Female Representation at the Berlinale 2015

In 2015 I paid my first visit to the International Film Festival in Berlin, known as the Berlinale. One of the things I looked at while I was there was the representation of female directors in the festival programme.

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Fronting female directors is something that I work with in other settings as well, not least through the (Norwegian language only) feminist film website Filmamasoner. However, as it was my first visit to an event of this size and which has such a massive influence on the international film business, it was very interesting for me to look at the issue of representation from a new, or least much wider, angle than I normally do. One of my driving forces behind doing work like this is that I believe we need to keep pushing films by female directors until we no longer feel the need to use terms like “women’s films” at all – but just see them as films.

For me, one of the most fascinating things about cinema is its ability to reflect and in some cases explain what it means to be human; what it means to live in a certain time, a certain place, a certain body. Cinema can hold up a mirror and show us our own reality, allowing us to see it with fresh eyes.

A window to the world

International film festivals are some of the biggest showcases of what international cinema looks like at any given point in time. The festivals can seek out films from all over the globe, and strive to find gems that few, or even no-one, have discovered before. To present their audiences with something entirely fresh and new! As film festival scholar Marijke de Valck has said, “one of the main achievements of the festival curcuit is the opportunity for screenings of films that might not otherwise have found a global audience”. It seems to me, however, that many international festivals, including the Berlinale, are not quite living up to that potential.

Because what films are we used to seeing in the multiplexes that make up commercial, Western cinema? We are used to seeing films that are made by a very homogeneous group of people, who in turn can only be expected to tell one side of the story. It has become a cliché, because it is still true: it is the white, straight man who gets to tell us his story. And by all means; many white, straight men have very interesting stories to tell. In fact, some of my favourite films are made by straight, white men. However, they are not the only ones with stories worth telling – and it just might be that they are not the most suitable to tell stories about what it is like to live as a woman, a gay or otherwise non-straight, cis person, as part of an ethnic minority, as a disabled person, or anyone else who tends to be severely underrepresented in popular culture, cinema being no exception.

A place in the public eye

Focusing on representation of women is important because throughout modern history we have seen that fighting for women’s rights and representation has led the way for other minorities to be able to claim their rightful place in the public eye. Therefore, a lot depends on this.

Even the Oscars this year seemed to have consciously focused on the issue as representation (more than usual, at least): an openly gay host and presenters of different nationalities, genders and skin colours. (And of course, those speeches!)

So when I sat down just after the Oscars to look at the numbers, the hard facts, from this year’s Berlinale, the disappointment was all the bigger.

The festival programme

What follows is a brief presentation of my findings by going through the entire festival programme of the Berlinale 2015, and looking at how many female directors were included in each section of the programme as well as in total. I have only looked at representation of directors, not at “women’s films” by theme, main characters, other female crew, and so on.

There are some sections I have not included, for various reasons: Homage which in its entirety is dedicated to one director, this year Wim Wenders; Forum Expanded because it includes a number of non-cinema works and events; the side sections Culinary Cinema and Berlinale Goes Kiez; and Berlinale Talents and Open House because they focus on events rather than cinema screenings. I have looked at the numbers for the Teddy films ( the Teddy Award is the Berlinale’s LGBTQ award), but not included these in the total numbers as the Teddy films are incorporated elsewhere in the programme. We are then left with the following sections:

  • The Main Competition
  • Berlinale Shorts – the official short films section
  • Berlinale Special
  • Panorama
  • Forum – traditionally the most political section
  • Generation – films aimed at a younger audience
  • Perspektive Deutsches Kino
  • Retrospective: Glorious Technicolour
  • Berlinale Classics – classics from the festival archives
  • NATIVe: Indigenous Cinema
  • LOLA at Berlinale – a display of new, German talent

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 16.28.35

All of the aforementioned sections put together make out 375 films. Out of these films, 85 have a female director (included ones where there is a male co-director). That’s 22.7% of the total, or we could say that for every 22 films by male directors there are only 5 by female directors.

