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Nandita Das’s ‘Manto’ and Rohena Gera’s ‘Sir’ were two female-directed Indian films featured at this year’s Cannes Film Festival

Soleil Nathwani Jun 08, 2018

Mumbai director Nandita Das’s biographical drama 'Manto' was selected in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival

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My First Cannes Film Festival was in 2014 B.W.—before Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace and the ensuing industry upheaval. Director Jane Campion helmed the Cannes jury. Kristen Stewart made her Cannes debut in Oliver Assayas’s Cloud of Sils Maria, finding a formidable voice in French cinema after an affair with American director Rupert Sanders had, in true patriarchal style, marked her as the fall girl. But even libertarian France was a world of male auteurs and actresses who were jewels in their crowns. Campion was the only female director in Cannes history to have won the prestigious Palme D’Or. Weinstein’s Grace of Monaco opened the festival and the erstwhile King of Cannes hosted the party of the year, the AMFAR ‘Cinema against AIDS’ gala—a disturbingly ideal cover for an alleged serial rapist. In Cannes’ last days of immutability, the electrifying Palais screenings still doubled as high-brow background score to the glitz-sprinkled misogyny of the Croisette.

This year, watching Cannes from afar, I saw change play out in the heart of cinema. In its 71st year and first post #MeToo, Cannes reframed its role in buoying male perspectives and red carpet eye candy. The women-dominated jury was headed by ‘Time’s Up’ proponent Cate Blanchett. Joined by French director Agnès Varda, Blanchett led 82 women, one for every female-directed main competition film ever (a paltry five percent of the total) up the red carpet steps and gave an impassioned speech about diversity. In another defiant moment, Stewart—also on the jury—took off her heels to walk the steps barefoot at a festival criticized in years past for unofficially banning flats. And at the closing ceremony Italian director Asia Argento declared, “In 1997, I was raped by Harvey Weinstein here at Cannes. This festival was his hunting ground.” Applause broke out as she called for change from his former vantage point.

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But is this just lip service to the cause? Has anything really changed when only three of 20 main slate films are women-directed? Festival director Thierry Frémaux has said films are picked on merit, opposing female quotas as ‘positive discrimination.’ He’s missing the point, in a familiar kind of masculine ignorance, that current power structures mean men consistently benefit from ‘positive discrimination.’ It’s why most movies are made by men in the first place. One of the films selected was Lars Von Trier’s The House that Jack Built, a serial killer story rife with male-on-female brutality, from which scores of people walked out. Was there not a single female fronted film amongst hundreds of submissions that might have advanced cinematic diversity and artistic excellence in ways this latest work from a Cannes regular did not?

A silver lining came closer with the sidebar inclusions of two female-directed films from India: Nandita Das’s Manto, a biopic of Pakistani-Indian writer Sadaat Hasan Manto, who shone a light on horrors including sexual slavery, and Rohena Gera’s Sir, which examines class taboos through a relationship between maid and employer. The main prizes all went to male directors but these and other selections are a reminder that Cannes continues to bring new voices and urgent narratives to the fore. They are testimony that while there is work to be done to tackle inclusion, female filmmakers across the globe are gaining ground.

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The author is a film producer and journalist and a former hedge fund COO. Twitter: @soleilnathwani

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