Robin Askew, November 28, 2015
Bath Film Festival has always punched above its weight. Its enviable selection of events and exclusive previews draws an audience from a 40 mile radius, including plenty of cineastes from Bristol, which has no direct equivalent. But last year something strange happened. The festival attracted national and international attention, with stories in every British broadsheet paper, plus the Daily Mail and women’s magazines Elle and Marie Claire (and Bristol 24/7, obviously). Even a Chinese newspaper ran a piece.
What had piqued the hacks’ interest was the festival’s new F-Rating system. That’s F for feminist. This isn’t a radically new idea. It originated as the Bechdel Test, developed by US cartoonist Alison Bechdel, whose characters would only watch a film if it had two women in it who talk to one another about something other than a man. This was subsequently adopted as the A-Rating system by Ellen Tjele, who runs a chain of cinemas in Stockholm. Bath’s version tweaks the concept slightly. “I’m really interested in who’s telling the story, not just what the story is about,” explains Festival Producer Holly Tarquini, who came up with the system and is also leader of the Bath Women’s Equality Party.
To receive an F-Rating seal of approval, a film must meet one of three criteria. It has to be directed by a woman, written by a woman, or feature complex female characters who are not rescued by a man. This year, around 40% of the films screened at the BFF have bagged an F-Rating. Holly admits to being astonished by the amount of attention the Bath system has received. “It was amazing. We just expected theBath Chronicle to write a story about it, which they never did. It went all round the world. I even did an interview on Swedish radio.”
Curiously enough, Tory papers the Mail and Telegraph carried the most enthusiastic articles. “They were brilliant. The Guardian was definitely not the best, or the most supportive.”
Now the plan is to take things further, inviting other festivals and independent cinemas to adopt F-Ratings alongside those more familiar BBFC ones. The feedback has been mostly positive, although one woman who runs a film festival wrote back to say that she didn’t want to highlight the gender of filmmakers because she thought it was absolutely irrelevant and that films should be judged only on their merits. Indeed, it doesn’t take long to come up with other ‘Hang on a minute . . .’ objections to the whole idea, from films that are denied an F-Rating simply because of their subject matter rather than any gender bias to opportunistic, misogynist torture porn flicks that would qualify for a feminist thumbs-up. Then – how to put this delicately? – there are films that meet the Triple-F gold standard but are simply bloody awful. Take Catherine Hardwicke’s recent cancer weepie Miss You Already, for example (“the mawkishness is toe-curling” – The Independent), which fulfils all three criteria. Surely those who support the principle of gender equality in the film industry shouldn’t have to force themselves to sit through that?
“I know,” Holly groans. “That’s true of a lot of them. The beauty of equality is that women can make crap films just as well as men can. But it’s important to remember that the F-Rating isn’t a value judgement. It’s not saying, ‘This is a good film.’ It’s just like a Fair Trade stamp. What I like about the F-Rating is that it makes people have the conversation about who’s telling the stories we see on screen and how those stories influence people.”
In that regard, it seems broadly analogous to the Ig Nobel awards for improbable research that ‘first makes people laugh, and then makes them think’. “Exactly. It makes you think and makes you talk. Whether you agree with it or not, that’s an interesting conversation. Whether you think it’s necessary. Whether you think who tells the stories matters. Are there male stories and female stories?”
And in deference to old-skool socialists and thrusting young Corbynistas: what about the contention that class always trumps gender in debates about equality? “Yes, I totally agree. And I don’t know how to solve that. The gender thing is quite easy. Capitalism is the cause of so much inequality.”
The 25th Bath Film Festival runs from Dec 3-13. See the festival website for the full programme.