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As you can see here, red marks the number of male directors and blue marks the number of female directors.

  1. The Main Competition includes only 3 films by female directors out of a total 23 feature films. 4 out of those 23 films are not actually in competition, landing us on a total of 16% female directors amongst the competing films.
  2. Berlinale Shorts just manage to make it past the 20% mark, with 7 out of 34 short films having been made by a female director.
  3. Berlinale Special is just below that, with 4 out of 22 films.
  4. Panorama: 11 out of 53
  5. Forum: 11 out of 54
  6. Generation is the “winner” here, with 36.1%, or 26 out of 72, films in the section being made by a female director. This section includes short films (18/38), feature length films (7/33) and one TV series (1/1!).
  7. Perspektives Deutsches Kino follows right behind, boasting 35% female directors: 7 of its total 20 films.
  8. Retrospective is the definitive loser with no female directors. Might this be due to the theme for this year’s retrospective section, Technicolour? It is a theme that focuses on the technical ascpects of film, and if we allow ourselves to generalise for a moment maybe we could say that traditionally, male directors have been more preoccupied with this sort of technology?
  9. Berlinale Classics includes only 5 films in total, one of which are directed by a woman. So while it trails right behind Retrospective, it is simultaneously ahead of several other sections with its 1/5th female directors.
  10. NATIVe: Indigenous Cinema is a section which focuses largely on narratives and social issues, which are pretty typical themes for a very generalised woman to be interested in. This section is definitely one of the best ranking in this review, but still includes only 6 out of 18 films by female directors.
  11. LOLA is significantly less impressive, with only 9 female directors from 38 films.

It is also worth noting that the 36 films which compete for the Teddy award include only 8 female directors.

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This chart looks closer at which themes and genres are covered by the Berlinale’s female directors. No films with only male directors are included. This is not meant to be a complete or exhaustive list, but rather it includes points that I have picked out because I found them interesting. For example, I included documentaries because a significant number of the films are documentaries, and I have included themes like sexuality and social issues because they are widely seen as typical “women’s” issues.

That as many as 18% of the female directed films are documentaries should not come as a surprise, as this seems to be a sort of international trend. In my home country Norway we see lots of new, exciting documentaries being made by female filmmakers, and it is my impression that this is representative for the international documentary climate. Documentaries share the top spot with films we can refer to as “Indigenous cinema” (most, but not all are from the NATIVe section). Unsurprisingly these are shortly followed by films about social issues and sexuality (including the one and only 50 Shades of Grey…), each with 13% female directors.

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This final chart shows which parts of the world the female directors at Berlinale 2015 were from. I thought this would be interesting to include because as I have mentioned, I think of female representation as a gateway to representation of other groups as well.

As the hosting country, Germany is naturally very well represented – just like any host country for an international film festival tends to be – and are as such the only individual country included in this chart. The 9 films from South America (including Central America, forgot to put that in the chart – sorry Central America) are mainly from the NATIVe section, though a couple of films with similar themes were from other sections. It is indeed good news to see several Asian and Middle Eastern female directors are included, but sadly none from Sub-Saharan Africa. Sad, but perhaps not very surprising?

Small change

The brilliant website Women & Hollywood have been covering the Berlinale for several years, with a specially dedicated look at how many female directors are represented at the festival. One of their articles is from the 2013 edition of the Berlinal, and from the numbers mentioned there it appears that the situation was very much the same as it was this year – in spite of a dedicated panel debate titled You Cannot Be Serious – A Discussion on the Status of Women Directors, as well as festival director Dieter Kosslick pronouncing that “gender” would be one of the central themes of the festival.

In other words the conditions are pretty stable (but low) for the time being when it comes to female representation at the Berlinale, which in its turn is one of the leading representatives of international film culture and politics. But bearing in mind that the article I referred to is only two years old, that is by all means not a very long time at all for such a massive, international industry. Fingers crossed that we will witness a slow, but steady progress in the years to come.


This review was first published in Norwegian over at Filmamasoner.

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