Cannes Jury President Jane Campion Expertly Calls Out Festival's Boys-Club History

Jane Campion has seen the face of sexism in film. In fact, she's been staring it down ever since her historic win at Le Festival de Cannes in 1993, and had to fight for decades to make it to the festival. This year she has continued the good fight, speaking up about the repression of women in film at a Cannes Film Festival's jury press conference prior to the screening of the first film, Grace of Monaco. This year may just be the perfect time to speak up about gender equality at the festival, too, since there have been small changes in the gender makeup of the contestants and the jury. The men who run Le Festival have chosen the first female-dominated jury in five years, and Jane is the third female director to head a jury in the history of the festival, and the only woman to ever win Cannes' highest honor, Le Palm d'Or.

Campion's comments so far have been well-reasoned and tame, given the Cannes Festival's history of exclusion of women directors, coupled with idolization of actresses as sex symbols. She said at the press conference that the rarity of female directors in film (who comprise just 18 percent of the industry) was "undemocratic," then went on to intone that she thinks "you'd have to say there's some inherent sexism in the industry." But rather than plead ignorance on the part of the festival, the industry, or women in film, she said that "women do notice." She continued, "Time and time again we don't get our share of the representation."

But, there's reason to be hopeful. She backed up Festival Director Thierry Fremaux's sentiment that this year was a "good" year for women at Cannes, saying that “Thierry is [rightly] proud that women represent 20 percent of the titles selected across the Cannes sections" out of a pool of 1,800 applicants, with only seven percent women-directed films.

Although this year's overall offerings have a greater percentage of women than ever before, the candidates for the Palm d'Or — which Campion famously won in 1993 for The Piano — are not nearly as promising. Out of the 18 films chosen, only two were directed by women. Even though this number is grim, it's up from last year's one woman-directed film out of 20, and is a vast improvement on the 22 films of 2012, all directed by men. Even though last year's competition included only one film with a female director, 2012 was the year that French female directors banded together to protest and expose the sexist nature of the film competition. In an open letter to Le Monde , a French feminist group who calls themselves La Barbe (The Beard) wrote:

Gentlemen, you have found your spirits and we rejoice with you. Le Festival de Cannes 2012 has allowed Wes, Jacques, Leos, David, Lee, Andrew, Matteo, Michael, John, Hong, Im, Abbas, Ken, Sergei, Cristian, Yousry, Jeff, Alain, Carlos, Walter, Ulrich, Thomas to show once again that "men love depth in women, but only in their cleavage."
This selection is a strong sign to the profession and to the worldwide public. For who better than the cinema, who better than Cannes, the most prestigious festival in the world, to be the voice of this unwavering message? With great clarity about the central role of such an event, you knew to prevent female inclination from running any place in this well-kept environment. Especially do not suggest to young women that they could one day have the audacity to make films and climb the steps of the Palais, other than in the arms of some prince charming.

The letter was signed by French feminists, directors, and directors of feminist organizations, and it led to a petition which garnered over 2,900 signatures. Yet, the next year the number of female-directed films had only gone up from zero to one.

This year, the benevolent patriarchs who run Cannes have thrown the women of the industry one more contestant for the world's most prestigious film prize. Although some early predictions saying that Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders might be a frontrunner for the prize, the emphasis on juries choosing "good" films while disproving any bias toward women already stacks the cards against her. And with an exponentially-growing Cannes press corps turnout, the whole world will be watching this year's results.

I wonder if women in film and women who love film shouldn't return to the ideas that La Barbe posited two years ago, and demand faster progress than incremental percentage points each year, with no consistent growth pattern of female directors in the running for the big, gold palm. And I wonder if feminists should start worrying about the intersection of class and race at these awards, since the multinational flavor has often been stomped out by American and French domination of both films up for consideration and juries making the ultimate decision.

Cannes isn't beyond the reach of equality, and it's time we pick up where Jane Campion left off and demand better from the festival, and the industry it represents.