The 75th edition of the world's oldest film festival convened in Venice, Italy, newly minted as the unofficial launching pad for awards-season films ahead of Telluride and Toronto. No stranger to controversy, Artistic Director Alberto Barbera defended the festival's decision, for the second year in a row, to showcase just one female-directed film alongside a slate of 20 male-directed films in Competition. While the impetus to land prestigious, star-laden premieres does not necessarily preclude works by female directors, the fact remains that female-helmed pictures are less likely to be studio-funded, if they are funded at all. The dichotomy between what is perceived as commercial versus activist cinema pervades filmmaking at every level; this year's Venice Film Festival thus serves as a valid case study for the industry's current existential moment.
Last year, Filmatique sustained the festival's freedom to program films via the policies it sees fit, including blind selection. Rather than dictating the curatorial methods of film festivals, advocates would be better served to focus on inequality at the stages in which a film actually gets made. Scriptwriting, development, financing, production and post-production are stages at which female filmmakers have systematically failed to access resources at par with their male counterparts. Many festivals sponsor funds and programs to reverse these trends— including Venice's own Biennale College, in which two of the three supported projects this year were directed by women. It should also be noted that Venice signed the 50/50 by 2020 feminist pledge to implement gender equality in festivals' curatorial boards and executive positions, albeit begrudgingly.
And then there was the press screening of Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale. The sole female-directed Competition title, The Nightingale is a lush and lurid journey through colonial Tasmania: a tale of one woman's revenge as she stalks a pair of English soldiers who wronged her. To navigate the labyrinth of untamed territory, Clare hires a complexly-drawn and finely-acted aboriginal guide named Billy. In regards to oppression, it turns out the two have more in common than they originally thought.
The strong parallelism between female and indigenous subjugation in The Nightingale registered the reactions during the film's press screening as genuinely shocking. When Clare finally manages to exact her revenge, the audience cheered— it also cheered, however, when Billy is injured in the process. Next, an Italian journalist stood up and slandered Jennifer Kent with a sexist epithet during the credits. Kent responded to the incident with a call-to-arms, to embrace not only gender equality but equality in all forms— "It's of absolute importance to react with compassion and love for ignorance. There is no other option… There are other filmmakers that are under-represented: indigenous filmmakers, filmmakers of color, filmmakers from developing countries, filmmakers who don't identify as cisgender men or women. We still have a lot of way to go."
The equality of all marginalized filmmakers— women included— could not be more important. As Kent noted, "Cinema's job is to reflect the world." Given its reputation for complacency, if not retrograde cultural eccentricities, perhaps Italy's seminal film festival would benefit by not only integrating female curators in its selection process, but by publicizing the impressive work it already does to elevate directors from other under-represented communities. Tibetan director Pema Tseden's strange and stylish Jinpa, which won Best Screenplay - Orizzonti, gives voice to a region that has been under siege for decades. Li Cheng's first film José, which won the Queer Lion,paints a delicate portrait of a young gay man in Guatemala, a country that just voted to criminalize homosexuality. José competed in Giornate degli Autori, a section in which six out of twelve films were directed by women. Of particular note, Phuttiphong Aroonpheng's arresting debut Manta Ray, which won Best Film in the festival's Orizzonti sidebar,captures the plight of Rohingya refugees with both transcendent visual acumen and humanizing poignancy.
In the end, Alfonso Cuarón's glorious eighth feature Romawon the Golden Lion. The black-and-white film was produced by Netflix and casts a masterful lens on quotidian middle-class life in Mexico City, through the eyes of a maid. Perhaps art-house cinema can be commercial after all.
Below are Filmatique's Top Films of the 75th Mostra Internazionale d'Arte Cinematografica di Venezia: