Cannes 2021: Julia Ducournau To Tang Yi, 5 Women Who Made History At The Film Festival

In Spike Lee's main International Feature Films Competition Jury, women constituted the majority - five out of nine - for the first time in the festival's history

Cannes 2021: Julia Ducournau To Tang Yi, 5 Women Who Made History At The Film Festival

A photo of Julia Ducournau (L) and Tang Yi (R).

Highlights

  • Cannes Film Festival has for long faced flak for the gender skew
  • However, the festival's 74th edition made an effort to address the issue
  • This year, women won 5 of the major prizes handed at the film festival
Cannes:

The Cannes Film Festival has for long, and not without reason, faced flak for the gender skew in its official selection and jury composition. The festival's 74th edition, held in the shadow of a pandemic and returning after a gap year, made a concerted effort to address the issue. When the curtains fell on the 12-day event, women made history, winning five of the major prizes handed out across the festival's sections.

In Spike Lee's main International Feature Films Competition Jury, women constituted the majority - five out of nine - for the first time in the festival's history. Apart from the three other men on the panel - Kleber Mendonca Filho, Tahar Rahim and Song Kang-ho - the jury had Mati Diop, Mylene Farmer, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jessica Hausner and Melanie Laurent. There is no way of knowing if the five women on the jury tilted the scales in favour of Julia Ducournau. If they did, more power to them!

The five-member Un Certain Regard Jury, too, had three women: president Andrea Arnold, director-screenwriter Mounia Meddour and actress Elsa Zylberstein. The other two members were filmmaker Daniel Burman and director-producer-actor Michael Covino.

Two other festival juries - one for the Camera d'or award, the other for Cinefondation and Short Films - were also headed by women, the former by actress Melanie Thierry, the latter by filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania.

Women not only swept the top awards, they also, in the process of making Cannes history, represented every corner of the globe, delivering a blow for diversity:

Julia Ducournau, Titane

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A photo of Julia Ducournau.

The 37-year-old French purveyor of body-horror took home the Palme d'or with only her second film, Titane, a wild and confrontational work in which shock and schlock go hand in hand. It is a genre film about a serial killer who is impregnated by a car and then poses as the son of a lonely fireman. Go figure! One critic described Titane as "a nightmarish yet mischievously comic barrage of sex, violence, lurid lighting and pounding music".

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A poster of Titane.

On winning the festival's top prize to the surprise of many critics, Ducournau said: "There is so much beauty and emotion that can be found in what cannot be pigeonholed." That is precisely what the young director went looking for in her equally provocative first film Raw, which premiered in 2016 in Cannes Critics' Week and instantly marked her as a talent to watch. Ducournau is only the second female director to win the Palme d'or. New Zealand's Jane Campion was the first - she won in 1993 for The Piano.

Kira Kovalenko, Unclenching The Fists

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Kira Kovalenko during the making of Unclenching The Fists.

Kira Kovalenko's sophomore effort, Unclenching the Fists, was adjudged the best among the 20 titles that competed for the Un Certain Regard Prize. Unbelievably, she is the first-ever female winner in the 24-year history of the prize. However, this singular year, the 31-year-old rising star of Russian cinema wasn't the only woman in the section who won. French-Tunisian actress-director Hafsia Herzi took the Ensemble Prize for Bonne Mere (Good Mother) and Romanian-Belgian director Teodora Ana Mihai snagged the Courage Prize for La Civil. Nor is that all. Salvadoran-Mexican filmmaker earned a Special Mention from English director Andrea Arnold's jury for Prayers For The Stolen. Kovalenko, whose first film was Sofichka (2016), is a product of a workshop that Russian auteur Alexander Sokurov conducted in her remote hometown in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. Unclenching the Fists tells the story of a young woman whose family has shifted to a nondescript mining town following traumatic events. She fights to unshackle herself from her father's hold even as the past casts a shadow.

Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic, Murina

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Murina director Antoneta Alamat Kusijaanovic and her 18-year-old star Gracia Filipovic.

The Croatian director's Murina won the Camera d'or, the Cannes Film Festival's award for the best debut film. The Camera d'or is one Cannes award (it was instituted in 1978) that has not blanked out female directors. India's Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, 1988) and Hungary's Ildiko Enyedi (My 20th Century, 1989) are among several other women who have had their names stamped on the trophy. Murina, which played in Directors' Fortnight, expands on the filmmaker's short film Into the Blue. The female protagonist of Murina, played by Gracija Filipovic, is a girl who has reason to be disgruntled with a father who throws his weight around the house, allowing her and her mother no agency. And then a wealthy male acquaintance comes calling and the harried but spunky girl sees in the man's presence an opportunity to not only find her feet but figure out a way of breaking free. Kusijanovic, who has spent a considerable part of her adult life in New York, is clearly a director poised for bigger things.

Payal Kapadia, A Night of Knowing Nothing

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A photo of Payal Kapadia.

With A Night of Knowing Nothing, an experimental epistolary docu-fiction set against the backdrop of a students' agitation, Mumbai-born Payal Kapadia has done what no Indian filmmaker, let alone a female one, has done before. She has won the Oeil d'or (Golden Eye) for the best documentary of the Cannes Film Festival. The newest of the festival's competitions - it was launched only in 2015 - had 28 films in contention. The Oeil d'or jury was headed by American documentary producer Ezra Edelman. Kapadia's win is especially significant since her film was competing with the latest works of many world cinema heavyweights: Todd Haynes (The Velvet Underground) Andrea Arnold (Cow). Oliver Stone (JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass) Marco Bellocchios (Marx Can Wait) and Sergei Loznitsa's Babi Yar, Context. Also in the field were Mark Cousins's The Story of Film: A New Generation and Rahul Jain's Invisible Demons.

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Payal Kapadia at the presentation of her film in Directors' Fortnight.

Payal Kapadia is the third woman in the six years of the Oeil d'or to win the award. French cinema legend Agnes Varda won for Faces Places in 2017 and Syrian journalist-filmmaker Waad al-Kateeab bagged it in 2019 for the film For Sama.

Tang Yi, All the Crows In The World

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A photo of Tang Yi.

This year's Palme d'or for Short Films was bagged by Hong Kong's Tang Yi, a New York University student. Her 14-minute film, All The Crows In The World, is about an 18-year-old student who is invited to a party by her cousin. The bash is filled with jaded middle-aged men and the girl is understandably mystified. But one of the men isn't like the rest: as the night wears on, an unlikely bond develops between the two.

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A still from All The Crows In The World.

Accepting the award, Tang Yi pointed out that the story had emerged from her personal experiences. She thanked New York University and appealed to them to let her graduate in September, a reminder that much of the world has yet to spring back into action and is dying to do so.