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Australian women dominate in London

Women in Film was the theme of this year’s BFI London Film Festival – and none represented it better than Cate Blanchett and director Jennifer Peedom.

Australia’s Cate Blanchett and Jennifer Peedom have both been honoured at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, capping off a remarkable year for Australian screen talent.

Blanchett was presented with the BAFTA Fellowship for services to cinema, while Peedom won the prestigious Grierson Award for best documentary, for her film Sherpa, which has been enjoying rave reviews since premiering at Telluride last month.

“It feels fantastic to have won this award,”

“We have been inundated with messages of delight and support from the Sherpa community. It’s great for a film that was made with them to be receiving [this kind of] support,” Peedom said

This year’s BFI London Film Festival, which held its annual awards on Saturday night, has unashamedly focused on women in film. It opened with Suffragette, a film directed by a woman (Sarah Gavron) about female emancipation – only to have feminist action group Sisters Uncut stage a surprise protest, on the gala’s red carpet, demanding an end to violence against women.

A global symposium by Hollywood heavyweight Geena Davis soon followed, in which the Thelma and Louise star presented the stark reality of gender inequality for all to see. Who knew that women, consistently paid at least 20 per cent less than their male counterparts, were also three times less likely to have a speaking role on screen? At the current rate, it would take 700 years for gender parity to reach Hollywood, the Oscar winner pointed out.

But it was the near-ubiquitous presence of two-time Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett that provided some of the defining moments of this year’s Women in Film-themed event. Speaking ahead of a gala screening of Todd Haynes’s Carol, in which she plays a 1950s woman tormented by her love for another woman, she veered off script, declaring an end to the discussion that she feared would still be raging 12 months from now. It was high time, she said, that “We just got on with it.”

Blanchett was busily fulfilling triple duties at the festival. In addition to Carol and her BAFTA Fellowship, the Cinderella star also had the political fact-based drama Truth – partially shot in Australia – screening on Saturday night. In it, she plays 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes. Both are serious awards contenders.

Australian filmmakers were also well-represented throughout the festival, which is neatly positioned after Toronto as a showcase for the upcoming awards season. Australia’s Clare Stewart, now in her fourth year as director of the festival, hailed the diversity of the Australian films screening, adding that, “What’s really striking is that, with very few exceptions, all the feature films are first features by their directors.” Among the Australian directorial debuts screening were Simon Stone’s The Daughter and Ariel Kleiman’s Partisan.

Inevitably, though, Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa stood out proudly from the pack, with an awards campaign due to kick off in LA next month, following its deserving win in London on Saturday night. Peedom’s already busily working on Mountain, a Baraka-style follow-up. On the subject of correcting the gender disparity in film, she remains cautiously optimistic.

“Someone said to me at one of our screenings, ‘I don’t think a man could have made that film’, which was an interesting comment,” she said. “Perhaps a woman brings a different sensibility, casts a different eye. There are a lot of strong female characters in the film – maybe it did take a woman to look at this story in a different way.”

Ed Gibbs is a senior journalist turned producer. He writes for publications including The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, Empire and Rolling Stone. He has also produced the Crystal Bear-nominated Let’s Dance: Bowie Down Under, a rare documentary short about David Bowie in Australia, which premiered at the 65th Berlinale earlier this year, and screened at the 59th BFI London Film Festival last week.