Women's Groups Demand Action Over Gender Bias in Venice Film Fest Lineup

Alberto Barbera and Paolo Baratta - 74th Venice Film Festival - Getty-H 2018
Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images

An open letter specifically calls out artistic director Alberto Barbera for the lack of female representation in the official lineup each year.

A group of global women's organizations have written an open letter to the president of the Venice Biennale, Paolo Baratta, which specifically calls out Venice Film Festival artistic director Alberto Barbera for the lack of female representation in the official lineup each year.

Last year, one film out of 21 in the official lineup was directed by a woman, Vivian Qu's Angels Wear White. Barbera doubled down this year with just one film again, Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale. "Venice, we have seen this film before," reads the letter. 

"As if years of repeating that the best films, the best directors and the real masters were male had made no difference to the way quality was judged, and as if bias didn’t play any role, there he was, denying that considerations of gender had any impact on his (and his team’s) selections. In 2018, the same mandate was repeated once again. With only one film directed by a woman in competition, Mr. Barbera persisted that it was, 'Quality, not gender.'"

Barbera, who has also claimed that the problem lies with the schools, not with the festivals, was not let off the hook there. "Females make up 50 percent of cinema students and yet when they hit the market they get seen less and less. Over the past 10 years, no significant market festival has delivered 50 percent of films directed by female filmmakers. Because of this, we must assume that the Venice Film Festival has not offered any Unconscious Bias training to its leading team, nor to its team of programmers or regional selectors," continued the letter.

"Unconscious biases, which shape our conception of 'good taste,' have been in place against women for many centuries now and have defined genius (and especially cinema genius) as male," it read. "Thus, cultural history is written by male taste, by the male gaze, by the male power of selection." 

The letter questioned how seriously the Biennale was in looking at these issues: "These festivals are the first window, the amplifiers, the seals of quality our film market will accept. They are Oscars magnets, the first port of call. Do they ask themselves if they are simply repeating the kind of choices that have been made in the past? Do they question if they are maybe perpetuating bias against female creators?"

And they specifically blasted Barbera for dramatically stating that if he were forced to pick a female filmmaker over a male filmmaker that he would quit his job: "When Alberto Barbera threatens to quit, he is perpetuating the notion that selecting films by female filmmakers involves lowering standards. He is implying that films made by women are somehow inferior to films made by men; if they must be selected because of quotas or close gender scrutiny, quality will be compromised and HE WILL QUIT. Sorry, but we don’t buy this anymore," it read.

"We know that by putting diversity on the table we offer more and not less choice. We know that if no discussion happens around making room for gender diversity (or any diversity for that matter) or if we don’t confront the way we see films made by diverse filmmakers, we will not advance the conversation nor fix this rigged system, which favors mainly white males."

The letter was signed by the European Women's Audiovisual Network, Women in Film & TV International, WIFT Nordic, WIFT Sweden, and the Swiss Women's Audiovisual Network. 

Locarno became the first A-List festival after Cannes to sign on to the Gender Parity Pledge that came out of the 5050x2020 movement in France in May. As of yet, no Italian organization has publicly called on Venice to do the same. But main advocacy groups, Dissenso Comune and Women in Film and TV Italy, would be the ones to take the lead with the festival. 

Venice has not yet responded to the letter.