Venice: Festival Head Alberto Barbera Defends Lack of Women in Lineup (Again)

Alberto Barbera - Getty - H 2018
Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty

Venice Festival Director Alberto Barbera

"Venice can’t do anything about that. It’s not up to us to change the situation," says Barbera.

Last year, the Venice Film Festival was publicly shamed for including only one film directed by a woman among the 21 contenders in its competition lineup, and many expected fest director Alberto Barbera to reverse course this year and include at least another name or two.

But Barbera stood true to his principles and doubled down on his insistence that it's not the festival’s job to change the industry. The 75th Venice Film Festival competition will once again feature only one film directed by a woman out of 21 titles. 

“Putting another film in the main competition just because it’s made by a woman, from my point of view, that would be really offensive for the director,” Barbera tells The Hollywood Reporter in Rome. “I would prefer to change my job if I would be forced to select a film only because it’s made by a woman and not on the basis of the quality of the film itself.”

Barbera said this year he watched 1,500 film submissions, with about a third of them coming from female directors.

“As I’ve said many times in the past, the best way to see a film is watching it without reading the credits. I don’t want to be influenced by the filmmaker. I don’t care if it’s a woman or a man,” he says. “My job consists in deciding if it’s a good film or not, and if a film is better than another one.”

When pushed, Barbera admits that with most of the major lineup films, it’s impossible to watch a movie without knowing who is behind it.

“Of course if I see ROMA I know that it’s made by Alfonso Cuaron. If I see a film made by Jennifer Kent, I know Jennifer Kent made the film. We watched Nightingale because we knew the filmmaker was a promising talent and so on,” he says.

“But when we see a first feature coming out of the blue from I don’t know where, when we’re looking at the quality of the filmmaking, I don’t care if it’s a man or a woman. I just care because it’s a good film,” says Barbera. “Of course, I would be happy to have more females in the festival, but it doesn’t depend on me.”

Barbera places the blame on a film’s beginning cycle, rather than on the end festival cycle and distribution.

“The problem is that there is still a lot of prejudice in the industry and things need to be changed. They will change I think. It takes time, of course,” he says. “But sooner or later everybody will realize that female directors are as good and as creative as their male colleagues. But this is something that needs to be changed at the beginning of the chain, not at the end, not to guarantee for example, a quarter of film festival slots to women.

“You need to change the possibility to approach the profession, to give women the same possibilities that are given to men now, and this is something that is out of our hands,” he says. “Venice can’t do anything about that. It’s not up to us to change the situation. It came too late in the process of filmmaking."

Barbera pointed to the situation in Cannes and Locarno this year, which fared only just slightly better, with Cannes featuring three by women directors out of 17 films, and Locarno three out of 15. 

“We can’t do anything about that. What can you do about that? I would be happy to say, 'Oh, I have an equal number of films made by men and women,'” says Barbera. “This will happen in the future.”

"Any major film festival today that has such skewed gender ratios is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Their choices serve to reinforce the status quo, and, as a result, their programs reflect a narrow and specific definition of 'greatness' in filmmaking," says Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University in response to Barbera's comments. "Ultimately, this type of gendered tunnel vision impoverishes the universe of films that most of us see, read about and talk about."

Meanwhile, Toronto, whose dates overlap with Venice and often plays pictures after their Italian premieres, will feature a slate chock-full of female-helmed pictures, including the latest works from such directors as Claire Denis, Sara Colangelo, Nicole Holofcener, Elizabeth Chomko, Patricia Rozema, Stella Meghie, Marielle Heller, Nadine Labaki, Mia Hansen-Love and Eva Husson.

For Venice’s other independent festivals that run parallel to the Biennale, the future is now. Director Giorgio Gosetti has made an effort to seek out female talent for his fest Venice Days, resulting in half of the twelve films in its official selection directed by women.

In addition, Venice Critics’ Week features three out of seven of its competition films directed by women. Last year, the numbers were even greater, with five out of seven directed by women.

While some might argue that these festivals are better positioned to welcome women directors as they often feature debut films or fringe cinema, it’s important to note that these events also believe that they’re showcasing the best movies of the year, and don’t see themselves as simply filling quotas.

Critics’ Week director Giona A. Nazzaro, who has also been continuously active in recruiting diverse voices, said last year of his lineup: “Women move faster. They think faster.”