Ciao Cannes: Venice Film Festival eyes top spot, but not in gender equality

The world’s oldest film festival opens Wednesday with its most mouth-watering line-up in decades, but only one female director among the 21 vying for the top prize.

Turning 75 this year, the venerable festival boasts new films by Damien Chazelle, the Coen brothers and Alfonso Cuaron, along with Lady Gaga’s much-hyped screen debut, cementing its status as Hollywood’s launching pad for awards season.

But for the second year in a row, the “Mostra” has been criticised for including just one film by a woman among the 21 vying for the Golden Lion top prize, which was last won by a female director 43 years ago.

Festival director Alberto Barbera declared that he would “rather quit” than give in to pressure for a quota for women after rival festivals pledged to step up their efforts towards gender equality.

His stance – as Venice bids to rival Cannes as the world’s most important festival – was lambasted by an alliance of European women filmmakers earlier this month.

“Sorry, but we don’t buy this anymore,” said the European Women’s Audiovisual Network in an open letter. “When Alberto Barbera threatens to quit, he is perpetuating the notion that selecting films by female filmmakers involves lowering standards.”

Others blamed a streak of Italian “toxic masculinity” that saw actress and #MeToo campaigner Asia Argento pilloried in her homeland for accusing Harvey Weinstein of rape.

>> Read more: After Weinstein, gender inequality still stalks Cannes

Barbera insisted that he chose the films “on the quality and not the sex of the director”, telling reporters that “if we impose quotas, I resign.”

He was already under pressure for including a documentary by Bruce Weber, “Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast” despite allegations of coercive sexual behaviour levelled by 15 male models at the American fashion photographer, who denies any wrongdoing.

Barbera also faced questions over his decision to invite disgraced Hollywood director James Toback to premiere his film “The Private Life of a Modern Woman” at Venice last year.

Toback has been accused of sexual harassment and assault by nearly 400 women, including actresses Julianne Moore, Selma Blair and Rachel McAdams.

“I’m not in a position to judge, to decide if James Toback’s behaviour was good or bad,” Barbera said.

“I’m not a judge. I’m not a lawyer. I’m a festival director. I knew Mr Toback and I invited him,” he said of the director, who denies the allegations.

One up on the French Riviera

Sounding a more conciliatory note, this year’s jury president Guillermo del Toro said a push for gender equality “is beyond a gesture, it’s a need”.

The Mexican director behind the Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water”, whose Venice jury features five women and four men, told reporters on Wednesday that the industry’s goal “has to be clear and has to remain to be 50/50 by 2020”.

Del Toro vowed there would be no national bias in this year’s competition, in which fellow Mexican director Cuaron – a member of the so-called “Three Amigos” along with del Toro and Alejandro Inarritu – is seen as a favourite.

All three Mexican directors have won Oscars with films that premiered in Venice, comforting the festival’s status as Hollywood’s preferred showcase – well ahead of its main rival Cannes.

Venice’s timing has given the world’s oldest festival an edge over its bigger French rival, which takes place nine months ahead of the Oscars.

The Italian festival has also profited from Cannes’ feud with streaming giant Netflix, scooping up all of its films which might otherwise have been shown on the French Riviera.

This year’s staggering line-up includes new films by Oscar-winning “Son of Saul” director Hungarian Laszlo Nemes, Britain’s Mike Leigh and Paul Greengrass, Chinese master Zhang Yimou, Emir Kusturica and two of France’s biggest directors, Jacques Audiard and Olivier Assayas, who would usually show at Cannes.

Returning to the lagoon after his Oscar-winning “La La Land”, Chazelle opens the festival on Wednesday with “First Man”, starring Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong.

Australian Jennifer Kent is the solitary woman gunning for the Golden Lion with “The Nightingale”, a revenge thriller set in a penal colony in 19th century Tasmania.

The last woman to win Venice’s top prize was German director Margarethe von Trotta with “Marianne and Juliane”, back in 1981.

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