As I write, this year’s Cannes Film Festival has just drawn to a close. This got me thinking again about festivals, such a hot topic within academic circles in recent years – witness the lively debate on the Film Festivals panel organised by Dina Iordanova for this year’s BAFTSS conference, which revealed that the majority of the academics in the audience had some kind of stake in festivals, either as researchers, organisers, programmers or collaborators.
Cannes never gets the same kind of traction in the mainstream media as the Oscars, but one item that got even the non-specialist press interested this year was the presence of Will Smith on the jury. Inevitably, this soon became embroiled in the aftermath of ‘Oscars So White’ debate, which dominated the 2016 Academy Awards and arguably fed into Moonlight’s win this year – following the La La Land fiasco and yet more kerfuffle about prejudice within the Academy.
But is Will Smith being on the Cannes jury really significant or newsworthy? Is this just a case of Hollywood and the Anglo-American press imposing its concerns and values onto another festival? For even though France has its own race-related issues (as evidenced by Marie Le Pen’s campaign in the French Presidential election last month), Cannes is a very different event from the Oscars. Indeed, it prizes itself on representing World Cinema (rather than awarding a token ‘Best Foreign Language’ award), and it was undoubtedly instrumental in opening up cinemas from around the globe to Western audiences. So is diversity really a problem for Cannes in the way that it is for the Oscars?
Both Will Smith and fellow juror Jessica Chastain seemed to think so, complaining about both black and female representation in this year’s Cannes selection. This inevitably resulted in a brief flurry of articles across the web on the question of diversity in Cannes. So what is the Festival’s record in this regard?
A quick look at recent Palme d’Or winners reveals that the last decade alone has seen winners from Romania, Thailand, France/Tunisia and Turkey. As far as gender is concerned, female winners of the Palme d’Or are fewer and further between, the most recent being Jane Campion, jointly for The Piano over two decades ago. However, this might be more a reflection of the fewer number of women directors currently making films than on the Festival itself. Indeed, recent studies have shown that European film culture is still inhospitable to supporting women’s careers into filmmaking. Nevertheless, this year saw Sofia Coppola take best director for The Beguiled and Léonor Serraille the Caméra d’Or for Jeune Femme (Montparnasse-Bienvenüe), while Lynne Ramsay scooped Best Screenplay for The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
But diversity is not only an issue on the screen, but also behind the scenes. So what about the organisation and running of the Festival itself? A look at jury presidents reveals that only nine women have served as jury president since the Festival began in 1946 (Jeanne Moreau served twice), but that four of these were in the last decade, which suggests that recent years have seen an effort to redress this gender imbalance. Only four non-Westerners have served as jury president since the Festival began (Tetsurō Furukaki was the first in 1962) and the most recent of these was Wong-kar Wai in 2006. This suggests a continued Western-bias in a festival that prides itself on representing World Cinema. This is perhaps a cause for concern and feeds back into debates about the extent to which Cannes today really does represent the best in new world cinema, rather than relying on a roster of auteurs already well-established in the West.
However, when one turns to the make-up of the jury itself, the picture looks rather different. Putting aside the case of Will Smith (black, but still Western), we can see that over the past decade the jury has been consistently made up of four male and four female jurors, while the past five years have consistently contained two non-Western jurors per year (the previous half decade varied between two and four per year). Rather than reflecting the variety of global film culture, the absolute consistency of these numbers reveals a deliberate strategy on the part of the festival to meet certain diversity and equality targets. Of course, diversity should be central to a European Film Festival, given that the EU’s motto is ‘United in Diversity’, and diversity plays an important role within its legislative framework. But such targets are arbitrary (why two and not four non-Western jurors?) and artificial, and their mechanical application risks becoming as stifling as the cultural bias they set out to redress.
The question remains open, and could equally be applied to Europe’s other major festivals – Berlin (two women and three non-Westerners on a seven-man jury headed by Paul Verhoeven this year) and Venice (five women and two non-Westerners on a nine-man jury headed by Sam Mendes last year – with this year’s line-up still to be announced). And that is without even raising the question of other areas of diversity (sexual orientation, disability, age, etc.) Or, indeed, the question of the demographics of the rest of the Festival’s staff beyond the elite and highly publicised jury.