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Film Film industry should set a deadline for achieving gender parity

There's a great debate going on at the Cannes Film Festival this week: Is the glass of equality one-seventh full or is it six-sevenths empty?

Last year, there were complaints because only two of the 19 films in competition at the prestigious festival were directed by women; this year, that number has increased to three out of 21. Some media have decided that's an important step forward, suggesting the spotlight now shines on the British director Andrea Arnold (the much-praised road movie American Honey), the German director Maren Ade (the well-received comedy Toni Erdmann) and the French director Nicole Garcia, the auteur behind the drama From the Land of the Moon.

Other critics have pointed out that the number – one in seven – remains pathetic. When an audience applauded festival president Pierre Lescure as he speculated that in a few years women might hold his job and that of festival director Thierry Frémaux, too, you have to wonder if they were cheering the idea of promoting women – or the tantalizing prospect of booting the old boys out.

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To be fair to Frémaux, his choices merely reflect the product of the international film industry in which women remain almost invisible behind the camera – as they do in Hollywood. Women directed only 9 per cent of Hollywood's 250 top-grossing films in 2015; in the past decade, less than 14 per cent of British films were directed by women; currently, only 16 per cent of working Australian directors are women.

These depressing and stubborn numbers, which are as low as they were 10 or even 20 years ago, have led to protests and proposals.

In the United States, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has just launched an investigation into Hollywood hiring practices after complaints from the American Civil Liberties Union. Directors UK, the British professional association, has called for gender parity in all publicly funded films there by 2020.

And, of course, here at home, the National Film Board has announced that, by 2020, half of its films will be directed by women and half of its funding will go to films directed by women. But the real story in Canada is whether Telefilm, the government investment agency that lends money to commercial producers, can be shamed into doing the same.

The NFB's pledge will be relatively easy to fulfill; there are many more female documentarians than feature-film directors and the organization, which was nearing gender parity anyway, has a long history of producing films by and about women.

The numbers at Telefilm, however, are as sad as any of the international comparisons: Women in View, an organization dedicated to gender parity in Canadian film and television, calculated that, of the 91 feature-length films in which Telefilm invested in 2013-2014, only 17 were directed by women.

But it gets much worse than that: Where Telefilm invested more than $1-million, the number of female directors falls to 4 per cent.

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Naomi Jaye, a Toronto film director, is determined Telefilm must change this, and has been lobbying the agency and the federal government ferociously all winter. Almost 500 people have signed a petition she started on the topic; her idea is that some time before Sunday evening when the Cannes festival wraps up and the stars go home, Telefilm executive director Carolle Brabant should stand up in front of the world and tell them that Canadian film is taking a gender-parity pledge.

Well, that's the fantasy, anyway. Last month, Telefilm, in a rather lukewarm response to the pressure, indicated that it is consulting the industry on this complex issue and wanted to ensure that any action it took produced concrete results. Still, it's clear the agency will have to do something. Why? Because the money it is investing (which is only paid back if a film makes a profit) is public.

Hollywood always has to balance the social pressure to get with the times and commercial realities in the multiplex: It will face a crucial test of audiences' appetite for gender equity on screen this summer when Columbia Pictures releases a reboot of Ghostbusters lead by four female comic actors.

But Canadian film, as with any European cinema, is heavily underwritten by government investments and thus can be called on directly to better reflect the population that is footing the bill.

This is happening in many other Western countries: Screen Australia recently unveiled a $5-million, three-year plan to improve its nasty statistics by directly funding female-lead projects, improving distribution of female-lead films and investing in more mentorship for women. The Swedish Film Institute, on the other hand, simply announced in 2011 that, in three years, half of its funding would go to projects directed by women, and then achieved that goal both by helping female directors get funding for second or third films and by helping existing projects find female directors. Similarly, the Irish Film Board has given itself until the end of 2018 to achieve parity in its funding, using some of the same approaches.

Telefilm's choice looks fairly simple: The very least it can do is announce a realistic plan to advance women's representation in the projects it funds, in time for the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

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The bolder move would be to set a deadline for achieving parity. Status quo is no longer an option.

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