Long Read | Shifting the lens of film festivals

Curators and directors of South African and international film festivals speak about creating platforms for diverse voices while remaining committed to gender equality.

Last year, the Göteborg Film Festival became the first festival in the world to achieve a 50% representation of women directors in its main programme – following the #50/50X2020 global initiative launched by the Swedish Film Institute (SFI) at Cannes in 2016.

Major film festivals including Berlin, Venice and Sydney have signed up to the initiative, a brainchild of SFI chief executive officer Anna Serner. 

In conversation with foreign journalists in Göteborg last year, Serner described her “stop talking and start doing” approach to not only achieving gender balance, but greater diversity across race, class, ethnicity and geography in filmmaking.

27 January 2018: The Draken cinema is the main venue for the annual Göteborg Film Festival in Gothenburg, Sweden. Last year, half of the main programme comprised films by women directors. (Photograph by Getty Images Europe)

The campaign started with guerrilla tactics to gain the attention of influencers across Sweden’s political and creative spectrum, and then in the international film industry. An action plan with clear strategies and targets followed. The plan included revisiting cinema history to celebrate filmmakers like Alice Guy-Blaché whose work predates DW Griffith, considered a pioneer of feature films, and setting up the Nordic Women in Film website to archive and recognise often-forgotten filmmakers for “role-modelling”. 

Then there were the transformation numbers to aim towards. “We started working from the position that the SFI has such power in Sweden because feature films are not made without our money, so if we said we were looking for women, the industry would look for women … and suddenly they were there,” said Serner. 

An obstacle, according to Serner, was the argument that standards would drop when pursuing gender equality – a universal response to transformation efforts, whether to rectify imbalances along lines of race, gender or ethnicity.

Yet, when standards were applied to the funding choices the SFI made, Serner said she found many of these arguments supporting films by men were “blurry” rather than substantive: “The reasons for deciding to fund a film included things like, ‘I felt it in my stomach’ and, ‘This is a story that needs to be told’. Yeah? But really? Why [this story]? … Because we all know there are not many stories to tell; it’s how you tell a story. So, again, what are the reasons for funding stories by men?”  

13 May 2018: Chief executive of the Swedish Film Institute Anna Serner speaks during the institute’s panel discussion on ‘Gender Equality and #MeToo’ at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, France. (Photograph by Andreas Rentz/ Getty Images)

Serner said to face the red herring of “quality” head on, the SFI settled on three criteria for funding applications and that projects were not picked on gender but according to the aggregated scores of this formalised criteria. 

The first was “relevance or urgency of the story today. So the take on the traditional love story or the take on the traditional coming-of-age story… There are so many coming-of-age stories about white-trash boys but how many about women of colour, or women of Sami blood, or women, actually?”

The second was originality: “Have we seen this film before or is there something new? … Originality could be a combination of the director and the scriptwriter or a combination of actors. Originality is about what you argue about it.”

The final criteria was “the craft”, which was “simple but hard as well … For example, if it’s a debut director you want to be sure the project has a producer who will take care of that voice and not simply push it through to end up on screen.”

I spoke to programmers and directors at film festivals in South Africa and around the world about inclusivity and the potential to reach 50-50 representation across the gender spectrum, and among directors in their programming.  

Niren Tolsi: How do you ensure your programming includes marginalised voices generally, and female and queer voices specifically?

Chipo Zhou (CZ, curator of the Durban International Film Festival): The [Durban International Film Festival] has for a very long time been a developmental platform, servicing the needs of the marginalised in various capacities. In South Africa … our focus has mainly been on the Black underprivileged who have not previously been afforded access to the film industry, which has been to a large extent, and still is, very elitist.  

