Another year rolls by, bringing with it the 72nd Festival de Cannes. By now, Cannes has earnt its reputation as a prestigious event and awards ceremony, debuting a year’s worth of both independent and commercially successful films (Tarantino, we’re looking at you). With the first Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, winning the esteemed Palme d’Or for his film Parasite and the first black female director to ever have a film compete at the festival winning The Grand Prix (known as the “runners-up prize”) for Atlantique, Cannes clearly has a long way to go in diversifying its selections. It may pride itself for showcasing arthouse cinema, but with only 20 % of films selected directed by women, it is barely at the cutting-edge of demonstrating the diverse experience of genders, sexualities, race, or class.
“Cannes’ jury-led system is archaic and reflective of the film industry as a whole: an institution that is predominantly led by the ‘traditional’ views of white men”
Why it’s trying:
The last two years of Cannes has seen two Asian winners of the Palme d’Or. In 2018, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda won for Shoplifters, the heartfelt drama following a poor family who take in a child, shoplifting to survive. This year, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite – a dark thriller following an unemployed family that takes a peculiar interest in the lives of the wealthy – won, beating the critically-acclaimed Tarantino film Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You. Joon-ho’s win is most definitely a step away from the otherwise (mostly) white-male-director domination of past years, and a great showcase of an extremely talented director whose other films have been widely overlooked, including cult-hit Okja, which struggled for cinematic distribution – being eventually released onto Netflix. After the awards ceremony, Joon-ho thanked Cannes for the prestigious prize, stating: “It is the 100th anniversary of cinema in Korea this year. I think that Cannes has given Korean cinema a great gift”. Undeniably Parasite’s win was unanimous and a further step in the right direction for an awards ceremony that is more widely inclusive. This is further reflected in Mati Diop’s win of The Grand Prix for Atlantique, a supernatural drama about African migrants, which was an unquestionable critical success. Favourite, and Cannes sweetheart, Céline Sciamma, also achieved the Best Screenplay award for Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Why it has a way to go:
However, Cannes’ jury-led system is archaic and reflective of the film industry as a whole: an institution that is predominantly led by the ‘traditional’ views of white men. Cannes still holds very outdated views. Its denial and snobbery are also clear in its refusal to display stream-only releases, rejecting great cinematic pieces in the process, alongside a very strict gendered dress-code.
Political statements are strategically limited through Cannes’ short ceremony. Despite this, inevitably some subtly sneak through. Fahrenheit 9/11 director, Michael Moore, made a poignant comment during the awards ceremony, quoting painter Pablo Picasso: ‘Art is the lie that enables us to realise the truth’, he continues, ‘Trump is the lie that enables more lying. In dark times, art is what has helped save humanity from the autocrats and idiots’. Picasso notoriously was one of the first to break the strict Cannes dress code, attending a screening wearing a sheepskin cloak. Ultimately though, Cannes tends to avoid political statements in its quick ceremony and strict rules – men must wear tuxedos and bow ties, and women, as quoted in the Cannes Guide, must wear heels, keeping dresses modest: “Short skirts are not recommended” – a tradition dating back to the festival’s start in 1939 (as highlighted on the Festival de Cannes website).
“PEOPLE KEEP ASKING US WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A WOMAN DIRECTOR,” ROHRWACHER POIGNANTLY SAYS AT THE PRESS CONFERENCE, “IT’S A BIT LIKE ASKING SOMEONE WHO’S SURVIVED A SHIPWRECK WHY THEY’RE STILL ALIVE…”
This year’s first Mexican-born president of the Cannes jury, The Revenant and Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu, also publicly criticised Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies at the press conference introducing this year’s jury. Additionally, Alice Rohrwacher, director of Happy as Lazzaro, criticised the festival’s failure to showcase female filmmakers – she was one of only three female-filmmakers in the competition last year. “People keep asking us what it’s like to be a woman director,” Rohrwacher poignantly says at the press conference, “it’s a bit like asking someone who’s survived a shipwreck why they’re still alive. Well, ask the person who built the boat. Ask the people who run film schools. Ask the people behind the scenes. It’s not at the very end that we need to raise these issues – it needs to happen at the very beginning”. Many female filmmakers on the Cannes red carpet, including writer/director Sciamma and actor Adèle Haenel, wore 50/50 pins – a reference to the movement led by female filmmakers (including Sciamma) to achieve gender equality both in front of and behind the camera by 2020. Sciamma talks about her activism in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, stating that “It’s more than 50/50. It’s a majority of women, that’s for sure”. Cannes artistic director, Thierry Frémaux, defended the festival against claims that it failed to include enough female filmmakers, noting that Cannes’ 20 % of female directed films featured was significantly higher than the 7% of female directors working in film overall. This might be the case, but it is certainly not the point. In fact, according the research project Calling the Shots, which looks at women filmmakers in the UK, women comprise 13% of directors. It is not so much that women are not making films, however, it is that they are not given the same opportunities to. Following from Rohrwacher, the opportunities need to be given from the start in order to amount to change further down the line.
Cannes certainly deserves recognition for showcasing beautiful arthouse cinema, but its outdated views surrounding gender and race – remember, Mati Diop was the first black woman to ever have a film in the competition… it’s 2019 – ultimately means that it should not be held up as at the cutting-edge of inclusive and diverse cinema.