Tickets for the second leg of the Berlinale went online today, with the ticketing system plagued by “technical problems” due to “great interest” (well, duh), betraying to what extent the Berlinale and the majority of its ticket providers were laughably underprepared. Regardless, whether you’re a lucky ticketholder or a pissed off page-refresher, it’s time to address whether a vital conversation has been overlooked.
As of this year, the Berlinale has become the first major international film festival to go gender-neutral for its acting prizes. They were doled out online this March, without the fanfare they deserved and robbing the public of an important discussion on how (and if) the new prizes champion diversity in cinema. Indeed, due to the lack of an IRL festival earlier this year, it feels like the desired conversation around this landmark decision may have been lost in the white noise of lockdown.
Berlinale directors Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian announced back in August that the four acting awards – Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress – were no more, and that there would now be just two prizes: Silver Bear for Best Leading Performance and Silver Bear for Best Supporting Performance. Rissenbeek stated that the decision to have genderless awards was intended to spark further discussions around gender justice, something Chatrian confirmed in our interview with him: “This decision is in many ways the result of living in a city like Berlin which is very much at the forefront of progressive elements in our culture. We don’t want to get rid of cultural difference and identities, but it’s good when these things are not barriers.”
The decision was welcomed by screen stars such as Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, with the latter saying that the Berlinale’s decision to consign gendered acting awards to history was “eminently sensible” and that it is “inevitable” that gender-neutral awards will become the standard across the film industry.
While Swinton’s word is gospel for some, I can’t deny I go back and forth on this matter. When the decision was announced, my first reaction was to cheer. Too right, I thought, you wouldn’t have a gendered distinction for directing awards so why should there be one for acting? If Chloé Zhao and David Fincher can compete for a directing prize, then logic would dictate that Carey Mulligan and Riz Ahmed can do the same for acting. A performance is great regardless of gender and the Berlinale’s decision can only be a forward-thinking one.
The film industry is an uneven playing field, rife with institutional sexism, and one which favours cisgender men for lead roles.
That said, consider the unintended consequences of doing away with sex-specific categories. Overarching sections mean fewer statuettes, reducing the potential for visibility; fewer worthy performers may get short-listed and removing barriers may inadvertently strengthen institutional disadvantages for women. Gender-neutral awards can be seen as socially progressive and may help transgender and non-binary performers but the issue goes deeper than awards. The film industry is an uneven playing field, rife with institutional sexism, and one which favours cisgender men for lead roles. This year may have seen Maren Eggert win the Berlinale’s first ever gender-neutral Best Performance prize for her role in the ironically titled I’m Your Man and Lilla Kizlinger win Best Supporting Performance for Forest – I See You Everywhere, but with men still having more opportunities to perform leading roles, it’s only a matter of time before all acting awards in a given year go to male performers. It’s not hard to imagine the potential justified outcry.
While an important part of the process in their own right, awards are only the glossy final step and equitable opportunities need to start earlier in the filmmaking process. If gender-neutral awards can further discussion and lead to meaningful change (meaning more diverse studios, funding institutions and voting bodies), then they are to be championed. Without proper conversation and a decent amount of fanfare however, we run the risk of seeing gender-neutral awards becoming a virtue-signalling cherry on a cake in dire need of better ingredients. Gender-neutral awards may be a welcome, well-intentioned start but filmmaking as an industry has a lot of work to do before it warrants the applause it so desperately wants.