In 2019, of the 10 programmers from across the globe, nine were female, and [there was] one male [who also] identified as a gay man. 2020 had less programmers due to budget constraints. Four were females and one [was] male. Globally, African, queer and female voices have been severely marginalised if the several movements on queer, Black [and] womens’ lives mattering is anything to go by. The festival signed the 50-50 by 2020 pledge as the only festival on the continent to do so in 2019 and has consciously worked towards achieving and maintaining this goal.

25 June 2018: Durban International Film Festival director Chipo Zhou discussing the programme. (Photograph courtesy of Durban International Film Festival Twitter @DIFFest)

Sarah Dawson (SD, programmer at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam): To me, festivals are a place where film can be selected and celebrated for reasons other than simply their market appeal. A festival exists to create space for people to come together in an engagement with the more complex questions of the human condition, at both very personal and very political levels. They are a place that can offer heterogeneity and complexity that is disallowed by the homogenous tendencies of market-driven cinema distribution. 

If we don’t actively maintain an environment that is diverse and inclusive, then we are diminishing that complexity in our view on the world, and wasting the opportunity to enrich our points of view with those of others, and also blunting the potential of art – in this case the art of filmmaking – to be a constructive and change-driving force in society. This applies, for me, to all axes of identity: race, gender, class, etc.

Nashen Moodley (NM, director of the Sydney Film Festival): We are committed to presenting a programme of diverse voices and would typically screen films from around 60 countries each year. This geographic diversity has always been important at the festival, to present to our audiences cinema that is difficult to encounter otherwise, and to also present a platform for filmmakers from all over the world. 

16 June 2017: Nashen Moodley, director of the Sydney Film Festival, at the State Theatre in Sydney, Australia. (Photograph by Don Arnold/ Getty Images)

Beyond geography, the festival has dedicated sections to First Nations filmmakers (First Nations), filmmakers with disabilities (Screenability) and women directors (Europe! Voices of Women in Film). The Sydney Film Festival has screened a large number of prominent [LGBTQIA+] films each year, often as the Australian premiere, and to mention just a few films from the last few years: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma), Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino), Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar), God’s Own Country (Francis Lee) and The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Desiree Akhavan).

Mandisa Zitha (MZ, director of Encounters Film Festival): The Encounters mandate is to serve its workers and audience; its filmmakers and their works; … the communities represented in the films; and the marginalised groups who are touched through … inreach (providing access to the festival for marginalised communities) and outreach (satellite screenings in [community] access programmes) … Encounters prioritises diversity in the programme, and films from the [Global] South which form 50% of the programme, with a focus on filmmakers of colour and women. In 2020, due to the pandemic, we cut our international programme … In terms of the South African section, our demographics are below [the 50% mark]. Certainly, for us, marginalised voices are filmmakers of colour, women and queer voices.

NT: What kind of stories have you been especially interested in programming recently? Before Covid-19, and now, during the pandemic?

NM: The stories I am interested in haven’t really changed during the pandemic. For me the films that have something to say about the world and do so in an innovative way are still the most fascinating. I think we will see, in the coming few years, films particularly about Covid-19, as well as the factors that led to the pandemic and the role historical and contemporary inequality had in its impact. So, I hope that some very good films will be made about this time, exploring the context and the broad repercussions.

Related article:

MZ: Our programme has a vast array of themes, but recurring themes include: politics/ investigative journalism, social justice issues, intimate portraits of great artists, personal and collective history, arts and culture. 

This year, the Documentary Filmmakers Association … in response to Covid-19 offered five South African filmmakers an opportunity to receive a Covid-19 short film grant to make a film that reflects … South African stories during the pandemic. Three films were shown at Encounters and the rest at other local festivals. The films reflected themes of the impact of lockdown in SA and were made primarily by filmmakers from marginalised communities. The stories were about African deportees in a detention centre, a small community battling an illegal mining cartel and a photojournalist’s journey during lockdown.

NT: What percentage of directors at your festival were women or queer last year? Is your festival looking to achieve a 50-50 representation? What are the challenges to achieving this?

