Culture

Europe's new wave of female filmmakers

Article published on May 3, 2017
Article published on May 3, 2017

The film world is often considered ahead of the curve in terms of social change. But that reputation hides a different reality, brought to light over the past few years by several studies. As European cinema is concerned, the fight for gender equality is far from over. Could the arrival of a new generation of women filmmakers finally change the picture?

According to a recent study, fewer than one European film in five between 2012 and 2015 was directed by a woman. While the facts can't be changed, the younger generation may be laying the foundation for a few improvements: the same study highlighted the emergence of a new generation of women filmmakers in Europe who have managed to assert themselves on the cinematic landscape with their first feature films. According to the figures, 23% of filmmakers who have completed their first film are women, compared to only 15% of those who have begun or completed their third film. This split could be the sign of a turning point in European cinema. "There's a new generation of girls today who are realizing that there's a place for them," said director Catherine Corsini during the Les Arcs Festival of European Cinema in December 2016. "Something’s going on, and they know they need to pay attention."

The issue has recently become part of public discourse, and the film industry has begun to do some serious soul-searching. In August of 2015, during the Sarajevo Film Festival, a declaration on gender equality in the European film industry was adopted by representatives from various ministries of culture and film funds. It encourages European nations to create specific policies and publish new, never-before-seen statistics on the presence of women both in front of and behind the camera. That same year, for the first time ever, the Cannes Film Festival awarded two Women in Motion awards, recognizing women who have made significant contributions to film. A similar initiative, the Audentia Award, was started by the Council of Europe's fund, Eurimages .The Les Arcs Festival itself was the first to present a gender-balanced selection of films in competition. "We hope that this will be a turning point, and that the festival will serve as an example," said Geoffroy Grison of the association Deuxième Regard, which fights against sexual discrimination in the film industry.

"We're trying to create a diverse mix of voices"

When it comes to European organisations, the time for awareness and self-examination has come. The Council of Europe, an international organization comprised of 47 member states, supports programs to raise awareness through its Eurimages Fund. "We are trying to raise the visibility of women in film, to show that there is a problem and to create a diverse mix of voices," explains project manager Francine Ravenay. With conferences, debates, and masterclasses led by women directors and producers, Eurimages has placed itself at the forefront of change, and so far nothing is holding it back.

This year, the organisation encouraged the cinemas in its network to organize events for International Women's Day, and to commemorate the day by showing a film directed by a woman. Participating cinemas received a bonus of 2,500 euros. In 2014, the organization began using new research tools for a more precise analysis of the role of women in the projects submitted. The results not only showed that a mere 20% of projects supported in 2014 were directed by women, but also that most of the submitted projects were led by men. The presence of women in positions connected with the production, such as set designers, screenwriters, or members of the crew or the artistic team, reached or surpassed 60% in only 4.7% of the projects in 2014.

The European Commission's Creative Europe programme, more specifically its Media section, is the other principal financing fund for European films, but its initiatives do not include any specific measures for promoting gender equality in the film industry. "The current programme is valid from 2014 through 2020," says Niombo Lomba, director of Creative Europe's Media programme. "The decisions that created it were made several years ago, and we can't change them now." 

The only related restrictions concern the choosing of experts responsible for selecting the films to be financed; the panel must be gender-balanced. However, that balance merely fulfils the requirements of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which condemns all forms of discrimination. Discussions have been started with the film industry in preparation for the next programme, which will begin in 2021.

Unhidden Figures

When we take a closer look at the European nations, we notice that the percentage of women involved in the film industry is uneven.

Source: Study of the Emergence of a New Generation of European Women Filmmakers.

In Sweden, change is being brought about largely by the volunteer-based approach of the Swedish Film Institute. Two of the Institute’s projects for the past several years have been to offer training courses for young women filmmakers, and to maintain a website with a listing of their films. The Institute has also undertaken analysis of each of its projects, which permits the creation of regular statistical reports. Moreover, its film selection policy is based uniquely on quality criteria, without taking gender into account.

These differences between countries do not go unnoticed by the women filmmakers themselves. Austrian Jessica Hausner, one of the faces of the new generation, praises the system in Luxembourg that has allowed her to finance her feature films. "It's a points-based system. If you can prove that you've filmed 30 days in Luxembourg, you get more money. If your crew is from Luxembourg, you get more money. They don't judge by gender at all. It’s a mechanical system that I really like," she says. France also seems to be an exception. “Our country's system of cinematic protection is unique. Clearly, when the government protects an art form to this extent, minorities have room to be part of it," says French filmmaker Émilie Deleuze.

