In the almost 72-year history of the Cannes Film Festival only one female director, Jane Campion, has ever won the prestigious Palme d’Or prize for best film.
Furthermore, just 86 movies by female directors have ever been in competition for the festival’s main prize, compared with more than 1,650 films by male directors.
This year, the 21 film shortlist features a joint record four women, showing how far the event – which boasts the late feminist director Agnès Varda as its poster girl – has to go in terms of gender equality.
However, delve a little deeper into the festival programme and there’s no shortage of talented women telling their stories, with those from Latin America leading the charge.
Melina Leon last week became the first female director from Peru to be invited to premiere a film at Cannes – and her black and white production, Song Without a Name (Cancione Sin Nombre), has been mentioned by many critics as worthy of winning The Caméra d’Or, or Golden Camera, awarded to the best feature by a first-time director.
The film, which premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section, is set in the politically turbulent Peru of the 1980s and follows Georgina, a young indigenous woman from the Andes, whose newborn daughter is stolen from a health clinic.
Leon arrived a year after star protests led Cannes to sign up to a 50:50 gender parity pledge, balancing it’s 2019 jury and selection committee accordingly; and the festival has hosted a series of talks about ‘Women in Motion’.
She welcomes conversations around the issue, even if they’re difficult.
“Just the fact that we’re talking about it [is good],” she tells the BBC. “It might be uncomfortable – but everything that requires change is going to be uncomfortable and there’s going to be be confrontation.
“There’s so many female students of film and then when it comes to making the first [full-length] feature it’s only the guys – why?
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“Unfortunately we don’t get the opportunity. There’s only I believe 10 per cent of films by women, so how could you choose 50?
“But yeah, the fact that the juries that are mixed, I think that’s great. For many years, that wasn’t a concern here or anywhere.”
The Peruvian writer/director, who is calling out for ‘rebel spirits’, adds: “I hope over time we get more opportunities to make more movies so we can really demand 50;50. Of course go for quality, not just gender, but we need the opportunity to make [films] so our work can be judged!
“There is this prejudice that we are not good enough, that it’s not a work women can do because it’s such a stress to handle big budgets and if we don’t have enough females in the crews, especially photographers…
“There’s not gonna be change if all the parts don’t come together.”
In the first week of the festival, French-Senegalese director Mati Diop became the first black female director to premiere a film in competition (Atlantics), and at the press conference for opening movie, The Dead Don’t Die, actor Tilda Swinton declared that top female filmmakers were clearly out there, whether they were being recognised and written about or not.
Swinton said: “I would remind us that women have been making films for 11 decades now, there are countless films out there by women.
“The question is: Why do we not necessarily know about them?
“We need to look at the cannon and appreciate it and screen it and we need to buy tickets for films by women.
“It all exists we just have to really pay attention to it and bring it all up.”
One woman on the way up is Sofía Quirós, who holds the fresh “honour” of becoming the only female director to have a feature film competing in International Critics’ Week – which runs parallel to Cannes – and the first from Costa Rica.
Her film, Land of Ashes (Ceniza Negra) is based on a short film she brought to Cannes a few years ago and tells the story of 13-year-old Selva – played by first-time actor Smachleen Gutiérrez – and how she learns about life through the death of her closest family members.
The director, who studied filmmaking in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aries and prefers to work with non-actors says it’s “very strange” to be the only woman up for the alternative prize, noting that her own country has made huge strides towards achieving equality in the arts.
“In Costa Rica we have a very special case, as almost all the best directors and producers are girls,” she says.
“Our country is a special thing, we are in a bubble, It’s such an honour to see the girls in our country are so empowered and so professional. But then I go outside and it’s another thing, you know? It’s difficult.”
The 29-year-old believes opportunities for her came about after many of her country’s male directors focused on more commercial ventures, allowing the girls to “shine on the international area” with more “sensitive art house films”.
Like Leon before her though, she still sees many women “disappear” after the short film stage, before getting the chance to attempt a feature length movie.
That’s borne out by Cannes’ programme – where 26 per cent of the full-length films submitted this year were made by women. In the short film section, that figure rose to 32 per cent, while it was 44 per cent in the category for student films.
Quiros was keen therefore to surround herself with female colleagues while making her film, to help inspire greater opportunities.
“For me it was a very free process,” she says. “I feel very comfortable with them, they were all friends and we decided to make a process with a lot of freedom, working with non-actors in a creative group since the beginning, all saying things about the script and the photography.
“I feel [I was able to do it] because I have this team of girls working with me since from the first years.”
Cannes’ closing ceremony takes place on Saturday, with the big announcement of the Palme d’Or winner. And while neither newcomers Quiros or Leon find themselves in the running yet, look out for their names and more emerging female filmmakers in the near future.
The names Diop, Jessica Hausner, Celine Sciamma, and Justine Triet are on that most esteemed of lists but with 17 men also up for the award (including Quentin Tarantino, Ken Loach and Pedro Almodóvar), as ever at Cannes, the odds remain stacked against them.
Could this year be the year?