Rants, Feelings & Opinions

6 Films Focusing on Gender and Sexual Diversity at the 2018 Venice Film Fest

August 31, 2018

The 2018 Venice Film Festival is upon us, and the lineup is pretty lacking in the way of gender and sexual diversity – both in terms of onscreen representation and filmmakers’ identities. Nevertheless, Kristen Cochrane dug up some real gems – 6 films that focus on gender and sexual diversity – to see at this year’s fest (or after, at a theatre/laptop near you).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, another major international film festival has recently been criticized for a lack of female and femme representation.

The Venice Film Festival—the glitziest festival after Cannes—has been the ire of the European Women’s Audiovisual Network and a number of other advocacy groups, who claim that female directors have been effectively excluded from the festival’s competition section. The EWA penned an open letter that calls for the festival to sign a gender-parity pledge, which Cannes and Locarno film festivals consolidated this year.

Out of 21 films in the competition section, only one is by a female filmmaker, which is grim – even with the knowledge that only 21% the 1,650 festival submissions were by women filmmakers. It’s also shockingly tone-deaf, given the increase in advocacy over the past few years calling for more gender and sexual diversity in filmmaking. The festival’s artistic chief Alberto Barbera fuelled the fire this year by claiming that he would do more to increase female representation, but that he would resign if they “impose quotas or gender-equality needs.”

Regular Slutever readers may notice that this article series has been changed from “Women-led” films to “Films Focusing on Gender and Sexual Diversity.” We have decided to change the title and subsequent coverage due to the need for more gender and sexual diversity in filmmaking, with the adjacent priority of a need for more female-led films. Contemporary debates on queer representation in cinema have argued that films like Call Me By Your Name are queer films made for and made by straight people, and that the most visible queer cinema is still mostly populated by white, male filmmakers, crew, and cast.

And recently, the debate on whether cisgender actors such as Scarlett Johansson can play transgender characters has led to Johansson’s decision to leave the cast of Rub & Tug, a film about Dante “Tex” Gill, a trans man who ran an erotic massage parlour in Pittsburgh in the 1970s and 1980s. A controversial op-ed in Deadline, co-written by Daily Variety alumni Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr., stated that films with LGBT2Q* stories simply do not get greenlit if they do not have stars attached to the project. Moreover, the authors argue, films like Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Dallas Buyers Club (2013) were made because they had stars like Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, and Jared Leto. What Bart and Fleming Jr. are saying here is exactly what I heard at a Toronto International Film Festival industry conference talk by a well-known producer, who referred to this same consequence and used Dallas Buyers Club as an example. It is difficult to find a resolution for this tension between the financial desires of producers, and the social-justice oriented audiences—like me—who want to see more authenticity and opportunity, which ideally involves casting actors who are unknown, emerging, and whose identities are congruent with the characters’.

Fortunately, Venice has its own award for best LGBTIQ* film, the Queer Lion (like Cannes’ Queer Palm, Berlin’s Teddy Award, and San Sebastián’s Sebastiane Award). But a look through the film lineup reveals the queer content to be slim. My guess—based on the limited information that the programming currently provides—is that the eminent Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho might take home the Queer Lion for Memories of My Body.

Despite the lack of focus on gender and sexual diversity at the Venice Film Festival, some interesting titles remain in this year’s programming. Below is a shortlist of films that can be supported—if you, like most people, and aren’t going to the insulated Venice Film Festival—by paying for the film or getting a friend to pay for them when they are screened at other festivals and in theatres.
1. The Nightingale. Dir. Jennifer Kent; Australia.

girl covered in blood

A film still from Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, starring Aisling Franciosi as Irish convict Clare, who lives in the colony of Van Diemen’s Land (currently the Australian state of Tasmania) in 1825. Courtesy of the film.

Australian filmmaker and actress Jennifer Kent’s debut film The Babadook, a supernatural horror film, was an overseas phenomenon following its success and recognition at Sundance in 2014. Her sophomore effort, The Nightingale, is a gothic period drama thriller set in 1825 in Van Diemen’s Land (currently the Australian state of Tasmania), which was then a penal colony. The film follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict seeking to avenge her family following a horrific act of violence committed by a British officer. On her journey, she meets Billy, an Indigenous tracker also grappling with his own trauma, who assists Clare in her pursuit of the British officer amid the treacherous Tasmanian wilderness. The Irish-Italian actress Franciosi is known for her work as Katie Benedetto in the British-Irish crime drama The Fall, and as Lyanna Stark on Game of Thrones.

Kent, who began her career as an actress, had lost interest in acting, and was galvanized by Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), which led her to pursue directing. She then contacted Trier after finding his email address, and wrote him a “really heartfelt email” where she explained why she wanted to come work with him, and that she would rather “stick pins in her eyes” than attend film school. Her email worked—she was invited to the set of Von Trier’s film Dogville, which she considers her version of film school.

