Women are the talk of the Cannes Film Festival, where debate rages about why they are so plentiful in front of the camera and so scarce behind it.
Long criticized for its dearth of female directors, Cannes opened this year with a film by a woman for the first time since the 1980s. The selection coincides with a spate of industry soul-searching that has seen high-profile women talk publicly about the challenges they face in a male-dominated industry.
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"One thing that was difficult for me was integrating my family with my career," actress Isabella Rossellini said Thursday at the first of a series of talks on women in cinema sponsored by French luxury firm Kering.
"I think a lot of women cannot be directors because they have children and they have to take care of them," said the "Blue Velvet" star, who has directed an acclaimed series of short films on the sex lives of animals.
She said long Hollywood hours are "unbelievably difficult for family," and in the U.S. "you can tax deduct lunch with your business partner but not a baby-sitter."
The gender imbalance in filmmaking has spurred the American Civil Liberties Union to ask U.S. employment authorities to investigate Hollywood's "systemic failure" to hire female directors. The ACLU says women represented only 7 percent of directors on the 250 top-grossing movies last year — 2 percentage points lower than in 1998.
Melissa Silverstein of the advocacy group Women and Hollywood welcomed the ACLU action as a "first salvo in the bigger conversation" about why there are so few women behind the camera.
"It puts it out there in a much broader way in our culture," she said.
But Rossellini doubted that employment investigation held the key to gender balance. She said such a change requires more than a few more women at the top.
"It's a cultural thing," she said. "It needs to change culturally altogether, all of us."
The male-female ratio among directors is better in Europe than in Hollywood, but women are under-represented as filmmakers around the world.
Although Cannes kicked off Wednesday with Emmanuelle Bercot's out-of-competition drama "Standing Tall," only two of the 19 films competing for its top prize, the Palme d'Or, are directed by women.
There are a few more female-directed movies sprinkled throughout the lineup, and the festival is awarding an honorary Palme trophy to French New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda.
Bercot said she did not think her film had been chosen to open Cannes because she was a woman, and insisted female filmmakers are catching up to their male counterparts.
"We can't say that we suffer from any form of discrimination (in France)," she told reporters. "Things are working and developing in the right direction. We have to catch up with 50 years of history, we women as directors."
Onscreen, women have always been prominent though they have not always been the main protagonists in mainstream movies.
Claudie Ossard, the French producer of "Betty Blue" and "Amelie," said Thursday that the movies lagged behind TV, where shows such as "The Killing," ''Borgen" and "Homeland" have strong, complicated female protagonists.
Bollywood actress Katrina Kaif, however, said she had seen changes in the way Indian cinema depicts women.
"There has been a big shift," she said. "(There's) a lot of films with very strong female characters, a lot of films that are doing well where the female protagonist . has got a very strong personality, (an) independent mind."
Angela Chen contributed to this report.
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