Female representation at the 29th Tokyo International Film Festival

It’s my first time at the Tokyo International Film Festival — having visited many film festivals around the world for the past decade (and even worked in programming for some) I have started to pay attention. Attention to the female representation in festival programs, that is. I was curious to see how many female film directors were represented at this years Tokyo IFF as the film festival prides itself to be one of the most important ones in Asia. And films are being produced in Asia, it’s a huge market to tap in to.
To find out how big of a percentage female filmmakers made in this year’s official program, I needed to study it carefully.
Having read similar reports on film festivals in the west, where results have been rather grim. I was prepared for it to be even worse in Asia as I know from my experience in living in East Asian countries that women are low represented in both the work force and art. 
The 29th edition of the Tokyo International Film Festival screened 126 films in its official program. Of these 126 films, 17 films were made by women (with one of the films being co-directed with a male). That’s 17 films against the rest of 109. I will later in this text present how I made the count.

A variety of categories
If one is interested in Asian cinema, this festival does have some really interesting categories. The Tokyo International Film Festival is the place to be to get updated on what everyone (note: prominent male directors) is up to. It is very clear that this festival likes to invite back the same talents, and that the festival is somewhat conservative and build up by traditions (my impression based on what I could find on previous programming and the names that are in this year’s edition). It is also clear to me that the festival screens a lot of big productions, productions by established filmmakers, but also big budget projects by first time directors. It was rather disappointing to see that the independent and experimental works were few and far between. The Tokyo International Film Festival is a feature film festival, and of shorts and documentary film (films that often have a higher female representation). I was also missing films with a LGBTQ focus. From what I can recall, only two films depicted stories from this community.

Let’s do the math
After studying the program catalogue and each film category, and spending heaps of hours in the theater, it was time to make the count. With pen and paper I started going through the festival catalogue and trying to remember how many press conferences I had attended where the filmmaker was a woman or a gender minority. I remembered just a couple. I wanted to break down the numbers in each category to be able to say something about the female representation and paint a picture how female representation is covered at this particular festival. One has to go through each and every category and also fact check that each director’s name indeed belongs to a woman. This years program had nine sections, as well as a retrospective dedicated to Japanese animator Mamoro Hosoda.

This year’s main competition section consisted of 16 films. Four of them made by female directors. Five of the films did depict stories about women, one of these being about a trans woman (the first LGBTQ representation I found in the program). Just one of the competition films was made by a Japanese female director, disappointing as this is the most important section of the program, with the Tokyo International Film Festival being one of (if the) important competition film festivals in Asia.

Films: 16
Films by female directors: 4
Percentage: 25%

2. Asian Future
This category highlights tomorrow’s stars from Asia, with a particular focus on Japanese, Korean and Chinese filmmakers. The Asian Future category is also a competition section but the spotlight is given younger filmmakers. It consisted of ten films, with two made by female directors. Four of the films told stories about women.

Films: 10
Films by female directors: 2
Percentage: 20%

3. Special Screenings
The next section in the program is the Special Screenings section and consists of films bought into Japanese distribution, or Japanese productions premiering over the next couple of months. This category consists of nine films, with only one made by a female director. Even though this section is small, the single female representation unfortunately gives an indication on what kind of movies are produced and bought into distribution in Japan.

Films: 9
Films by female directors: 1
Percentage: 11%

4. World Focus
The World Focus section is one of the program’s most exciting one, showcasing cinema from all over the world. Specifically cinema produced outside of East Asia. This year it consisted of 23 films, making it the largest category of the program. A special remembrance section within the category dedicated to two of Abbas Kiarostami’s films was included. I have decided to include these two films in my count.

Films: 23
Films by female directors: 3
Percentage: 13%

5. Japan Now
Japan Now highlights films by established, as well as up and coming Japanese filmmakers. 11 films are included in the program, five of these showcasing director Shunji Iwai. Unfortunately the lack of a broad female representation in this category might indicate that not enough Japanese films are made by female directors, or that they never reach the programmers’ offices.

Films: 16
Films by female directors: 1
Percentage: 6%

6. Crosscut Asia
This section is interesting as it only consists of Indonesian films made with support from Japanese co-producers. Financed partly by the Japan Foundation this section has become an integrated part of TIFFs programming.
Even thought the female representation was not that impressive, we do see the percentage being higher than other sections.

Films: 14
Films by female directors: 3
Percentage: 21%

7. Japanese Classics
This section is devoted to Japanese films that have been digitally or completely restored this year. The time span for productions are from the late 1920 and up until the 1980s. It was no surprise that not a single one of these films were made by a female director. Female directors were simply not making movies at this early stage.

Films: 7
Films by female directors: 0
Percentage: 0%

The Youth section is the festival’s children and teen program. Traditionally youth programs have a stronger female representation at film festivals than other programs, and this was also the case at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Keep in mind that the section is small, but the percentage of representation makes it one of the strongest female represented festival sections.

Films: 8
Films by female directors: 2
Percentage: 25%

9. Japanese Cinema Splash
This section is the most exciting one showcasing experimental and unique films made by Japanese directors. But again a huge disappointment due to the fact that of the eleven films, only one was made by a woman.

Films: 11
Films by female directors: 1
Percentage: 9%

10. Mamoro Hosoda retrospective
A retrospective section dedicated to animator Mamoro Hosado. I have decided to include this section in the final tally.
Films: 12
Films by female directors: 0
Percentage: 0%

Stories about women
A refreshing part of the programming was that I did see films depicting stories about older women, even if the films were made by male (or younger) directors. As elders have different and important roles in Asian families, the emphasis on these stories are important and counters the traditional Hollywood mainstream ageist storylines.
A problem that can occur if you are not updated on current issues and gender inequalities in other societies, is when certain audiences watch these films and are unable to pick up on possible cultural references that are misogynistic or hostile, due to some cultures being patriarchal. If the filmmaker is male, that is, portraying women through the eyes of the patriarch.

Lets do the final count:
Films: 126
Films by female directors: 17
Percentage: 13.49 %

To summarize: Almost 13.5 % of the films at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival were made by female directors. The categories with the highest representation of female directors were as follows:

  1. Competition, 25 %
  2. Youth, 25%
  3. Crosscut Asia, 21%
  4. Asian Future, 20%

With a low percentage of female representation, I want to emphasise that film festivals are not female filmmakers’ or any filmmakers’ enemies. They provide a safe space for showcasing talent and provide valuable networking, and also break boundaries. There are many complex reasons for why female directors are absent from the festival circuit. Perhaps not enough movies are made by women, or perhaps women are not submitting enough films for festival consideration. But worse case scenario: programmers are not conscious or interested in women’s stories, and do not make enough effort to include them in their official programs.

If we look outside this festival tendency with low female representation prevalent all over the world, and look out to Japanese society we can find an under-representation of women in all means of society. Even though the Tokyo International Film Festival is an international celebration of cinema, only three female Japanese film directors were represented in the program. This is unfortunate and with the current emphasis on strengthening the female workforce in society, it will be exciting to see if this transcribes to film and festival programming as well. Especially do we need to pay attention to the Japanese program categories the coming years: They will be a crucial indication if gender equality is being achieved in Japanese film making.
I encourage every film festival goer to take notice and pay attention to the programming and to do the count to see if there is gender equality in film festival programming. If not, keep pushing those female filmmakers out there.

Originally published at medium.com on October 31, 2016.

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