Agnès Varda hits out at European cinema’s failure to recognise women
Veteran French director makes impassioned plea at European film awards for more women to be celebrated across cinema
Agnès Varda, the veteran French film director best known as the mother of the new wave, has made an impassioned plea to see more women celebrated across cinema.
Accepting a lifetime achievement award at the European film awards, Varda, 86, who has been an outspoken feminist throughout her six-decade career and created some of the most interesting female protagonists in 20th-century cinema, said she was honoured to receive the award but ws disappointed by the lack of women being recognised alongside her.
“What I have noticed is that it is very sweet to receive this award but when I see the nominees here, I feel there are not enough women,” she said. “I think more women should be included. I know a lot of very good female directors and women editors and I would like them be more represented and helped by the European film academy.”
Held in the Latvian capital, Riga, the awards were a kitsch ceremony more reminiscent of the Eurovision song contest than the Oscars with the evening’s eccentricities including the host, German comedian and author Thomas Hermanns, donning pink legwarmers and doing a dance routine to Maniac on the Dancefloor.
However, a strong political current ran through the event, with an empty chair left for Crimean director Oleg Sentsov, who was recently imprisoned Russia for criticising its actions in Ukraine, while Hermanns, who is gay, told the audience: “Other countries not far from here could put me directly in jail. So I am very happy to be on this side of the Russian-Latvian border.”
The big winner of the night was Polish film Ida, which claimed five of the night’s awards including best film. The last two winners of the award, The Great Beauty and Amour, have gone on to claim the Oscar for best foreign-language film, but Pawel Pawlikowski, who also picked up the award for best director for Ida, refused to speculate on his film’s chances.
Ida, shot in black and white, tells the moving tale of a young orphan nun in 1960s Poland who visits her last remaining relative before she takes her vows and discovers her parents were Jewish and murdered in the holocaust.
Eric Abraham, one of Ida’s producers, dedicated the awards to the surviving relatives of the 3 million Polish Jews who died. Both Rebecca Lenkiewicz, the British playwright who co-wrote the screenplay for Ida with Pawlikowski, and Ewa Puszczynska, Ida’s other producer, also echoed Varda’s comments about women in cinema.
“There are a lot of women directors not recognised yet who I believe are very talented,. The same with cinematographers,” said Puszczynska. “There are various reasons why there are less women. We have families, we give birth to children, and that’s usually what keeps us back from being in the mainstream of our professions. In this industry it is still very difficult to leave to have a family and then come back. So very often it is a matter of sacrificing something, and that has lead to there being less women in the film industry than there should be.”
Lenkiewicz, who is based in London, said that for women working in both theatre and film “there is a certain arena and you have to get your boxing gloves on and be quite tough”.
“Traditionally it has been a man’s world but I think there is a wave of exciting change,” she added. “Not that we must stop fighting, we must keep the fight up because there is inequality in many areas and sexism rife throughout the industry. But I do think there is a certain energy, force and intelligence that is proclaiming ‘the women are coming and have been here for many years’, as Agnès Varda is a testament”.
The award for best actor went to Timothy Spall for his acclaimed depiction of Turner in Mike Leigh’s biopic of the artist, a role which already won the British actor best actor at the Cannes film festival and has led to him being tipped for an Oscar.
Discussing the complexities of playing a character he described as being of “implosive intellect and implosive emotion”, Spall said: “It is the most challenging role I’ve played, it’s always challenging with Mike but in a good way because he asks you to contribute and co-create the character with him. Obviously in this case we were creating a very complex and very incongruous man, different to what people expect after they see his work. It was very important to me that we found the real character inside the genius of his painting … the whole process of working with Mike Leigh is one of research and improvisation.
“There was a period after the film where I couldn’t look at a paintbrush without feeling sick but that’s because it was so much about trying to inhabit the character … The grunting is the steam that comes out of Turner’s soul.”
He added: “I’ve always drawn and doodled mad things from my head. I draw and paint a lot of angels I invent from my head. The only difference between them before and after the film is that they are much better.”
Asked after the ceremony about how he saw his chances at the Oscars, Spall said thinking about them made him feel sick.
“I don’t know about that and one doesn’t want to tempt fate,” he said, laughing. “Look, the Oscars are a big word with a small statue. It’s a lovely thing if you get one but when you boil it down to the bare essentials it’s an in-house industry award. It’s the equivalent really of Latvian businessman of the year, it just happens to be for actors in huge movies so is amplified a billion times.”
12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen also accepted the prestigious award for European achievement in world cinema. In a video tribute, actor Michael Fassbender, who has starred in all three of McQueen’s features, paid tribute to the genius and “fantastic humanity” of the director.
McQueen also spoke for the first time about his next feature film, which will be an adaptation of the 80s British television heist thriller Widows.
“It’s a great story and it’s four women lead characters, which is very different from any gangster movie I could think of or any heist movie I could think of,” he said. “I just loved the idea of working with four strong women as leads in a feature film.” He also said he had begun writing and working on his planned series with the BBC about the black experience in Britain from the 1960s to the present day, and said the project was “ticking over as we speak”.
The best actress awardwent to Marion Cotillard for Two Days, One Night while best comedy went to Italian film The Mafia Only Kills In Summer.
This article was amended on 15 December 2014 to correct the screenplay credit for Ida.