While we rejoiced when director Sofia Coppola won the best director award at Cannes for only the second time as a woman in 56 years, jury member and actress Jessica Chastain was quick to point out the bigger picture: we need real women’s lives depicted on screen by the bulk load. Chastain watched 20 films to judge the Cannes Film Festival and what struck her most was the awful way society sees women. It’s still a case of “Smurfette Syndrome”; we simply don’t have enough female storytellers out there bringing the lives of women to the big screen – and women we recognise at that. It is a huge deal, however far removed Hollywood may seem from our daily lives. Because we learn from art as human beings. And what do we do if we never see their real lives reflected?
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) May 29, 2017
Chastain – a long time, kick-ass advocate of women’s rights – used the Cannes post-ceremony press conference to make clear her feelings on the portrayal of women in the movies she saw. “This is the first time I’ve watched 20 films in 10 days, and I love movies. And the one thing I really took away from this experience is how the world views women from the female characters that were represented,” she said. “It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest – with some exceptions.”
Her comments were of note, especially since Coppola had just won, but let’s remember that it’s still an unusual victory; Cannes, alongside the industry in general, has a long way to go so they needn’t start clapping themselves on the back. Coppola was only the second woman ever to win that award in the festival’s 70-year history, and no woman of colour has ever won it. Only one woman director, Jane Campion, has won the Palme d’Or in the festival’s 70-year history, an insane statistic.
Alongside Chastain, Nicole Kidman and Coppola herself used the festival to champion the call for women behind and in front of the camera.
“Everyone keeps saying, ‘Oh it’s so different now, it’s so different!’ It isn’t,” Kidman said at a Cannes press conference for The Beguiled. She’d been asked whether television was offering more freedom for women. In response, she delivered a blistering reply that silenced the room: “Only 4.2 percent of women directed the major motion pictures of 2016,” she said, citing a statistic from Women in Film. “There were 4,000 episodic television series, and only 183 women directed. So that there says it all. I think that’s really an important thing to say and keep saying.”
Coppola had previously put this issue into its simplest terms. “I just think, half the world is female,” she told, “so I just make what I want to see, and I feel there are other women out there that want to see a point of view closer to theirs.”
Chastain ended by saying this. “I hope when we include female storytellers they will be more like the women I know in my day-to-day life. They are proactive, have their own point of view and don’t just react to men around them,” she added.
Her comments struck me at a personal level. While writing a piece last week about the portrayal of those with disabilities on screen, as a partially disabled woman, I only found one woman I could truly resonate with – and even then her story acted as an arc for the male in the film. It’s so frustrating I could scream because film influences almost every aspect of my life and I’m not represented in it.
In modern society, I don’t – and we don’t – see things as they are on screen. Women across the world are crying out for change; we can only hope it doesn’t take another 56 years to get the ball rolling.