2. Memories of my Body. Dir. Garin Nugroho; Indonesia.

A still from Memories of My Body, directed by the groundbreaking Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho, based on the story of the real life dancer Rianto. Courtesy of the Venice Film Festival.

Garin Nugroho’s latest film, Memories of My Body, tells the story of Juno, a child whose father abandons him in a village in the province of Central Java. In the absence of his father, Juno joins a dance center which practices the ancient Indonesian drag tradition of Lengger. The film is based on the true story of dancer and choreographer Rianto, who faced discrimination due to his group’s practice of the gender non-conforming dance practice. The film stars Muhammad Khan, Raditya Evandra, Randy Pangalila, Whani Darmawan, as well as Rianto himself.

For the uninitiated, Garin Nugroho is a groundbreaking Indonesian filmmaker who made his debut on the international film circuit in the 1990s with his films Love in a Slice of Bread in 1991, Letter to an Angel in 1994, and Bulan tertusuk ilalang (direct translation: “The moon is pierced by glass”) in 1995. His 1998 film Leaf on a Pillow that could be his entry into the global film scene’s prestige, in light of it being Indonesia’s entry for the 1999 Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film category. While it was not accepted for the Oscars category, it was screened at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section, which showcases films that offer nontraditional perspectives and exposition strategies. Nugroho is viewed as a pioneer in the cultural movement for a New Indonesia, which followed Indonesia’s loosening of New Order-era’s film industry regulations in the wake of the fall of Suharto’s regime, a leader whose tenure enacted severe restrictions on civil liberties. In addition to his work as a filmmaker of feature films, documentaries, and shorts, Nugroho is also a film critic for various Indonesian newspapers and a lecturer at the University of Indonesia.

3. Charlie Says. Dir. Mary Harron; USA.

Women in front of bus

The female-led cast of Charlie Says, directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol, The Notorious Bettie Page), and written by Guinevere Turner (American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page).

If you’ve seen Mary Harron’s 2000 film adaptation of the novel American Psycho, you already know that she has an exceptional directorial ability for conveying the inner workings of the mind of a psychopath. In American Psycho, the Canadian filmmaker depicted successful investment banker and unreliable narrator Patrick Bateman, whose murderous impulses did not evoke internal guilt (or did he really murder them?). This time, Harron is focusing on the story of another American psychopath (or sociopath), Charles Manson. However, rather than honing in on Manson himself, the film tells the stories of the three young women sentenced to death as a result of the “Manson Family” crimes they allegedly committed. But the death penalty was lifted in California in 1972, so their sentences were changed to life in prison. Karlene Faith—the writer of The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten—was assigned the task of teaching the incarcerated women about the Women’s Liberation Movement at the time and to educate them in the interest of recognizing that they were sexually exploited and abused by Manson. The film focuses on this aspect of the group’s experience after their lives with Charles Manson.

Based on Faith’s book and Ed Sanders’ 1971 novel The Family, the screenplay was written by Guinevere Turner, who also wrote the screenplay for Harron’s 2000 film American Psycho. Turner has also written three episodes of The L Word. Besides the woman-led directing and writing, the film features a cast of younger actresses, some of whom are emerging, while others are more recognizable. Adjacent to Matt Smith as Charles Manson are the women who were held responsible for the Tate killings: Hannah Murray (Ellie from the original British Skins cast and Gilly on Games of Thrones) as Leslie Van Houten; Marianne Rendón (Patti Smith in the 2018 film Mapplethorpe, alongside Matt Smith again as the titular character) as Susan Atkins; and Sosie Bacon (13 Reasons Why, Here and Now) as Patricia Krenwinkel. In the role of researcher Karlene Faith is Merritt Wever (Birdman, Tiny Furniture). Suki Waterhouse (Assassination Nation, The Bad Batch) plays the pregnant Mary Brunner (who infamously had Manson’s son, Valentine Michael Manson).

4. Suspiria. Dir. Luca Guadagnino; Italy.

Dakota Johnson in an eerie still from Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the 1977 supernatural horror (and low key lesbian film) Suspiria. Courtesy of the Venice Film Festival.

Whether you love or hate the fact that Dario Argento’s classic supernatural horror Suspiria (1977) is being remade, it has to be acknowledged that this is a major cultural event. Headlines were made in April when director Luca Guadagnino teased the film with a preview at CinemaCon, where the tweets from viewers described their being “traumatized” and nearly throwing up their lunch.