CZ: The jury comprised 74% Black [and] 54% female [jurors] and of that percentage only one woman was white.

SD: The same reasons the imbalance exists everywhere in our society, which are many, varied and persistent. In a general sense, we don’t support women, queer and Black and brown filmmakers enough. In many cases the money it costs to make films is not forthcoming because there still exist strong biases against women and queer people in terms of their value and esteem under an industrial system that prefers to bank on predictable gains. But this is just the past perpetuating itself into the future, and not a rational state of affairs, because the potential audiences for film, even within the logic of capitalism, are so much bigger than white men.

NM: Sydney Film Festival is a signatory … to the 50-50 by 2020 pledge for parity and inclusion in film festivals. In 2019 (the last time we did a festival on a large scale), 37% of the films submitted to the festival were directed by women, and of the films selected for the festival, 43% were directed or co-directed by women. 

Related article:

In 2020 (in a smaller festival of 33 films), 75% were directed or co-directed by women. We hope very much for there to be parity in the festival selection and the film industry in general. I think progress has been made in recent years, but there is still some distance to go.

MZ: Of the South African selection at Encounters – 53 films – [according to South African race markers] 47% (25 films) were by whites, 45% (24 films) were directed by Blacks, 6% (three films) were by [people apartheid designated as] coloured and 2% (one film) was made by a director of [South Asian] descent. Fifty-three percent (28 films) were made by men and 47% (25 films) by [women]. Although we have shown films by queer filmmakers and collaborated with NGOs for outreach programmes, it is difficult to ascertain demographics for queer filmmakers unless declared … Our cofounder Nodi Murphy is the founder of the Out in Africa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, our sister festival and the only festival in Africa that represented these communities, so we are mindful of ensuring we have queer voices.

NT: What criteria do your programmers use in choosing a selection to programme? Has this changed recently to ensure inclusivity – if so, how?

CZ: Since 2017, the programming brief has been to search the globe for high-quality films with female directed, African (African descent and African diaspora included) as well as first-time directors as being first preference in the programme.

SD: Speaking from a personal position about the work I do, I feel it’s incredibly important to include a variety of perspectives in the decision-making process. I mean this in terms of both formally inviting people from a variety of marginalised perspectives to contribute to the conversations, but also in terms of the decisions I make myself when in a position where this is my immediate responsibility … I [have] taken on the duty of being as informed, fair and well-oriented in the complexities of our present moment, and to listen, always, especially closely to the quieter voices at the margins of our society and allow my priorities and understanding to be transformed by what I hear, and let this inform the decisions I make when programming films … So even though I am myself a woman who identifies as queer, I see it as extremely important to embrace a humility that allows me to see that there is a great variety even within the perspectives of queer women. I think anyone in a position of gatekeeping needs to open the door to complexity of inclusivity, not purport to represent the “inclusive” point of view and then close the door behind us. Inclusivity is a practice that needs to be embodied constantly and dynamically, not a numerical quota to be achieved.

NM: We don’t have a rigid set of criteria in making the selection. We look for a balance across the programme – stylistically, in terms of genre, subject matter, geography, diversity of filmmakers. We have a large audience with interests in many different types of cinema, and ranging in age from five to over 80, so we try to present something for everyone in our broad selection. Through signing the 50-50 by 2020 pledge, the festival constantly monitors and makes public its selection statistics, so we are always conscious of the progress we are making in terms of inclusivity.

NT: Filmmakers, because of their politics or identity, do choose to tell certain stories, and to tell them in a certain way – sometimes innovative and the antithesis of dominant contemporary trends. Which films from 2020, made by women, queers or other marginalised communities stood out for you for these reasons?   

