Jane Campion has received countless awards and accolades throughout the course of her filmmaking career, but her triumph at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival may very well be her most significant. Her second feature film, The Piano, won the Palme d’Or that year, sharing the award with Farewell My Concubine (also part of the Miramax library). The event marked only the fourth time since 1975 that two films tied for the festival’s top honor, but it also signaled a far more important cinematic milestone. With her victory, Campion became the first female director to ever win the Palme d’Or, ending a nearly 40-year run of male hegemony.

Nearly 20 years have passed since Campion’s coup, but the director has found herself in the spotlight once again this year — albeit for rather inauspicious reasons. There’s been some controversy brewing around this year’s lineup of Palme d’Or nominees, which once again features not a single film from a female director. Last year’s lineup, by comparison, included four female directors. This has led a group of nearly 900 women to sign a petition in protest against the festival, though not all female auteurs are quite as incensed over the selection process.

“I would have hated it if my film got selected for Cannes because I am a woman as some sort of charity,” said director Andrea Arnold, who has had two films in competition at Cannes in recent years — Red Road (2006), and Fish Tank (2009). “And it is true that, the world over, there are very few female directors. So maybe Cannes is just a small piece representing the larger trend.”

Naturally, this debate has put Campion’s award in a new light, with many activists and media outlets citing it as a sobering reminder of  what some see as a widening gender gap. Campion herself hasn’t said a lot about this year’s field, but she did address the issue in 2009, when her film, Bright Star, was up for the Palme d’Or.

“The studio system is kind of an old boys’ system and it’s difficult for them to trust women to be capable,” Campion said at the time, though she acknowledged that there may be larger, and more societal explanations for this discrepancy. “I think women don’t grow up with the harsh world of criticism that men grow up with – we are more sensitively treated  – and when you first experience the world of film-making you have to develop a very tough skin.”

Share →