The Venice Film Festival, the 74th edition of which opens this week, is one of the most reliable weathervanes of Oscars fortunes in the festival circuit—and a close, only four years older cousin of the Cannes Film Festival, which doled out its own accolades earlier this year. It was at that French festival that the outspoken actress Jessica Chastain made headlines during a jury press conference when she said that after seeing every single film in the running that her biggest takeaway was that their on-screen depiction of women was "quite disturbing."
Her statement clearly resonated both outside and inside the industry—the director Ava DuVernay was quick to share her then much-shared praise—and the organizers behind Venice's festival seem to have taken note: For its own 2017 edition, they appointed the actress Annette Bening as its jury president, making her the first woman to land the role in over a decade—and the sixth ever in the festival's history.
"It was time to break with a long list of male presidents and invite a brilliant talented and inspiring woman to chair our international competition jury," the festival's director Alberto Barbera said in an uplifting statement.
Unfortunately, though, it doesn't seem like the Venice organizers caught what else went down at Cannes—the backlash after it transpired that Sofia Coppola, who won Cannes's coveted Best Director award, was only the second woman to ever do so in the festival's 70-year history. In Venice, out of the 21 films that made it into its main competitive slate, only a single one of them was directed by a woman.
Sure, the festival will hardly be lacking in great films—Darren Aronofsky's Mother!, Alexander Payne's Downsizing, Paul Schrader's First Reformed, and George Clooney's Suburbicon are just a few that made the cut—but after a summer in which Wonder Woman, which was directed by Patty Jenkins, was a monster box office hit, the most-tweeted-about movie of 2017, and the most profitable DC Comics film ever, Venice's lineup feels particularly out of touch.
That also happens to be how the apparently not-so-woke-after-all Barbera's response to the predictable backlash feels, too. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Barbera "believes there isn't anything wrong" with his team finding only one film by a woman—Angels Wear White by Vivian Qu—up to the festival's standards. "I don't think it's our fault," he said, apparently exonerating himself by adding that he, for one, screens films without knowing the director's identity or gender.
"I don't like to think in terms of a quota when you make a selection process," Barbera continued. "I'm sorry that there are very few films from women this year, but we are not producing films."
Of course, Barbera is right on that count: He and his team are not producing films, and a quota may not be the most helpful measure to ensure that women are in the future invited to the director party that, as it currently stands, is essentially a sausage fest. But as a person of power in the industry, opting to get defensive instead of using the opportunity to call out, and stand by those who've called out, the industry-wide issue of gender disparity is problematic—especially when he seemed to be so on board with calling attention to men dominating film, even at the festival under his leadership, earlier this summer.
Qu, for her part, recognizes the festival isn't entirely to blame, too: "Of course I wish there were more female filmmakers presented in the festival," she said. But she also seems to get that "the root of the problem" lies in the fact that "if more women were encouraged to work in film and had the opportunity to take on major creative roles, I'm sure we will see more and more films by women"—a statement that's of course powerful on its own, but would have held more weight coming from Barbera.
Bening, for one, remains optimistic—and in fact only found out about the situation at hand quite recently. "I was thrilled to be asked to be here, so I didn’t count the number of films that were accepted that were directed by women. They watched 2,000 films, if you can imagine what that would be like. So no, I didn’t approach it that way," she told the Hollywood Reporter in a separate interview, in which she seemed to align more with Barbera, putting the onus back on women, rather than calling out the systemic issue.
"There is a lot of sexism, of course that exists," she said, before sharing what seems to be more of a pull yourself up by your bootstraps approach: "I think that we as women, we have to be very sharp and shrewd and creative ourselves about what we choose to make," she said. "The more that we, as women, can make films that speak to everyone, we can be regarded as filmmakers."
"We have a long way to go, in terms of parity—production, directors, writers, actresses, appearing in festivals and all of that," Bening continued, adding that she thinks we're currently headed in a positive direction. And, to be fair, after the summer of Wonder Woman, that does seem to be somewhat true: Whether you liked the film or not, it undeniably opened the door for more more women-led (and directed) blockbusters in the future. Those in Venice might not care too much—and if they do, they can catch the films directed by women that have been relegated to the sidebar competition—but the audiences, for one, have definitely spoken.
Actress Annette Bening Has Been Loving the Loudspeaker Emoji Lately: