I found myself so surprised, and so impressed, that the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasekathul won best director at Cannes for what sounds like a beautiful film, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.”  Directors who hail from countries like Thailand — that is, countries seldom recognized for having vital film industries — have had a hard time there; all the more reason to celebrate Weerasekathul’s beating out an array of international powerhouses.  But because this is a blog about women and movies, I have to point out that none of the 19 films in the main contest at Cannes had female directors.  None.  There were 19 films, by 19 men.  Nor is this really a new trend.  Of the 212 films that have been in competition during the 2000s, only 17 were directed by women.  (That makes 92% of all films in competition during the last ten years male-directed.)

Damn it all, woman (you might ask):  what do you want, some kind of positive discrimination on women’s behalf?  Actually:  yes.  I was told recently that I needed to add a man to my all-female panel for an academic conference; why can’t these damn film festivals offer even a gesture of gender equity?  It sends the wrong message to do otherwise — on a variety of levels.

First, there’s the thorny question of “quality.”  Having zero women directors in competition suggests that “we’re just not that into” films by women — maybe because they just aren’t that good, and maybe because they’re presumed to address a niche audience.  (Only one woman has won the Palme d’Or for best director during the 60 years of the festival:  Jane Campion for “The Piano” in 1993.)  Yet no one really thinks that the 19 films chosen for competition were all measurably “better” than any film directed by a woman; no one felt it important enough to make the argument for a female-directed film.

Second, there’s the issue of how women get themselves behind the camera at all for great scripts and projects.  In a now-famous interview on Jezebel.com last year, the New York Times’ chief film critic Manohla Dargis ranted about the absurd sexism that reigns rampant in the profession: “This business is really about clubby relationships,” she explained.  “If you buy Variety or go online and look at the deals, you see one guy after another smiling in a baseball cap.  It’s all guys making deals with other guys.”

But she goes on to make an even more germane point about the industry overall.  It’s not simply that women are being prevented from succeeding, but that they’re not given the latitude to fail some of the time.

“Do you think that a woman would have been able to get forty million dollars to make a puppet movie the way that Wes Anderson has been able to make, bringing to bear all the publicity and advertising budget of Fox?  After two movies that didn’t make a lot of money?  I think this is true for a lot of black filmmakers too – they’re held to a higher standard.  And an unfair standard.  You can be a male filmmaker and if you’re perceived as a genius – a boy genius or a fully-formed adult genius – that you are allowed to fail in a way that a woman is not allowed to fail.”

This is a wholly exasperating situation.  At what point can we make the argument that by not improving the situation for female directors, writers, and actors by the year 2010, the international film industry is actually getting worse for women?