Déjà vu all over again

Although change is in the air, women filmmakers remain cautious. Especially since, for some of them, the past few years' discourse sounds awfully familiar. "In 1997 there was also talk of a new wave of women directors," remembers French filmmaker Catherine Corsini. "There were as many women as men in the fields of short film, animation, etc. But the girls slowly disappeared. As someone from my generation, I am incredibly lucky to still be here. And now they're talking about a resurgence." Jessica Hausner has noticed the same thing in her home country. "When I started directing, there were three or four other women besides me. The newspapers called it "The New Wave of Women in Austria." But nothing happened. I’m the only one who kept going." The concern that activism may die down again, as it seems to have done before, is shared by various associations. "That’s exactly what our role is as a network: to remind people of this inequality. There’s a lot of support work to be done with institutions and festivals," says Alessia Sonaglioni of the European Women's Audiovisual Network (EWA).

What's more, there are still significant barriers. One of them rears its head when the budgets of films directed by women are compared with those directed by men. "Of course there are women filmmakers. But they limit themselves to a specific filmmaking budget. Once you get above four or five million, there's no one," says Émilie Deleuze. According to the Eurimages figures, in 2015 European women filmmakers' average budget was 40% less than the men’s' budget. To explain this, women filmmakers bring up the likelihood of self-censure. Rachel Lang, who presented her first feature film at the Les Arcs Festival, says, "This is how women end up being their own worst enemies. They have to be able to say,Yes I can make a 6 million euro film. It's an obstacle that's linked to many of the other prejudices women directors have to face." Hungarian filmmaker Agnès Kocsis says, "It took me years to realize that, in order to be recognized and taken seriously, I have to work three times harder than a man to prove what I'm worth."

It's a Man's Man's Man's Man's World

Women are also victims of wage inequality. According to Eurimages, in 2015 female directors earned an average of 23% less than their male counterparts. The same holds true for managerial positions: there are fewer women than men. "Women are judged on their experience, whereas men are judged on their potential," says Anna Serner of the Swedish Film Institute. To avoid this, in 1999 Jessica Hausner decided to create her own production company. "I was a woman in a man's world. Back then, than meant not being able to produce. And it's been that way since the 1960s: the men are at the top, and the women are there to assist them." But according to Hausner, gender has no effect on a director’s work, with the possible exception of maternity. "It is difficult to take care of a child and keep working. Very few women can combine the family environment with the financial.” This is what Agnès Kocsis has also had to deal with. "A famous male director and father of six children was impressed that I manage to make films despite having one child. But why should my situation be more problematic than his?"

Alessia Sonaglioli, director of the EWA Network, says, "If a woman director's first two films only have moderate success, she loses her support. For a man, the question doesn't even come up, even if his films aren't a box office success." Houda Benyamina sums it up, saying, "The day we win the right to mediocrity will be the day we win equality."

"Soft quotas" stir up debate

To compensate for gender inequality, some filmmakers support the implementation of quotas. One of them is Houda Benyamina, winner of the Camera d'Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. "If we had time we wouldn't need quotas, but we're already sacrificing another generation. We need equal representation on every committee; we need the Cannes Film Festival to be chaired by a woman. We have a duty to open our mouths and draw attention to the problems in our culture." Others are against this restrictive system, worried that the gender of a film's director will become more important than its quality. Somewhere between the two stances lies the concept of a "soft quota." When talent is equal, a film directed by a woman is given priority. This was the selection method used for the 2016 Les Arcs Festival.

But although the debate has taken off, very few concrete actions have been taken so far. "The challenge is to avoid spreading a message that's too harsh. We don't want to assault people," says Geoffroy Grison of Deuxième Regard. Cecile Gréboval, Programme Advisor for the Gender Equality Unit of the Council of Europe, says, "Decisions made by an intergovernmental organization require the participation of every member state. Right now, they aren't all ready." To speed up the process, a recommendation is being written that should be completed in 2018. "It isn't a convention, but the recommendation will be a powerful and reliable tool." The text is based on the Sarajevo Film Festival's declaration. Its goal is to be a reference point for associations and national organizations on the topic of gender inequality. In 2017 the Les Arcs Festival and the Sisley Foundation will be setting up a monitoring centre to bring together, compare and advise the national film centres in every European country. The next few years will be decisive.