Julia Ducournau to Tang Yi, 5 women who made history at the film festival

A photo of Julia Ducournau (L) and Tang Yi (R).

Strong points

  • Cannes Film Festival has long faced criticism of gender imbalance
  • However, the 74th edition of the festival tried to solve the problem.
  • This year, the women won 5 of the grand prizes awarded at the film festival


The Cannes Film Festival has long, and not without reason, been criticized for the gender imbalance in its official selection and the composition of its jury. The 74th edition of the festival, held in the shadow of a pandemic and returning after a sabbatical year, made a concerted effort to address the issue. When the curtains fell on the 12-day event, women made history, winning five of the main awards given out in sections of the festival.

In the main jury of Spike Lee’s International Feature Film Competition, women were in the majority – five out of nine – for the first time in the festival’s history. Besides the three other men on the panel – Kleber Mendonca Filho, Tahar Rahim and Song Kang-ho – the jury was made up of Mati Diop, Mylene Farmer, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jessica Hausner and Melanie Laurent. It is impossible to know if the five women of the jury tipped the scales in favor of Julia Ducournau. If they did, more power for them!

The Un Certain Regard Jury, made up of five members, also included three women: President Andrea Arnold, director-screenwriter Mounia Meddour and actress Elsa Zylberstein. The other two members were filmmaker Daniel Burman and director-producer-actor Michael Covino.

Two other festival juries – one for the Camera d’Or, the other for the Cinéfondation and the Short Films – were also directed by women, the first by the actress Mélanie Thierry, the second by the filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania.

Women have not only won the greatest prizes, they have also, by making the history of Cannes, represented all corners of the globe, dealing a blow to diversity:

Julia Ducournau, Titanium


A photo of Julia Ducournau.

The 37-year-old French outfitter of body horror won the Palme d’Or with just her second film, Titanium, a wild and conflictual work where shock and schlock go hand in hand. It’s a genre film about a serial killer who is impregnated by a car and then masquerades as the son of a lone firefighter. Go figure! One reviewer described Titanium like “a nightmarish but mischievously comical barrage of sex, violence, sordid lighting and pounding music”.


A poster of Titanium.

Winning the festival’s top prize to the surprise of many critics, Ducournau said: “There is so much beauty and emotion that can be found in what cannot be cataloged. This is precisely what the young director was looking for in her equally provocative debut film Raw, which premiered in 2016 at Cannes Critics’ Week and immediately marked her as a talent to watch. Ducournau is only the second female director to win the Palme d’Or. New Zealander Jane Campion was the first – she won in 1993 for The Piano.

Kira Kovalenko, Loosen fists


Kira Kovalenko during the making of Loosen fists.

Kira Kovalenko’s second effort, Loosen fists, was voted best among the 20 titles competing for the Un Certain Regard Prize. Incredibly, she is the very first female winner in the award’s 24-year history. Yet this singular year, the rising 31-year-old Russian film star was not the only woman in the section to have won. The Franco-Tunisian actress-director Hafsia Herzi won the Ensemble pour Bonne Mère award (Good mother) and Romanian-Belgian director Teodora Ana Mihai won the Courage Prize for La Civil. This is not all either. The Salvadoran-Mexican filmmaker received a Special Mention from the Jury of English Director Andrea Arnold for Prayers for the stolen. Kovalenko, whose first film was Sofichka (2016), is the product of a workshop organized by Russian author Alexander Sokurov in his remote hometown at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains. Loosen fists tells the story of a young woman whose family moved to some mining town as a result of traumatic events. She fights to free herself from her father’s grip even as the past casts a shadow.

Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic, Murina


Murina director Antoneta Alamat Kusijaanovic and her 18-year-old star Gracia Filipovic.

Croatian director Murina won the Camera d’Or, the Cannes Film Festival award for best first film. The Camera d’Or is a Cannes award (it was instituted in 1978) which did not oust the female directors. Mira Nair from India (Salaam Bombay!, 1988) and the Hungarian Ildiko Enyedi (My 20th century, 1989) are among several other women who have had their names stamped on the trophy. Murina, who played at the Directors’ Fortnight, is developing the filmmaker’s short film In the blue. The female protagonist of Murina, played by Gracija Filipovic, is a girl who has reason to be unhappy with a father who throws all his weight around the house, leaving no room for her and her mother. And then a rich male acquaintance comes to call her and the harassed but courageous girl sees in the presence of the man an opportunity not only to find her feet, but also to find a way to free herself. Kusijanovic, who has spent a considerable part of her adult life in New York City, is clearly a director ready for bigger things.

Payal Kapadia, A night without knowing anything


A photo of Payal Kapadia.

With A night without knowing anything, an experimental epistolary docu-fiction set against a backdrop of student unrest, Mumbai-born Payal Kapadia did what no Indian filmmaker, let alone a woman, has done before. She won the Golden Eye for best documentary at the Cannes Film Festival. The most recent of the festival’s competitions – it only launched in 2015 – had 28 films in contention. The Golden Eye jury was chaired by American documentary director Ezra Edelman. Kapadia’s victory is all the more significant as his film was in competition with the last works of many heavyweights of world cinema: Todd Haynes (The velvet metro) Andrea Arnold (Cow). Pierre Olivier (JFK revisited: through the looking glass) Marco Bellocchios (Marx can wait) and Sergei Loznitsa Babi Yar, The context. Also in the field, Mark Cousins’s The history of cinema: a new generation and Rahul Jain Invisible demons.


Payal Kapadia during the presentation of his film at the Directors’ Fortnight.

Payal Kapadia is the third Golden Eye woman in six years to win the award. French cinema legend Agnes Varda won the Faces Places award in 2017 and Syrian journalist and director Waad al-Kateeab won it in 2019 for the film For Sama.

Tang Yi, All the crows in the world


A photo of Tang Yi.

This year’s Palme d’Or for Short Films was won by New York University student Tang Yi from Hong Kong. His 14-minute film, All the crows in the world, tells about an 18-year-old student who is invited to a party by her cousin. The party is filled with jaded middle aged men and the girl is understandably mystified. But one of the men is not like the others: as the night progresses, an unlikely bond is formed between the two.


A still of All the crows in the world.

In accepting the award, Tang Yi pointed out that the story came from his personal experiences. She thanked New York University and asked them to allow her to graduate in September, a reminder that much of the world has yet to get back on the road to action and is dying to do.

About Monty S. Maynard

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