The five women on this year’s Palme d’Or jury responded to the concerns of people who still don’t quite understand the problem.
Cannes is kicking off. In line with that, on Tuesday, this year’s Palme d’Or Jurors gathered for a Q&A with the press. Their president is Cate Blanchett. The eight other jurors are Chang Chen, Ava DuVernay, Robert Guédiguian, Khadja Nin, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, Denis Villeneuve, and Andrey Zvyagintsev.
The group of filmmakers, actors, and one Burundian singer gave wonderful answers to both interesting and frustrating questions alike. One response, in particular, really stood out. In discussing the #MeToo movement and the potential impact of politics on the festival, Blanchett shared the following:
“Is it going to have a direct impact on the films in competition this year? Not specifically. There are several women in competition. They are not there because of their gender, they are there because of the quality of their work. We will assess them as filmmakers, as we should be.”
It’s a lovely answer. And quite accurate to the role of a film jury. It’s also more than a bit frustrating that she should have to speak to that at all. Particularly in the context of a majority woman jury in a climate where people are finally having the tamest of open conversations regarding how utterly screwed up the film industry is globally when it comes to representation and the treatment of women.
Let’s get some basic statistics out of the way very quickly. This year’s Palme d’Or Jury features five women and four men. In the last 17 years, that sort of female majority only happened two other times. In both of those times, the Palme d’Or winner was a man. This includes the year that Jane Campion, the only woman to have won the Palme d’Or since the festival’s inception in 1946, was the president of that jury.
So, you’ll understand when I say that the festival has a bit of a problem when it comes to representation. Whether they want to get into it or not, the numbers don’t lie.
That’s the immediate context.
Here’s the thing: guys don’t really have to answer questions in that context. We get to talk about who we are and what that means to us. We get to talk about how we respond to a movie. As people. And when we make movies we get to express what we think to the world, as people. Not as men.
You see, we are the default point of view.
That’s what Blanchett and her compatriots were artfully pointing out in response to questions constructed around their identities as women.
The women of Cannes 2018. pic.twitter.com/LY0qI1yobP
— Best of Cate (@bestofcate) May 8, 2018
At the highest level, it’s a very frustrating angle at a competition very much invested in the discussion of art. What does it even mean to ask if politics will impact this year’s competition? Art is an outpouring of our experience with our times. Art is made of politics and identity and culture and experience.
There’s a lot of pearl-clutching about artistic merit. And, that seems to be extremely selectively applied to non-male filmmakers. What even does artistic merit mean? All art has merit. If it doesn’t connect with the selectors, then fine. But let’s not pretend there’s an impartial, scientific calculation to which art holds merit.
DuVernay spoke quite a bit about how cinema influenced her. “Cinema is how I was able to understand the humanity of a family in Iran, or in Shanghai. Cannes brings us together from all parts of the world to a gathering place to assert our voices, to speak to each other through cinema.”
How will politics influence her perception? I couldn’t say. However, that’s how you talk about art. It’s essential to watch and listen to more art from more places. And, at the end of the day, cinema is the conversation we are having with each other about our experience in this world.
How then were they supposed to answer questions about whether or not the #MeToo movement or their experience as women influence their vote? Specifically with regards to the women in competition.
The Cannes festival is based on a lovely ideal. It elevates the value of the cinema and the shared experience of film. That’s something all the jurors recognized. I quite liked how DuVernay put it:
“Many of our emotions are universal. There’s something gorgeous about being able to go to a particular place and time and illuminate who we are in terms of our humanity … Cannes feels like pure cinema. You’re seeing the films for the first time, fresh, undaunted by campaigns or advertisements.”
That brings it all around for me. These jurors will vote and advocate for films that resonated with them based on the way they experienced the story. For some of them, they may connect with a filmmaker who resembles them simply because that helped them to see their own story on the screen in a way they hadn’t before. For some, they may connect most strongly with a new perspective. Or perhaps they’re all about the overall technical achievement of motion picture sciences. That’s cool.
The point is, they’ll evaluate the art as we all do. What do we connect with? What doesn’t work for us? Blanchett said it best. “You’re awarding the performances, the direction, the cinematography, the script, the entire crew that made the film possible, the mise-en-scene.” And, according to IndieWire, Blanchett went on to suggest that she was more interested in a dialogue with her jury than she is in simply giving out awards.
The nature of the exchange is a reminder of the importance of systemic change with regards to who is making movies. That women filmmakers at Cannes are even being discussed in this way suggests that their work is not valued because it does not reflect a default perspective. Even the female jurors aren’t truly valued if people assume they will choose a winner based on gender instead of cinematic achievement.
Sexism, among its many challenges, is also an enormous blinder. We all have to do better.