive agenda, but I don't think we're there yet," says Sonaglioni. "At the moment, Venice's agenda is being the pre-Oscar festival, and as long as they're good at that, they don't really care about the gender issue. I don't think we'll see real change until Barbera leaves [next year is the Barbera's last festival as director]."

To Silverstein, Venice appears to be simply paying lip service to women's issues by signing the so-called 50/50 by 2020 pledge last year (it was the last major film fest to do so). After all, the twin billing of Polanski and Parker speaks volumes.

"So they have to make a decision, which they clearly did, that it was worth it for them to program these people," she says. "We are way past the time when these things go unnoticed. But I don't think they give a flying fuck."

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.