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How Sweden Conquered Film Industry Sexism

Female directors in Hollywood continue to get a bad deal, but one country has done the impossible when it comes to gender equality in film.
Photo by kkgas via Stocksy

This is the era of Bridesmaids, Pitch Perfect, and the all-girl Ghostbusters, Poehler, Dunham and Fey. You would have thought gender is quickly becoming less of an issue in the film industry. You would, and you'd be wrong. At this year's Venice Film Festival, the European Women's Audiovisual Network (EWA) called for "positive action by governments at European and national level to end censorship of women's view on the world". They are just halfway through their pan-European research project and it's already clear that in 2015 women are still getting a crappy deal in the film industry.


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Famously, Kathryn Bigelow remains the only woman to have ever won an Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker, an award that has had just four female nominees in its entire history. Men outnumber women five to one in the industry and take 91 percent of all directing jobs, which may account for the 90 percent of films that don't have an equal number of men and women in their cast. If you're a female director whose name isn't Kathryn Bigelow, your chances of getting hired and funded may be at an all-time low. Yet according to the MPAA, 51 percent of film audiences last year were women—so why the hell aren't we making half of the movies?

One country has dared to demand just that: Sweden. In just two-and-a-half years, the country has accomplished the impossible—it's reached gender equality in their film funding, bankrolling and bringing an equal number of male and female directors to Swedish cinemas.

Anna Serner, the CEO of the Swedish Film Institute. Photo by Marie-Therese Karlberg

The Swedish Film Institute (SFI), the primary organization that funds and supports national filmmaking, has one woman to thank: Anna Serner. The no-nonsense Swede took over as CEO in 2011 and set out to prove you can make things fair, quickly.

"I fundamentally believe in every person's equal rights and value, so for me it's obvious that women and men should have the same possibilities in society," she told Broadly. When Serner joined the SFI, women accounted for around 30 percent of producers and directors and just 25 percent of their funding applications.


"I've learned from my previous jobs in media that talking is no good and doesn't make any difference," she said. "I decided very early that I should stop talking and act, because then we can talk about my actions." Serner took six months to research the most commonly-held beliefs for why women do not succeed in the film industry and then made an action plan targeting every single dispute.

Quality is in the eye of the beholder. We dared to say that there is quality even though we are not used to seeing that quality.

She found five arguments—ones that are held not just in Swedish filmmaking, but in Hollywood and the wider industry as a whole. First, that there aren't any competent female filmmakers. Serner quickly made a web platform to showcase women—tick. "The second one is that female directors don't get to do their second and third film, which is true," she said.

Third, there are more boys that want to become directors. Serner passionately explains that this is "not true […] young women want to become directors but they don't expect that it'll ever be possible. They don't expect that because every time they tell the world that they want to become directors they get to hear Do you know how hard it is?' So they get pushed down, their self-esteem gets too low, while men get to hear 'Oh, you want to be a director? It's really hard but great, you're going to make it.'"

Serner's solution was to get into schools and change attitudes through mentoring schemes, workshops, and training in "social structures and gender equality. [We need to] use our money to enhance, stimulate, and start gender awareness."


Sanna Lenken's "My Skinny Sister" was one film that received funding from the SFI. Film till via My Skinny Sister

The fourth hurdle that Serner faced was the argument that there is no point in counting the number of women in the industry, because it's the quality of films that matter—not who's behind the camera. It just so happens that in a perfect meritocracy, white straight men happen to make the best directors. "Quality is in the eye of the beholder," Serner retorted, explaining that people just aren't used to how women tell stories. "We dared to say that there is quality even though we are not used to seeing that quality."

While others might shy away from the idea of positive discrimination, Serner is adamant that it is about numbers. She remains vigilant to make sure Institute funds an equal number of male and female directors every month, as opposed to tallying up the total number at the end of the year, which means that any problems in funding can be dealth with in four weeks. "We count those numbers of directors and not just once a year—which means that you do it at the end of each year, and then the year's already passed and you have to start over the next year by May, or when your figures are ready—instead, we count every decision, and we make a decision every month."

What about if Warner Studios made the same decisions? They could do it anytime, but they don't.

But the greatest stumbling block is about business, because business is apparently uninterested in funding films made by women. While the SFI dictates public funding, private funding remains gendered. "Unfortunately for the private sector it shows that you need regulations," Serner said glumly. "When the private sector works without regulation they don't want to change. We happen to be a public funder, but what about if Warner Studios made the same decisions? They could do it anytime, but they don't."


Beata Gårdeler's "Flocking" also received funding from the SFI. Film still via Flocking

Serner's radical changes have riled big players in the industry. She pissed off Denmark by challenging them on their record for gender equality in film—they say they have equality, Serner says they don't. She's been called a bitch on television by one of Sweden's most famous male actors. "They are of course arguing that I have lost focus on the film contents, that we are getting politicized and not looking into quality any longer," she said. "[But] we win more prizes now than we have ever done, we get more entries in film festivals then we have ever done, and there are women to thank for that in most cases." Serner even feels sorry for her opposition. "A big part of me understands that where you see your own life being threatened, it's very hard to believe that they would applaud you. The young people are applauding because they haven't reached their glass ceiling yet; even the young men are supportive."

Suzanne Osten, a legendary Swedish film and theatre director, believes that the industry has become a more welcoming place for women since Serner took the reins at the SFI. "Definitely, yes," she said, "there is an outspoken policy for gender and ethnic [filmmaking]."

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The industry grande dame has made ten feature films between 1982 and 2015, but has been cockblocked for funding in the past. But her most recent feature received 16 million Swedish krona, nine million of which came from the SFI. The issue for her isn't just one of cash, though. "We need to build a new structure in the industry," she said. Women are interested in "other themes: Deeper emotional problems, childhood" which audiences aren't used to consuming yet—but it's also why women are making the most "interesting new films."

The film magazine Sight & Sound recently published a Female Gaze issue, featuring 100 films overlooked by women. "It is censorship in a way, how you write film history," said Isabel Stevens, the magazine's production editor, but she thinks the times are changing. "Since the 70s, the rise of the women's movement, there have been people studying women filmmakers. At the moment, now, it seems to be really prominent in the public conscious, rather than a select academic interest, which is really good."

When you have white men in power, a lot—not all—will hire people who are like them. The situation perpetuates itself.

"It's not only an issue related to gender, though. Race comes into it as well [and] any minority group [finds it] hard to break through." We circle back to the same problem again and again, which is: It's not who you know, it's also who you look like. "When you have white men in power, a lot—not all—will hire people who are like them. The situation perpetuates itself." The SFI's influence may stretch beyond Swedish shores soon—funding in the UK will be getting a Serner-style shock to the system. "The [British Film Institute] has introduced a three-ticks diversity scheme. Which basically means you're not going to get public funding unless you satisfy a certain criteria."

My first job after university was at a film production company: I was on reception booking cabs, couriers and filling neverending cafetières of coffee. One day I had a chat with the executive producer and told him that I'd love a chance to work with one of the directors. "Women normally start on reception and move into production," he said witheringly. "Boys start as runners and then become directors." It took eight years for me to finally dare call myself a director after that mentoring session. Women in film have to be on the team and not just in trad roles like costume and makeup. With people like Serner at the helm, it may be time for females to start calling the shots.