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Girls & Women

Jessica Chastain Just Made a Powerful Statement About Women in Film at Cannes

Movies allow filmmakers to make statements about human behavior through intricate stories and deep character development. But imbalances in the industry means that not everyone’s story gets told authentically, if they get told at all.

Jessica Chastain criticized female representation at the Cannes Film Festival, calling it “disturbing,” and said that more female writers and directors are needed to make depictions of female characters more accurate and meaningful. She made the remarks at the closing press conference for the festival jury, of which she was a member this year.  

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“I do believe that if you have female storytelling you also have more authentic female characters,” she said. “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 I saw represented. And it was quite disturbing to me, to be honest, with some exceptions.”

“I do hope that when we include more female storytellers we will have more of the women that I recognize in my day to day life, ones that are proactive, have their own agencies, who don’t just react to the men around them; they have their own point of view,” she said.

Ava DuVernay, the director of “Selma” and the acclaimed documentary “13th” praised Chastain’s statements in a tweet that has received 52,000 likes and 22,000 retweets. She wasn’t the only one.

Cannes has historically had a tremendous gender gap. The Palme d’Or is the highest prize at Cannes, awarded to the director of the best feature film. Jane Campion is the only woman to win the award in the festival’s 70-year history (“The Piano” in 1993), which she described as “insane” to the Vulture. This year the Palm d’Or went to Ruben Östlund for “The Square,” which means Campion will have the “Only Woman to Win the Palme d’Or” moniker for at least another year.

Women did chip away at that history, however. One of the exceptions Chastain referenced was Sofia Coppola’s, “The Beguiled,” for which Coppola won Best Director. Though the award may seem counterintuitive to Chastain’s argument, Coppola is only the second woman to win it, and the first since 1961 (Yuliya Solntseva, “The Story of the Flaming Years”).

Lynne Ramsay won best screenplay for “You Were Never Really Here.”

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Other film festivals haven’t fared much better in recognizing female contributions to film. In the 89-year history of the Academy Awards, Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to win Best Director (“The Hurt Locker” in 2010).

The imbalance in hardware for men and women in film is not a reflection of unequal ability, but unequal opportunity. Among the top 250 domestic grossing films in the US in 2016, women comprised just 17% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers, according to the Center for the Study of Women and Television in Film.

The majority of the films nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars this year failed a rudimentary test for gender equality. “Hidden Figures” was by far the best movie in terms of female representation, which is unsurprising considering it was the only Best Picture nominee to feature a female writer (none featured a female director).

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In the past, Chastain has pointed out that it’s not just the people standing behind the camera, but the entire industry, down to those who critique the finished products.

“Critics are the ones who suggest to an audience what stories are valuable or worthwhile,” Chastain told the Guardian. “When you have 90% of film critics as male, and perhaps not able to review a film from a gender-neutral point of view, we need to understand that we need more female critics to let women and men know that stories about women are just as interesting as stories about men.”

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Actor Will Smith, who was also a member of the festival jury added a plea to improve race representation in film.

“A couple of black folks won’t hurt things next year,” he said.

When filmmakers overwhelmingly come from one demographic, that means only one perspective is being represented, and they tend to play into stereotypical depictions or fail to truly develop characters that they don’t understand.

Both Smith and Chastain recognize the need for people to be able to tell their own stories. Neither claimed that more awards should go to women or people of color, only that they be given equal opportunity. As Coppola proves, if given a chance, the awards will follow.

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