Many of the films here in Cannes this year offer prestigious roles for women. But defending women’s participation in cinema extends beyond the screen itself. The festival hosted two events this week to highlight the issue of gender equality in the industry.
Across the programme of 24 films in competition at Cannes, as well as the Directors' Fortnight, Un Certain Regard, Semaine de la Critique, and other sections, women are being offered powerful, interesting roles.
But only a handful of them are behind the camera, or involved in technical production.
As jury member, Maggie Gyllenhaal told the press conference at the beginning of the festival that "women make films differently."
"We need their take on things," she said, stressing that she hoped gender equality would be a "non-subject" in the future because it would simply be the norm.
To this end, supported by the European commission, Le Collectif 50/50 is "committed to fight for equality, parity and diversity in the film and audiovisual industry."
"Our research also showed that there is a clear and persistent gender imbalance between jobs in the film sector" the Collectif says.
"While women account for 51 percent of the European population, only 20 percent of the films produced in Europe between 2015 and 2018 were directed by a female director," the website reads.
In their comparative study 1946-2018, Le Collectif found that only 8 out of 1727 films were made by women (seven of them co-directed), and only one woman director has ever won the Palme d’Or (Jane Campion for The Piano in 1993).
In March, Le Collectif 50/50 launched a mentoring programme for young people who don’t have access to contacts or training in the world of cinema, an initiative supported by Netflix.
"This project asks the question: how do we go about making film sets reflect what we see in the street?" Laurence Lascary, producer and co-president of the collective told Le Monde newspaper.
The Cannes Film Festival signed a charter to seek gender equality and diversity in its selection back in in 2018, on the heels of the Harvey Weinstein #MeToo scandal.
Despite this promise, there are only four women directors in the 2021 main competition, compared to other categories.
Speaking to France Culture,the researcher and teacher on contemporary cultural studies at Sciences Po university, Brigitte Rollet, notes that the festival has made cosmetic efforts to honour this pledge. In this respect she cites the example of choosing Cate Blanchett as Jury president in 2018 and Jodie Foster being awarded the Honorary Palme d’Or this year.
But she also points out that while the festival has made a lot of noise about protecting the environment, there is no mention of the 50/50 by 2020 equality pledge on their website.
This doesn’t mean that women are not seen at the festival. On the contrary, actresses are easy to spot, especially on the red carpet.
"There has never been a female film director as Jury President," continues Rollet. "So there’s an ambivalence there. It’s as if women are in the same group, despite representing a multitude of jobs from actresses, technicians, creative teams and so on."
"The problem is that Cannes is not where we reflect on these questions. When we look at the sponsors of the festival, we can clearly see that by ‘woman’ they mean fashion, jewellery and perfume."
Women in Motion
Meanwhile, American-Mexican actress Salma Hayek was presented with the Women in Motion prize by Thierry Frémaux, festival director on Sunday at a dinner in Cannes.
The actress spearheaded the award and educational program back in 2014 to bring more women’s voices into the film festival.
Described as an artist and activist, Salma Hayek has shown a "long lasting engagement in the struggle to campaign against all forms of violence towards women, be it sexual, physical, mental or other types of discrimination," the Festival organisers said.
Kering, the sponsor and luxury group run by Hayek’s husband François-Henri Pinault also handed out a young talents prize to Australian film director Shannon Murphy, behind the film Babyteeth (2019).
Past recipients of the prize include Jane Fonda, Geena Davis, Isabelle Huppert, Susan Sarandon and Patty Jenkins.
Strength and pride
Coming back to roles of women in cinema, in the Somali film The Gravedigger’s Wife (Semaine de la Critique), by director and writer Khadar Ayderus Ahmed, shows a woman at the centre of a powerful story, touching on family and sacrifice.
"I’ve seen women like this all my life. They have hardly anything but they hold their heads high," Yasmin Warsame, who plays Nasra in the film, explained to RFI.
Originally from Canada, she comes from Somali heritage just like the director who currently lives in Finland.
How hard was it to play a woman who is regal, proud and beautiful, even though she is dying especially for a debut role?
This came naturally to Yasmin who says: "Just because you’re sick, doesn’t diminish your spirit. I recognised the courage and strength of Nasra early on so I felt it would be easy for me to do in a way because I have the background.
"I’ve seen women like Nasra growing up, as a Somali woman. They’re still getting up, doing what they have to do. That’s just something I’ve been seeing my whole life, with my family, with Somali society."
Both lead actors and the director told RFI how moving it was to be a part of a project which showed Somali people in a positive light, rather than victims or pirates.