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Feminists and filmmakers have complained that not a single female director features in the official selection for the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, which opens today.
Europe's most glamorous film festival opens in the south of France this evening. And not a single female director is in competition to win its main prize, the Palme d'Or.
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In an open letter published in French newspaper Le Monde, filmmakers and feminist groups argue that the selection sends a negative message to movie professionals and audiences all over the world.
"What better mouthpiece than cinema, than Cannes, the most prestigious festival in the world, for this perpetual message? [...] You have managed to block any hope women might have of aspiring to a place in this tightly guarded milieu.
"Above all, don't let young girls imagine that they might one day have the audacity to direct movies and go up the steps of the Palais [des Festivals, the main venue] other than on the arm of a prince charming."
The letter complains that women's role at the festival is confined either to muse or mistress of ceremonies, pointing out that only one woman has ever been awarded the Palme d'Or: Jane Campion, who won with The Piano in 1993.
The letter was written by feminist activist group La Barbe ("the beard") and signed by a dozen directors, actors and writers from around the world, including Fanny Cottençon, Virginie Despentes, Annie Ernaux and Nancy Huston.
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The festival director, Thierry Fremaux, has defended the jury's selection, the BBC reported. He insisted that judges "would never select a film that doesn't deserve it just because it is directed by a woman."
Meanwhile mistress of ceremonies Bérénice Bejo dismissed the criticism as "unfair," according to news site Rue 89. Asked on French radio about the festival's predilection for glamorously dressed hostesses, the star of The Artist said: "There are things that women do better, perhaps, than men."
"It's the maternal element, I think, the sweetness of a mother," she continued. "Being a mistress of ceremonies has that side to it, fairy tale."
Four women are on this year's nine-person jury: director Andrea Arnold and actresses Diane Kruger, Emmanuelle Devos and Hiam Abbass.
Three female directors have films in the category reserved for newcomers, Un Certain Regard.