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The Cannes Film Festival Has a Duty to be Inclusive

May 28, 2012

If there is one thing that the Internet loves (aside from cat pictures and moral outrage) it is disagreeing with awards. Whenever an award is announced, you can guarantee that people will be on the internet within minutes registering their disgust and incredulity: ‘How could they give to prize to X’ they scream, ‘when Y was clearly the better novel/film/sex toy/advertisement for motor oil!’ Compared to other awards, the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or tends to come in for something of an easy ride as critics generally choose to celebrate the winners rather than grump about the losers. There are a number of reasons for this:

Firstly, even when the Cannes jury gets it wrong it generally does so for reasons that are quite interesting. For example, when the 2004 Jury chaired by Quentin Tarantino looked past such fantastic films as Olivier Assayas’s Clean, Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, Lucrecia Martel’s La Nina Santa, Paolo Sorrentino’s Le Conseguenze dell’Amore, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Sud Pralad in order to award the Palme to Michael Moore’s baggy, manipulative and self-indulgent political documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, people generally saw it as an entirely justifiable decision to channel the media interest generated by Cannes into an assault on the Bush regime and its dubious foreign policy.

Secondly, despite the medium of film being grotesquely over-represented in mainstream media, Cannes is really the only time when entertainment reporters focus their attentions solely on the world of art house film. Only too aware that this might be the only chance they get to push these films at a mainstream audience, film critics generally choose to downplay controversy and negativity in favour of celebrating the positive and so raising the mainstream profile of art house film.

Thirdly, unlike most awards that are given out retroactively to works released within a particular timeframe, the Palme d’Or is only awarded to films that are officially in competition at Cannes. What makes the competition so peculiar is that many of the films that are in competition at Cannes also premier at Cannes meaning that unless you happen to be in Cannes during the festival, chances are that you will not get to see any of the competing films until they are picked up for distribution. This quirk of administration means that anyone not at Cannes is effectively excluded from the conversation. Furthermore, the Cannes film festival only lasts about ten days meaning that most critics struggle to see all of the films in competition. Taken together, these two sets of considerations ensure that, come the end of the Cannes festival and the announcement of the Palme d’Or winner, almost nobody in the world has seen enough of the shortlist to be able to criticise the jury’s selection in any meaningful way.

These three barriers to criticism effectively ensure that all press coverage devoted to the Palme d’Or is either a series of uplifting platitudes about the wonders of art house film or objective and dispassionate reportage that a group of people watched a group of films and determined one film in particular to be better than the others. By and large, this media love-in works quite well as the increased visibility generated by Cannes and the Palme d’Or not only creates an international market for decidedly non-commercial films, it also provides producers with an opportunity to find people to distribute their films and thereby satisfy said international market. Unfortunately, it is precisely because Cannes plays this key role in determining which films achieve wider cinematic distribution that its selections must be scrutinised and its juries held to account.

Let us consider the films that were in competition this year:

  • Moonrise Kingdom by Wes Anderson
  • Rust and Bone by Jacques Audiard
  • Holy Motors by Leos Carax
  • Cosmopolis by David Cronenberg
  • The Paperboy by Lee Daniels
  • Killing Them Softly by Andrew Dominik
  • Reality by Matteo Garrone
  • Love by Michael Haneke
  • Lawless by John Hillcoat
  • In Another Country by Hong Sang-soo
  • The Taste of Money by Im Sang Soo
  • Like Someone in Love by Abbas Kiarostami
  • The Angels’ Share by Ken Loach
  • In the Fog by Sergei Loznitsa
  • Beyond the Hills by Cristian Mungiu
  • After the Battle by Yousri Nasrallah
  • Mud by Jeff Nichols
  • You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet by Alain Resnais
  • Post Tenebras Lux by Carlos Reygadas
  • On the Road by Walter Salles
  • Paradise: Love by Ulrich Seidi
  • The Hunt by Thomas Vinterberg

The first thing that strikes me about this list of films is the sheer number of familiar names. Haneke eventually won for Love but he also won the Palme d’Or three years ago with The White Ribbon and has been a pillar of the art house filmmaking community since the early 1990s.  Similarly, Kiarostami, Loach, Anderson, Audiard, Resnais and Cronenberg are all familiar faces while Nichols, Salles, Garrone, Dominik, Reygadas, Daniels, Hillcoat, Hong, Im, Loznitsa, Mungiu and Vinterberg are all established filmmakers with varying degrees of mainstream success.

The second thing that strikes me about this list is that the average age of its directors is somewhere around the 55 mark.

