Award winning director Sofia Coppola at the Cannes Film Festival, May 14, 2014. Photo: Antonin Thuillier, Getty Images
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The unspoken glass ceiling of the film industry

A new report uncovers the gender imbalance in the film industry, made worse by the issue of class.

What do Angelina Jolie (A-Lister and humanitarian), Lynn Shelton (key figure in the mumblecore indie movement; that’s “naturalistic dialogue” for those of you who don’t read Vice), and Trish Sie (responsible for both the OK GO music video hit set on a treadmill and 3D dance smash Step Up 5) have in common? They’re the only female directors on IMDB’s list of the 50 most popular feature films released so far in 2014. 

In light of a new report which found that women directed only 5 per cent of the top 2,000 US box office hits in the past 20 years, this figure comes at no surprise. On the surface, this is yet another startling example of women being under-represented in a male dominated industry. But if you look at that tiny 5 per cent figure and analyse the backgrounds of the female directors who have smashed their way through the glass ceiling there is another key issue at play: class. The film industry invented the phrase "it's not what you know but who you know" and this attitude is pandemic across Hollywood.

Let’s look at the female directors everyone points to as the exceptions which prove the rule. First up: Sofia Coppola. While she undoubtedly has a prodigious talent and has made a name for herself with her love of dreamy slow-mo shots set to the soundtrack of shoegaze, she’s an easy target for cries of nepotism. Her father, Francis Ford Coppola, needs no introduction. From when Sofia appeared in The Godfather as a baby, she had access to a contacts book most aspiring young directors would kill for. Her first feature Lost In Translation rocketed to success and she became the first American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director before winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. In 2010 Sofia became the first American woman to win the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, for Somewhere which featured her recurring themes of fame and angst. While she has an impressive repertoire, managing to combine commercial success with an independent vibe, this been achieved safely within the golden circle of Hollywood's elite.

Next up for inspection is Kathryn Bigelow. While she was a student at Columbia she was friends with her tutor Susan Sontag and then worked with Philip Glass renovating properties. She later became the first and,so far only, female winner of the Oscar and Bafta Best Director awards for her work on The Hurt Locker. Finally, there's the second woman ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, Jane Campion, whose mother was an actress, writer and heiress to a shoe chain, and whose father was a prominent theatre and opera director.

While the reputation of these female directors is deservedly huge, their positions demonstrate the twofold nature of inequality of an industry which discriminates against women and those who have not had the fortune of a privileged upbringing.  Of the 100 best selling films of the last 20 years analysed by the report, 13 per cent of the editors, 10 per cent of the writers and just 5 per cent of the directors are women. If this was a bleak picture worthy of a still from Campion’s Top of the Lake then it gets grimmer, as the number of women on film crews has decreased from 22.7 per cent in 1994 to 21.8 per cent in 2014. This slight decrease highlights the ambivalence of the industry to this problem, as film boards and funders either don’t care or ignore the problem. For women to break through this glass ceiling the subtext is clear: if you don’t have wealth and contacts in Hollywood, then you're going to need a miracle to make it to the top.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times