How Sweden hit its 50:50 gender target for film production in record time

Film critic

Ingrid Bergman has been everywhere at the Cannes Film Festival this year. It’s the centenary of her birth, so the festival chose as its poster a beautiful picture from the 1950s by Magnum photographer David Seymour. Her daughter, Isabella, headed up the jury at Un Certain Regard, the sidebar to the main competition, in which there were four films by women.

Ingrid’s face points to a question that was big along the Croisette this year. With films by and about women reaping major box office, why does the festival have only two films by women in the competition?

Cannes is not alone in its strong masculine bias and artistic director Thierry Fremaux is trying to do something about it. He chose Standing Tall, by French actress-director Emmanuelle Bercot, for opening night – only the second film by a woman to open Cannes. Still, two films out of 19 in competition is not good. Cannes remains a boys’ club.

So I sat down with someone who has taken action – spectacularly so. When she took over as CEO of the Swedish Film Institute in late 2011, Anna Serner set the film world on fire by announcing that Sweden would seek to have equal gender funding in all productions – the first country in the world to do so. They hoped to achieve that by the end of 2015.

How was that progressing, I asked, expecting the word “slow”.


“We already made it. Last year,” she said. “It took two and a half years.”

After I picked up my jaw, she continued: “When I took over, we had 26 per cent of funding going to female directors. I said that was a catastrophe. I used that word. I wanted the business to realise that there was a new sheriff in town. They are not stupid. They realise I am the head of the funding body, so maybe things are going to happen.”

The existing government policy aimed for a 40-60 split. “I said in my opinion 40-60 is rubbish. It should be 50-50 over time,” Serner said.

“One year you might have 70-30, but over time you should be able to balance it equally. Talking makes no difference. You have to act. Whatever you do, they will criticise, but you just have to live with that.”

And they have criticised her. “It was very controversial for some and a longed-for move for others,” she said. “So I get a lot of love and a lot of hate, from both men and women on both sides, actually. On the love side, it is really genuine from a lot of women.

“I get a lot of support from men as well but a larger number feel threatened. They don’t say it to me because they are afraid that I won’t give them money – which is not very brave, in my opinion – but they talk. They have been up to the minister for culture [also a woman] to say: don’t let the Swedish Film Institute have too much power because they misuse it … There have been quite a few men coming out in the papers and there was a live TV interview with the lead actor in Joe Hill, talking about ‘these bitches’ you have to pass around to get funding.

“We didn’t earmark money. We didn’t say to our commissioners that you can’t fund what you want. We just said that we take it very seriously, so please try to look at submissions with new eyes.”

The institute funds about 15 feature films a year, with an average investment of $US1 million. “Actually we have given a bit more to women and that is because they tend to have a lot harder time getting other finance, because the financiers don’t trust them.”

They count heads throughout the year, monitoring progress in all three major categories. “In 2014 we had 50 per cent female directors, 55 per cent female scriptwriters and 65 per cent female producers. We like to measure over five years, but in the past three, we have had 43 per cent female directors, 49 per cent scriptwriters and 53 per cent producers.”

Women now dominate the Swedish film awards, taking 69 per cent of the prizes. Internationally, they take about 40 per cent.

“I say to the men who feel threatened by me that I think this will pass, because I don’t think that women are more competent or make better quality. But we have had a lack of female voices so they feel new and unique. And they are unique perspectives because they have not been heard before.”

Ms Serner’s revolutionary policy has not been welcomed by all of Sweden’s neighbours.

“Denmark always think we are crazy doing this. They say they already have equality, but Denmark only gives 17 per cent of funding to female directors. Most leaders tend to hesitate because it is really very scary. You are asking for trouble and they are not prepared to take the trouble. I get a lot of support from Finland and Iceland but they don’t do anything.

“The further you get from Sweden, the less threatened people tend to feel… We had Jane Campion visit us recently and she just loved it. She is bringing an action plan to both New Zealand and Australia.”

Campion will face an uphill battle in Australia. The number of women in some areas of the industry, particularly technical, has been going backwards. The Swedes put us to shame, in fact. They also shine a light.


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