The remake stars Dakota Johnson as protagonist Susie Bannion; Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc; Mia Goth (Nymphomaniac, A Cure for Wellness) as Sara; Chloë Grace Moretz as Patricia Hingle; and Jessica Harper (who played the protagonist “Suzy Bannion” in the 1977 original) as Anke.

Besides the film’s female-led cast, there is another crucial reason this film has to be added to this list. In an attempt to refute accusations of misogyny, Argento said the following about the film in an interview with Xavier Mendik, published in Mendik’s book Bodies of Desire and Bodies of Distress: The Golden Age of Italian Cult Cinema (2014):

“[…] if you want to give a deeper reading of the film, it can be seen as a vaguely lesbian story; where lesbianism has a certain importance. Or, more precisely, where the relationships between women are sometimes of a lesbian nature and are characterised by power struggles.”

In the same interview, Argento added that the lack of an explicit lesbian storyline was a result of the “prudish” nature of the time. “I couldn’t fully express the lesbian theme and I really regret this. But, on the other hand, the implication is there and evident to those who want to see it.”

So, Suspiria is a queer film. I’m fine with that.

5. L’Enkas. Dir. Sarah Marx; France.

boy staring off into distance

French filmmaker Sarah Marx’s L’Enkas, starring Sandor Funtek (Blue is the Warmest Colour) and Sandrine Bonnaire (Vagabond, Under the Sun of Satan, La Cérémonie). Courtesy of the Venice Film Festival.

Co-written by Marx with Ekoué and Hamé Bourokba, L’Enkas is French filmmaker Sarah Marx’s first feature film, following her short Fatum (2012). In L’Enkas, protagonist Ulysse (Sandor Funtek, Blue is the Warmest Colour) has just been released from prison, and is focused on making some money. Feeling burdened by his mother Gabrielle’s depression and neverending bills, he seeks a life with more excitement. This leads to his hatching a plan with his best friend, who accompanies him to raves, where they attempt to sell a concoction of water and ketamine.

Information on Sarah Marx is scarce online, but her casting choices are promise a solid debut and forthcoming journey for her oeuvre. International art house audiences may recognize Sandrine Bonnaire (who plays Ulysse’s mother Gabrielle) as the lead in Belgian-French filmmaker Agnès Varda’s 1985 drama Vagabond, which was Bonnaire’s breakthrough role. She would go on to star in the 1987 Palme d’Or recipient at Cannes, French Maurice Pialat’s Under the Sun of Satan. The Venice Film Festival has also endowed Bonnaire with acclaim in the past—in 1995, she picked up the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival for her performance in French filmmaker Claude Chabrol’s internationally lauded thriller La Cérémonie.

6. The Day I Lost My Shadow. Dir. Soudade Kaadan; Syria, Lebanon, France, Qatar.

Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan brings her real-life experiences of the horror of the Syrian Civil War and aftermath to her sophomore film, The Day I Lost My Shadow. Courtesy of the Venice Film Festival.

Soudade Kaadan brought her real life perspectives with her second documentary film, Obscure (2017), which follows a six-year-old Syrian boy who can no longer speak due to the trauma he experienced in a Lebanese refugee camp. Her second film, the road movie drama The Day I Lost My Shadow is a fiction feature, but is perceptibly derived from her own experiences. The film tells the story of a struggling young mother Sana (Sawsan Arsheed) who is raising her eight-year-old son amid the chaos of the 2012 Syrian Civil War. Water and power outages are rife, but Sana still maintains a job. One day, she takes the day off work to buy a gas cylinder. When she meets two siblings also looking to buy gas—Jalal and his sister Reem—the three of them decide to take a taxi together. But when they encounter a checkpoint, the soldiers accuse the driver of being an activist. Worried that he may be arrested, the driver flees, and Sana, Jalal, and Reem are deserted in a village outside of the Syrian capital Damascus. There, Sana meets others who have experienced the loss of their shadow, the feeling of losing a part of one’s self while living in a war-torn place.

Kaadan was born in France, but moved to Damascus at 8 years old, where she lived until the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2012. When she began her first film project, she faced a creative block as a result of the horror of the Syrian War. The film became Obscure, which follows a six-year-old Syrian boy who can no longer speak due to the trauma he experienced in a Lebanese refugee camp. She grappled with this while embarking on her first film project, which became Obscure. Previously, Kaadan studied theatre criticism at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Syria, and graduated from the Institut d’études scéniques, audiovisuelles et cinématographiques (IESAV) at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, Lebanon.

Kristen Cochrane is a writer and graduate researcher at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. Her current research is located in queer cinema, particularly in Latin America, but she also writes on topics related to culture, film, media and their intersections with gender and sexuality. Her work has appeared in Amuse/i-D, AnOther, Teen Vogue, Somesuch, and VICE.

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