Venice Film Festival Finally Starts Talking About Gender Parity

Paolo Baratta, Alberto Barbera
Theo Wargo_Getty Images

The fest has come under fire for chronic under-representation of women in its competition lineup, with just two of 21 films this year from female directors.

Venice, finally, started talking about gender parity.

In recent years, the Italian film festival has had the worst record of major fests when it comes to gender balance, with few films directed by women picked for Venice's competition lineup.

This year is no different. Just two out of the 21 competition titles in Venice this year are directed by women — The Perfect Candidate, from BAFTA-nominated Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour (Wadjda), and Babyteeth, the feature debut of Australian TV helmer Shannon Murphy (Sisters).

That ratio of female-to-male helmers in the main competition — 9.5 percent against 90.5 percent — is the lowest of any of the major film festivals. Forty-six percent of competition films at Sundance this year were directed by women; 40 percent of Berlin's 2019 competition lineup featured female helmers; and Toronto's ratio, across its entire selection, will be 74 percent male to 36 percent female this year. Even Cannes' lineup, with four out of 21 competition titles helmed by women — a mere 19 percent — featured double the female filmmakers represented in Venice.

While Venice's artistic director Alberto Barbera has, in the past, dismissed criticism of his selection — and has said he would quit before imposing a quota to boost female representation — the festival on Monday hosted its first-ever seminar on gender parity and inclusion.

“It is important to recognize that although festivals are at the end of the pipeline, they are critical events that provide unparalleled visibility to the project and its directors and actors,” said Margherita Chiti, vice president at Women In Film, Television & Media Italy. “Hence, we believe that the Venice Film Festival is crucial in reaching our goal of offering female filmmakers the same opportunities as their male counterparts.”

The two-hour event was organized by the activist group Women in Film, Television & Media Italia and Dissenso Comune, Italy’s answer to the #MeToo movement, along with European film funding body Eurimages and Italian film funding body Mibac.

Barbera and Paolo Baratta, president of the film festival's umbrella organization, La Biennale, opened the session, together with Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni, deputy secretary general of the Council of Europe, and Eurimages president Catherine Trautmann.

Barbera said he thought there was too much focus on the role of film festivals in reducing the gender gap in the movie business, pointing to discrimination when it comes to the financing and production of female-directed films. Barbera noted that between 22 percent to 24 percent of the film submissions to Venice this year were helmed by women and, across all sections, 25 percent of all films selected were directed by women.

"We can wonder if we can do better," said Barbera, adding, "We think the main criteria is the quality of films — we don't want to be indulgent with respect to the gender of directors."

Breaking down the figures, Venice revealed that while 9.5 percent of competition titles this year were directed by women, the figure in the Orizzonti sidebar was 21 percent and 12.5 percent for the Sconfini section. Among out-of-competition selections, 26 percent were helmed by women, versus 74 percent directed by men.

Baratta argued that Venice had made progress and said he "totally rejected" the idea that the festival should be accused of bias.

Barbera added that the ultimate goal of a 50-50 gender balance at the festival "would take years to achieve."

Looking just at Italy, Domizia De Rosa of Women In Film, Television & Media Italia revealed that just 9 percent of feature films produced in Italy between 2008-2018 were directed by women, or 153 pics, compared to 1,493 Italian features made by men over the same period.

Italian film funding body Mibac noted that 18 percent of submissions for made in the 2017-18 funding year were by female producers, and 20 percent of funds allotted went to these female-backed projects. Even when female directors do get funding, the study found that they are paid, on average, more than 11 percent less than their male counterparts.

Venice last year signed a pledge requiring the festival to release statistics on gender parity, including what percentage of submitted films were directed by women, and to commit to the goal of gender parity on its executive board. Biennale GM Andrea Del Mercato, Mibac's Iole Maria Giannattasio and Susan Newman-Baudais, a project manager at Eurimages, presented data on female representation in the film industry, both in Italy and across Europe.

That progress is possible was shown by data from pan-European funding group Eurimage, which showed that, since implementing a gender parity strategy in 2012, the number of eligible projects submitted by women increased from 17 percent to 28 percent in 2018.

But there is still a large gap in terms of the budget. Just under a quarter of eligible films submitted by male directors had budgets of more than €5 million ($5.5 million), compared to just 9 percent of those submitted by women.

Overall, Eurimage has made improvement, however. While the group handed out fully 91 percent of its funding for male-directed films in 2008 and just 9 percent for those from female helmers, by 2018 those figures had shifted to 70 percent for films from male directors and 30 percent for women filmmakers.

In a panel on the role film festivals can play to close the industry gender gap, The Hollywood Reporter's Deborah Young spoke with Canadian director Mary Harron (American Psycho, Netflix's Alias Grace), New Zealand producer Jan Chapman (The Piano) and Women in Film, Television & Media Italia's De Rosa.

De Rosa called on festivals to "lead the conversation and to lead the charge" for change, so that the conversation around gender parity in the film industry is not just about numbers and statistics but about "the progress we are making."

Chapman noted that her experience working with female directors — including Jane Campion (The Piano), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) and Babyteeth filmmaker Shannon Murphy — has convinced her that "when women are able to access their own expertise in a language that is truly theirs, they make films that are original, that stand out and that are noticed by the festivals."

Harron called for gender quotas to be applied to government film funding. 

"If it is government funding, tax dollars, it should go 50-50 male and female," she said. "Because quotas do work. ... You have to tip the scales when the scales are tipped against you."

In an interview with THR critic David Rooney, Italian director Susanna Nicchiarelli, whose feature Nico, 1988 won the Venice Horizons Award at the festival in 2017, said she was completely against a fixed quota for festival selections.

"I would have been very unhappy if my film was selected because I was a woman — that would have made me angry," said Nicchiarelli, but she added that she was fully in support of financial initiatives to make it easier for women to make their movies and get them distributed. "Because the real problem is the access to the money," she said. "Incentives would help to overturn a certain way of seeing things and give us access to different audiences and bigger budgets."