The Festival de Cannes, which began Wednesday night with a screening of Wes Anderson's new movie, "Moonrise Kingdom," should be a time for jubilation. But for advocates of gender parity in film, it has instead become an occasion for outrage.
Why? Because, as The Huffington Post noted a month ago, there are exactly zero woman-directed movies in competition at Cannes 2012. Since then, the disappointment has crystallized into action.
The movement began on the pages of French newspaper Le Monde, when French feminist group La Barbe published a satirical open letter accusing Cannes of sexism.
"Is it not enough for them to aspire to be mistress of ceremonies someday during the festival's opening night?" the letter facetiously asks.
Marie de Cenival, a co-founder of La Barbe, told The Huffington Post that her group had been working on the letter since 2010, the last time Cannes featured a womanless slate of directors. The group is best known for interrupting high-level meetings of politicians and businessmen wearing beards. But as its members looked into the movie business, they found much the same misogyny and exclusion they'd lampooned in other sectors.
"The art world claims not to have gender issues or race issues," de Cenival said. "They are so used to not being embarrassed by anybody. They consider themselves very special. We love to say, 'You're not special.'"
Cannes officials have dismissed the concerns raised by La Barbe's letter. The festival's artistic director, Thierry Fremaux said he would never favor a movie because of the gender of its director. And filmmaker Andrea Arnold, who's on the jury of this year's festival, told Reuters, "I would absolutely hate it if my film got selected because I was a woman. I would only want my film to be selected for the right reasons and not out of charity because I'm female."
Yet La Barbe is not alone in its outrage. By midday Thursday, an online petition attached to the letter had garnered 1,545 signatures. Judging from the surnames, many who signed are French, but the petition also made the rounds in the U.S.
One signer, Princeton theater studies professor Jill Dolan, said the petition had been forwarded to her by several groups that work on gender parity in the arts. Dolan decided to sign partially because she thinks Cannes' failure to include any female-directed movies sends a bad message about the value of art with a female perspective.
"I don't know how in 2012 you can come up with a list of films that are only made by men," Dolan said.
La Barbe's letter and petition also landed in the inbox of Melissa Silverstein, who's been criticizing Cannes on her blog "Women and Hollywood" for the past month. On Tuesday, she was inspired by the La Barbe letter to start a similar online petition, addressed to "the Jurors of the Cannes Film Festival," on Change.org. It already has 463 signers.
"The language in the La Barbe manifesto is very tongue-in-cheek. So I called them I said that I wanted to do something more direct, and they gave me their blessing," Silverstein told The Huffington Post.
Silverstein consulted with several others in writing the letter, including Debra Zimmerman, executive director of Women Make Movies, which distributes documentaries made by women. Zimmerman called the festival programmers "the most consistent offenders" in the film industry at slighting women.
"Yes, there probably are many fewer films submitted by women than there are films submitted by men, but you can look at every other festival in the world, and you won't find another one with no female-directed movies," Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman speculated that the pattern resulted from a lack of female representation in the festival's opaque nomination process. For that reason, the Change.org protest calls on Cannes to "commit to transparency and equality in the selection process of these films."
De Cenival said La Barbe's protest shares those goals. The committee that chooses French films is unknown, she said, and the committee that picks foreign films is dominated by Fremaux, the festival artistic director. (It's not a controversial view; Variety refers to it as "his selection committee.")
"When he says that he won't pick a movie because it's directed by a woman, I believe him. He likes male movies. But I'm tired of seeing all the same movies all the time because Fremaux picks them!" de Cenival said.
Fremaux did not respond to a request for comment.
Robin Blaetz, who studies female directors as a film studies professor at Mount Holyoke College, said she was wary of ascribing too much of the fault to the festival itself. "This year's selection has highlighted problems that people have been seeing for generations," she said.
So if this isn't a new problem, why the new level of outrage? Silverstein identified two catalysts: the precedent-setting Best Director Oscar victory for "Hurt Locker" director Kathryn Bigelow, and the rise of social media, which allows people to express shared outrage.
The petitions have also attracted significant attention from mainstream media. Reuters, the Associated Press, ScreenInfo and the Telegraph have all written about La Barbe's petition. That, in turn, leads to more notice on social media.
To be sure, it will take a lot more than 2,000 electronic signatures to get the film industry to make sure female directors take up a sizable portion of the films in competition at Cannes. But Zimmerman said she was optimistic about the chances that the furor this year would at least translate into incremental change. She said Cannes may reveal the identity of the nominating committees from recent years, or include more female directors on its jury.
"I do think that it will make them a little more aware next year," Zimmerman said. "Maybe next year, they will think a little bit more carefully before rejecting every film by a woman."