Venice Chief Alberto Barbera Defends Lack of Women Directors, Roman Polanski Inclusion in Lineup

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Alberto Barbera

Barbera also addressed rumors that Woody Allen's latest film would debut in Venice.

Director Roman Polanski may not be welcome in many places, but Venice is not one of them. His new film, An Officer and a Spy, about the Dreyfus affair, will compete in the 76th edition of the world’s oldest film festival.

Based on the book by Robert Harris, the film follows Jewish military officer Alfred Dreyfus, who is wrongfully convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. Polanski penned the script with Harris. The pic stars Emmanuelle Seigner, Louis Garrel and Jean Dujardin.

New assault accusations have surfaced against Polanski in the past few years, following the notorious 1977 Los Angeles case where Polanski was charged with raping a minor. He was since expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and a Paris retrospective attracted hordes of protestors. Polanski, who cannot travel to the festival, is expected to appear via Skype.

Venice does not have a great track record for inclusion. This year sees just two female directors in competition out of 21, with the last two years seeing only one. This, combined with Polanski’s spot in the lineup, is expected to draw further critique to the festival board, as pundits maintain that the festival hasn’t done enough to address selection bias.

Venice chief Alberto Barbera spoke with The Hollywood Reporter in Rome on his decision to include Polanski’s new film.

What can you tell us about Polanski's An Officer and a Spy?

It’s a big movie. He did a great, great job to reconstruct a historical, accurate expression of the case, based on two documents of the time. It’s a great cast with a wonderful script. And of course he projects his own personal experience. It’s a very strong political statement that not only concerns the past, but is a very contemporary statement about racism and other types of problems. It’s on the same scale of The Pianist, and similar in that it’s connected to his own experience.

Do you expect anyone to protest his inclusion?

I hope not. We are here to see works of art, not to judge the person behind it. I hope we can just discuss about the quality of the film and not about Polanski and the case with L.A. County.

What was your reaction to the Film Academy taking away his membership?

He’s one of the last great European filmmakers, one of the last true artists from the classical period of 20th century cinema. I don’t think he deserved to be kicked out of the Academy. I don’t think it’s fair and more than that, I don’t think it’s right.

What about the new accusations against him?

I think we should always make a distinction between the artist and the man. The history or art is full of artists who were assassins, criminals, had extremely bad behavior. But they were big artists and their works remain. Caravaggio was a killer, but he’s one of the major painters of the Italian Baroque period. It’s not so different.

If someone commits a crime, you should put them in jail. Why not? But this doesn’t mean that we should forget that he is an artist and did some works of art that are part of our film history and cultural heritage.

There was speculation that Woody Allen’s A Rainy Day in New York would be in the festival, as it is set for release in Italy in October. Was that an option for you?

The choice of the distribution company [Lucky Red] was to not spoil the film before the commercial release. I didn’t see the film, so I didn’t have chance to discuss the possibility to invite it or not.

This year you are discussing opening statistics around the festival. Did you learn anything from the submission data?

This year we received more than 1,800 films. Only 23 percent of the films submitted were directed by women. In the short film competition, 50 percent of the film directors are women. And in VR, the women are the majority, compared to the men. More than 60 percent of VR submissions were directed by women. It means that in the new generation there are more female directors than in the old days. This is evident, and it’s very promising for the future.