CZ: A Rifle and a Bag, a documentary by Isabella Rinaldi, Cristina Haneș and first-time feature-length director Arya Rothe. Farewell Amor directed by Ekwa Msangi (a Tanzanian-American filmmaker who grew up in Kenya and is based in New York) … [and] Force of Habit, a co-direction by seven women, following the lives of 11 women, a captivating perspective of the female gaze like no other … The selected films, through different lenses, have shown contemporary relevance to the challenges currently being faced by the world, which has progressively, over the last few years, begun to interrogate history to right wrongs and restore human dignity to previously disenfranchised populaces. They explored themes grappling with identity dualities and finding hope in the aftermath of vicious pasts.

SD: There are a lot of exciting emerging voices, which give me a lot of hope. The film Showgirls of Pakistan gives us an insight into the world of powerful divas that perform a traditional form of burlesque-style dance in Pakistan. We meet four wonderful women protagonists, who represent both fascination and repulsion in a conservative, patriarchal society. I love their passionate fire, and also that we are not asked to think differently about the trans and cis women who perform. 

Related article:

The film is co-directed by a woman and a queer man, and it is so evident that they are trusted by their protagonists because they belong in the space. In documentary, who is behind the camera affects very deeply what kind of film will be made, and this is another important reason to support filmmakers who are queer or women, because it allows us to be present in the world through film in ways that are impossible when a straight man is holding the camera … 

There are others – The Case You specifically turns the camera back onto the male gaze in a really brave and confrontational way. The film Dormant is made by an Argentinian female filmmaker who rehabilitates old personal archive footage of her Peronista family, in which the women lived in the shadow of very dominant men. I love the film Jungle, which shows a wild, youthful angle on the multi-racial Gen Z crew of wild girls in the creative underground of Paris. It has a wonderful irreverent energy, while also being full of vulnerability.

NM: The physical edition of Sydney Film Festival was cancelled in 2020 because of Covid-19, but we did manage to put on a virtual edition, and though a much smaller selection, a number of films were striking in their timeliness. These include Indigenous filmmaker Cornel Ozies’ film Our Law about Western Australia’s first Indigenous-run police station and a fundamental shift in policing; Ros Horin’s powerful and inspirational documentary about a group of migrant women, Rosemary’s Way; Robynne Murphy’s Women of Steel about a 14-year struggle of women to work in the steel industry; and the extraordinary Force of Habit by seven Finnish women directors who question gender stereotypes and the way women’s lives are conditioned. 

MZ: The following films in our 2020 programme successfully represent a unique, female perspective in the stories they told through their films. The films are all cinematically creative, driven by female subjects and juxtaposed global themes against the personal/female perspective very well: Finding Sally, For Sama, Mother to Mother, Rumba in the Jungle, Beyond my Steps.

Undated: A still from the film Finding Sally by Tamara Mariam Dawit, which was screened at last year’s Encounters International Documentary Film Festival. (Photograph courtesy of Encounters)

NT: What structural changes would you suggest to the local film industry to encourage inclusivity, especially among Black female and queer filmmakers?

CZ: There has to be a deliberate push towards inclusivity by encouraging quota systems for projects. What we have done for [the Durban International Film Festival] at the moment is to tilt the pendulum heavily towards the increased participation of marginalised groups so that there are enough high-quality industry players developed to create a level playing field in [the] future …

The structure of the education system and its curriculum needs a complete overhaul from early childhood development in public schools [upwards] in order for impactful change to take place. Film studies, critique and a cultivation of the culture of watching films should be introduced as part of literary studies. This will open up a whole new generation of filmmakers and film lovers who will shake up the way things currently stand.

The Göteborg Film Festival runs from 29 January to 8 February 2021. 
The 68th Sydney Film Festival runs from 9 to 20 June 2021.
The 42nd Durban International Film Festival runs from 22 July to 1 August 2021.
The 27th Encounters Film Festival will take place in September 2021.
The 34th International Documentary Festival Amsterdam runs from 17 to 28 November 2021.

All festivals are currently accepting submissions. Visit their websites.

Niren Tolsi attended the Göteborg Film Festival as a guest of the Swedish Institute.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.