Last year, the Cannes Film Festival modified the bumper that runs before every film officially selected to play in the festival’s main program. That bumper shows a set of red stairs — meant to emulate the world’s most famous red carpet, outside the Palais des Festivals — ascending through a deep sea and over the horizon to the stars, while tinkly music plays in the background, ending with the festival’s logo.
In 2017, to celebrate its 70th year, the bumper superimposed the last names of directors whose work had been programmed over the past seven decades. The names changed every day, but it was painfully obvious by the second day how few women directors’ names we’d see, something that was remarked upon but not ultimately a focus at last year’s festival.
But a lot can happen in a year. This year, in the wake of a cascading set of revelations and scandals set off by the bombshell Harvey Weinstein story last fall, the conversation around women in the film industry seems to have finally shifted, with initiatives in both Hollywood and the global film industry that are forcefully pushing for a safe work environment for women, as well as parity both in work opportunities and pay.
That conversation is at Cannes, too — a place so entrenched in its traditionalism that it’s still news when women don’t wear stilettos on the red carpet, even following a famous uproar in 2015. And in a year in which this festival, like others, has struggled to figure out how to approach a post-Weinstein world, women called out the incredible gender imbalance in Cannes’ 71 year selection history on the red carpet, in no uncertain terms. Cannes has had its own women’s march.
82 women protested on the red carpet, led by Cate Blanchett and Agnes Varda
On Saturday, before the premiere of Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun, 82 women marched up the red carpet, stood on the stairs, locked arms, and turned to face away from the Palais des Festivals and toward the crowd.
The number 82 was significant; it’s the number of films by female directors (including seven in mixed-gender teams) that have premiered in competition at Cannes in its 71-year history. By contrast, 1,645 films by male directors have had that same honor.
The protest was organized by a French movement called 5050x2020, which is calling for 50/50 gender equality in the French film industry by the year 2020. Among the crowd were representatives from feminist and industry pro-equality movements; actresses; filmmakers like Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins; and this year’s female jury members Kristen Stewart, Marion Cotillard, Ava DuVernay, Léa Seydoux, and Khadja Nin.
Once the women were on the steps, they delivered a statement. This year’s jury president, Cate Blanchett, read the English version. The legendary 89-year-old director Agnes Varda, who is one of the women whose films have competed at Cannes — and one of only two (with Jane Campion) to have been awarded the Palme d’Or — read the French version.
“Women are not a minority in the world, yet the current state of our industry says otherwise,” Blanchett read, later continuing:
We expect our institutions to actively provide parity and transparency in their executive bodies and provide safe environments in which to work. We expect our governments to make sure that the laws of equal pay for equal work are upheld. We demand that our workplaces are diverse and equitable so that they can best reflect the world in which we actually live. A world that allows all of us in front and behind the camera, all of us, to thrive shoulder to shoulder with our male colleagues.
Following the demonstration, the group proceeded into the Girls of the Sun premiere. It was an apt choice: the film tells the (true) story of a group of female anti-extremist Kurdish soldiers. In 2014, 7,000 women and girls were captured from their homes and sold into sexual slavery by extremists. The leader of one of the groups (played by Golshifteh Farahani) was one of the captured, but she escaped, as did others. They took up arms to take their country back. It’s a moving film, one in which the rallying cry for the women is “Women! Life! Liberty!”
Of course, it’s foolish to compare what the Kurdish women face in the film to the matters for which the women on the red carpet had been agitating moments earlier. But given that the Times Up movement in Hollywood has been consciously focused on women’s rights around the world and in industries other than film — and given that the director and stars of Girls of the Sun are themselves women, telling the stories of women — it felt appropriate to the moment.
Cannes has seen protests before, but this one seems poised to be effective (eventually)
This wasn’t the first time that Cannes had been the site of political protest. And perhaps appropriately, the most famous of those was precisely a half-century ago, in 1968, when the country was grappling with massive student-led protests against capitalism and imperialism and a crippling nationwide strike. The scale of those demonstrations and strikes are legendary in French history.
The festival was cancelled halfway through its run that year, partly due to protests led by young François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard (whose political essay film The Image Book is playing in competition at this year’s festival). Along with others, they wanted the festival to recognize what was going on in the country and stand in solidarity with the workers and students. It’s a fascinating story, one worth reading about. (Bilge Ebiri’s recent piece about the protests from the Village Voice provides a quick, engaging rundown.)
This year’s protest was a peaceful one, though, and the Festival faces no threats of shutdown. As political demonstrations go, marching up the most famous red carpet at the most glitzy, glamorous festival in the world wearing couture before a gala premiere is a far cry from the tone and scale of the 1968 protests — but there’s still something to be said for the visibility of the gesture.
What the 5050x2020 organizers understand, in the same way that the Times Up organizers know, is that for the women in the lower echelons of the industry to achieve the conditions they desire at work — equal work for equal pay, the kind of opportunities their male peers enjoy, and a safe working environment — the women who are most visible in the industry have to make a stand in the highest echelons of the industry, ideally making space for women whose jobs are much less visible, and who work for a much more middle-class wage. Journalists, researchers, and industry activists can talk about the industry’s extremely lopsided gender imbalance, but it takes Frances McDormand at the Oscars talking about “inclusion riders” to put the idea into public consciousness.
Cannes has more events planned this week to discuss women’s equality in the film industry, including a conference with high-level representatives from women’s organizations in the US and Europe, several Cannes directors, and France’s culture minister. And journalists’ inboxes have been filling up with press releases regarding talks and panels on the subject held by various organizations and countries’ cultural attachés.
Still, as Blanchett noted at the opening press conference, talk is one thing. Actions are another.
And this Cannes has made it clear that there’s a long way to go. There’s the low number of women with films playing at the festival. There were the weirdly sexist questions lobbed at Carey Mulligan at the opening of the Women in Motion events that take place parallel to the Festival. And there was the moment, as the 82 women turned to proceed into the Palais for Girls of the Sun, when the DJ decided it made sense to play them out with “Pretty Woman.”
The women at Cannes called out the industry’s inequity on the carpet. Now it’s up to the rest of the industry to answer that call with action.