This post has been updated.
The 75th Venice Film Festival began Wednesday, officially kicking off the fall festival circuit. Hurrah! A mere matter of days now remain until we discover whether Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” is truly as magnificent as Lady Gaga’s extended haaaaa in its trailer, or whether the tortured dancers in Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” remake will haunt us for years to come.
Ahead of the festival’s start, however, we already knew one unfortunate truth: The lineup nearly shut out women. Like last year, only one of the 21 films in competition was directed by a woman. Jennifer Kent, an Australian director known for her critically acclaimed debut, “The Babadook,” will screen “The Nightingale,” a Gothic thriller about a young Irish convict seeking revenge.
Facing intense criticism, festival leaders announced that they will sign a document vowing to improve gender equality among the filmmakers highlighted by the competition. The pledge — which members of the festival’s parent organization, the Venice Biennale, will sign Friday at a joint press conference with Italian organization Dissenso Comune and Women in Film, TV & Media Italia — follows one signed during the Cannes Film Festival and set in motion by the French 5050×2020 movement, which advocates for gender equity in the film industry.
The Hollywood Reporter asked festival president Paolo Baratta and jury president Guillermo del Toro during Wednesday’s opening news conference about whether festivals have a duty to make their lineups more diverse — not by enforcing quotas, but by reevaluating the way in which films are chosen. The clarification probably hinted at artistic director Alberto Barbera proclaiming after he revealed the lineup last month that he would quit if he “had to choose a film solely because it’s made by a woman.”
Both Baratta and del Toro were well aware of the persisting gender inequality, but they differed in the intensity of their responses.
Baratta downplayed the culpability of the Biennale. Only 21 percent of the submissions his team received were from female directors, he said. And while he agreed to look into potential biases in the selection process, he called the Biennale “an institution that has taken care of these questions years ago and has been transparent about its behavior since 1985,” the year it was founded.
Del Toro spoke candidly, calling out the entire film industry’s practices. The goal is clear, he said: 50/50 by 2020. Major Hollywood figures such as Meryl Streep and Shonda Rhimes have vocalized support for a movement of the same name that calls for leadership roles in the industry to be evenly split between men and women. The jury president seems to be doing his part — he said he is producing five movies, three led by female directors.
“I think if it’s 50/50 by 2019, better,” del Toro continued. “It’s a real problem we have in the culture in general. Many of the voices that should be heard, need to be heard. … It’s about bringing that in a significant way when conversation is in a significant stage, as it is right now. It’s beyond a gesture. It’s a need.”
In May, Cannes leaders signed a pledge drafted by 5050×2020 to improve gender equality and overall transparency. Jury president Cate Blanchett had led 81 other women up the steps of the Palais two days earlier to represent the remarkably low number of female directors whose films had competed throughout the festival’s history. That is 82 women in 71 years, compared with 1,688 men.
After the prestigious festivals in Cannes and Toronto vowed to improve female representation, a number of women’s organizations called on Biennale leaders to sign a similar diversity pledge. Their open letter, published earlier this month on the European Women’s Audiovisual Network website, is addressed to the Venice Film Festival and asks Alberto Barbera if he will work to ensure gender equality among competing directors and train his team to be aware of unconscious bias in the selection process.
“When Paolo Baratta or Alberto Barbera say that there are not enough women’s films and that this is a reflection of the broader film industry, they are also saying that this is not Venice’s problem,” the letter states.
When last year’s lineup also featured only one female director, then-jury president Annette Bening, the first woman to take on the role since 2006, said during the news conference that the industry “has a long way to go, in terms of parity” but that she was confident the “direction we’re going is positive.”
“As women, we have to be sharp, shrewd and creative in what we choose to make,” she added. “Sexism does exist and there is no question about it. But things are changing. The more we can make films that speak to everybody, the more we will be regarded as filmmakers.”