The third (and most important) thing that strikes me about this list is that it is entirely composed of male filmmakers.

While I do not doubt for even a second that all of these films are entirely deserving of their places in the competition, I am concerned that the PR boost provided by this year’s Palme d’Or competition seems to have been reserved for a group of men who are already established names and whose films would most likely have been picked up for distribution regardless of whether or not they competed at Cannes. Indeed, there is simply no way that a Wes Anderson, Abbas Kiarostami or Michael Haneke film would somehow fall through the cracks and wind up creeping out as a low-key DVD release. The cinematic marketplace may be broken… but it ain’t that broken.

When a group of French feminists wrote a manifesto criticising the all-male shortlist and created a petition demanding greater transparency and inclusivity the board of directors promptly brushed the accusations aside:

The Festival de Cannes — in order to maintain its position and remain true to its beliefs rooted in universal rights — will continue to programme the best films from around the world ‘without distinction as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’

The board then went on to quote from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to support its supposed anti-discrimination policy. When this exercise in abject pomposity failed to convince anyone at all, the Cannes establishment wheeled out one of the younger and more female members of its jury, the supremely talented British director Andrea Arnold whose Fishtank and Wuthering Heights I very much enjoyed. In response to the charge of sexism, Arnold explained that:

“I would absolutely hate it if my film was selected because I was a woman (…) I would only want my film to be selected for the right reasons and not out of charity because I’m female.”

She then went on to add

“I would say it’s true the world over in the world of film. There’s just not that many film directors. I guess Cannes is a small pocket that represents how it is out in the world (…) That’s a great disappointment, because obviously women are half of the population and have voices and things to say about life and the world that probably would be good for us all to hear.”

In other words, Cannes’s failure to acknowledge the existence of talented female directors is due to the fact that male directors vastly outnumber their female counterparts. Though certainly true, this is no way invalidates the charge of sexism as choosing to perpetuate historical inequalities rather than confronting them makes you a willing party to the process of discrimination that caused those historical inequalities in the first place. The only time a woman has won the Cannes top prize in its seventy three-year history was when Jane Campion won the Palme d’Or for The Piano in 1993. Similarly shocking is the fact that 2011 marked a high tide in the participation of female directors when women directed only four out of the twenty films in competition. As La Barbe put it:

Men are fond of depth in women, so long as that depth applies solely to their cleavage.

Clearly, this shit is intolerable.

Aside from the obvious moral arguments about inclusivity and discrimination, there is also an important aesthetic argument to be made about the importance of unfamiliarity to the art house cinematic experience. Indeed, chief among the many pleasures of art house film is its ability to introduce us to whole new ways of seeing the world. For example, when Apichatpong Weerasethakul won in 2010 for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, he was not only being rewarded for his cinematography and storytelling but also for his great skill at articulating what it must be like to see the world through his eyes, the eyes of a forty year-old gay man from Thailand. Similarly, when Cristian Mungiu won the Plame d’Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days he was not only being rewarded for the skill with which he explored the issue of abortion, but also for his capacity to speak for an entire generation of Romanians who grew up under the rule of Nicolae Ceauşescu. Central to the appeal of art house cinema is its peerless ability to show us the world from an entirely different perspective. Indeed, it is telling that the success of both Weerasthakul and Mungiu lead directly to explosions of critical interest in films from their respective countries.  Art house cinema is all about new perspectives and art house cinema audiences are forever crying out for new ways of seeing the world.

By choosing only established male directors for competition, 2012 Cannes festival organisers ensured that their Palme d’Or would introduce no new conceptual blood into the cinematic bloodstream.

By choosing a shortlist dominated by elderly men, Cannes festival organisers denied art house cinema audiences the chance to discover something genuinely new.

By choosing to give the award to one of the greatest and most widely celebrated European film makers, the Palme d’Or jury ensured that art house cinemas will be devoting themselves yet again to exploring Michael Haneke’s vision of the world.

By choosing an all-male shortlist overwhelmingly dominated by old-age pensioners, Cannes festival organisers ensured that the films that set this year’s critical agenda will be those made by the people who already have all the power, all the influence, all the social capital and all the prestige.

By choosing to perpetuate art house cinema’s historic inequalities, Cannes festival organisers missed an opportunity to reach out to younger, non-male filmgoers and convince them that art house film can speak to them and their problems.

By choosing a shortlist dominated by familiar male faces, Cannes festival organisers made it clear that the art house establishment is happier celebrating old heroes than it is making new ones.

Given film’s singular capacity for challenging traditional ways of seeing the world, such conservatism and lack of ambition are deeply sad and deeply worrying for the future of art house film.

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