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French women directors: the great news & the not-so-great

Maïwenn after she received the Prix du Jury, Cannes 2011 
The nominees for the French Césars have been announced. Unlike this year's nominations for the American Oscars, these acknowledge women's work. Directors Valérie Donzelli (La Guerre Est Déclarée, France's submission for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award) and Maïwenn (Polisse, winner of the Jury Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and best director at the Lumiere Awards, France’s equivalent to the Golden Globes, voted upon by foreign press correspondents in the territory) are two of seven directors nominated for Best Director. That's 28%, pretty good, and their films are also nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. There are only five nominations for Best Original Screenplay, so the gender proportion there is stronger: 40% (Valérie Donzelli co-wrote with Jérémie Elkaïm and Maïwenn co-wrote with Emmanuelle Bercot). Polisse has the highest number of nominations for any film: 13. And the Césars have a First Film category, where women directors are even more strongly represented: out of five nominations, three of the films have women directors: Delphine Coulin and Muriel Coulin (17 Filles); Alix Delaporte (Angèle Et Tony) and Eva Ionesco (My Little Princess). Yasmina Adi is the only nominee of five in the doco category (20%), for her Ici, On Noie les Algériens/ Here We Drown Algerians, about 17 October 1961 in Paris, when the National Liberation Front organized a rally for the independence of Algeria. Maurice Papon, the chief of police of Paris at the time, gave orders to quell the demonstration, and as a result dozens of dead bodies were found in the river Seine. When I look at the trailers for these films, I'm delighted by the presence of women in them. But alongside my delight, and as I warmly congratulate the nominees on their successes, I'm saddened by something new I've learned about gender and French film funding.

Ever since I started the Development project, now in its seventh year, people have told me “In France, women who write and direct features have no gender-related problems.” Sometimes, this leads to a conversation about how the French government strongly supports film-making as a strategy to strengthen French culture and support the language: there's a 'trickle down' effect—so much money available that it’s inevitable women receive more. And, as their representation at the Césars shows, French women’s filmmaking is strong. As well as these winners, there are films like Laure Charpentier’s Gigola, a highlight of last year’s OutTakes Festival here in Wellington. And last week I saw Celine Sciamma’s second, satisfying, film Tomboy: I came out into a summer evening soothed, as though I’d just been in a long meditation.

So, because of what I heard and because of the quality of French women’s films, I thought that (probably) being a woman writer and director in France did not involve the gendered problems that are common around the globe. And, of course, I remembered that Films de Femmes at Creteil (Paris, 30 March-8 April) has run for 34 years and has a consistent educative element, so it—again, probably—helped keep women’s film-making strong. BUT, the Centre National du Cinema et de l’Image Animée's (CNC) most recent statistics, for 2010 (found thanks to Her Film's link to the Swedish Film Institute site) show that French women filmmakers seem to share some of the problems that exist everywhere else.

France's wide-ranging financial support for the film industry involves a complex system of inter-relationships between the state and the private sector, difficult for me to analyse effectively, as a researcher from New Zealand in a language where I’m not fluent. But here’s what I found among the stats for the ‘French initiative’ films, ‘French 100% and mainly French coproductions’ according to the CNC site. In 2010, there were 178 of these films. Listed among them are Tomboy, 17 Filles, La Guerre Est Déclarée, I'm Not a Fucking Princess (My Little Princess' original title) and Polisse. Women directed 21% of these, a higher proportion than any other country I know of that year, and
better than Sweden,* with its gender equity policy, where women directed 19% of features state-funded for production and 11% of all features. But the average budgets of women-directed films were considerably less than those that men directed—€4 rather than €6.7m. (There were only three films that women directed with men, and these had the highest average budget: €6.92m.)

The CNC also provides information that shows whether the films funded are the directors' first, second or subsequent films, and this demonstrates that in women's careers, over time, the proportion of women-directed films decreases and that the gap between budgets for women-directed and men-directed films is larger for second and subsequent films than for first films. (La Guerre Est Déclarée is listed as a first film, but Valérie Donzelli also made another feature, La Reine des Pommes; I don't know what the CNC criteria are for 'first'.)

Women directed sixteen of the 'first' films, or 29%, and the average budgets for these films were €3.22m, in comparison with men’s, which were €4.5m, a €1.28 difference. There were 23 'second' features. Women directed six, or 26%, still good, but the gap between the average budgets grew: €3.46m for women and €6.36m for men, a €2.9m difference. There were 94 films with directors making their third or more features. Women directed fourteen, or 15%, with average budgets of €5.1m in comparison with average budgets of €7.6m for films with men directors, a €2.5m difference.

I'd love more information from French women about what they think causes these statistics. I wish I had time to analyse the list of 'Foreign' films funded, which includes Niki Caro's The Vintner's Luck, because it seems to me that the proportion of women-directed films in that list is smaller, but it involves checking a lot of unfamiliar names. Could it be that other countries, who access the rich benefits that France offers filmmakers are more likely to support films that men direct than women's films? Maybe someone else will check that out. I hope so.

The trailer for La Guerre Est Déclarée is here, among the other woman-directed Foreign Language Academy Award nominations. The others are—Polisse:

17 Filles:

Angèle Et Tony:

My Little Princess:

Ici, On Noie les Algériens:

Finally, there are always reasons beyond discrimination that affect women's careers. Meryl Streep powerfully articulates one reason, or group of reasons, which I think many women will find familiar, in this clip from a video interview with Morley Safer that I can't embed.

*This link changed November 2012 because the earlier one no longer worked.


  1. An email from France, and the sender is happy for me to post this from it. A big thank you to her! : "I've just read your article and find it really interesting because here in France I don't think I ever heard someone mention gender was an issue (I mean the men mostly). FYI, the CNC "first" films also include the second films. For having studied recently at la fémis, I can tell you that there were mostly men there, specially in departments such as sound or direction. There were more women in the departments distribution and screenwriting, but still. And I think it was far worse years ago... (la fémis –– is one of the big state film schools in the country, another one is Lumière - – but that one is even more 'masculine' since it is traditionally a more technical one.)"


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