Anna Serner, CEO of the Swedish Film Institute, declared in 2011 that she would seek equal funding in terms of gender for all film productions. At the time, 26 percent of film funding in Sweden went to women filmmakers. By 2014, Serner had achieved equity – of the Swedish films receiving funding, half had women directors, 55 percent had women writers and 65 percent had women producers. Serner will speak about that accomplishment at 7:30 p.m. April 20 at Lincoln Hall at the University of Illinois. The Scandinavian program in the department of Germanic languages and literatures is sponsoring her visit. Theo Malekin, a lecturer in Scandinavian studies, teaches courses on Scandinavian film and literature. He talked with News Bureau arts and humanities editor Jodi Heckel about Serner’s work on gender equity in film.
How did Anna Serner accomplish gender equity in film funding, and are there things about Sweden or the Swedish film industry that made it easier to do there than in the U.S.?
This was done primarily through a quota system. In 2012, under Serner’s leadership, the Swedish Film Institute announced a set of funding priorities, with gender equality top of the list. By 2014, funds were being distributed fifty-fifty between men and women. There have been other initiatives as well to try and bring in a greater diversity of voices and of life experience across lines of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
Sweden is fertile ground for this kind of undertaking. Women make up close to 50 percent of the Swedish parliament, Foreign Minister Margot Wallström is pursuing a feminist foreign policy (and has been very outspoken about gender inequality in, for example, Saudi Arabia), and gender has been very prominent in discussions of society and culture for some years.
Were there people who opposed Serner’s gender equality efforts, and why?
Yes, there has been controversy. The two main criticisms are that the Swedish Film Institute is pursuing a political agenda at the cost of quality and that the films produced under this new regime have not had the commercial success to justify this approach. So, the argument runs, good films are not getting made because the director is a white man; poorer films are instead being funded for political reasons; and the films SFI is funding, however worthy, are only reaching a small audience of middle-class intellectuals who are already sympathetic. Nobody openly disagrees with the goal of fifty-fifty funding, but they dispute the methods used to achieve it.
A lot of these criticisms have a familiar ring to them. In essence, they are accusations of political correctness trumping talent, against which Serner has deployed some very cogent and persuasive counterarguments. For example, on the quality question, she has pointed out the number of international awards these films have won. There is really no evidence of declining quality.
Has this been a catalyst for gender equality in the film industry elsewhere, including in the U.S.?
I think we have to wait and see. It has served as a consciousness-raising exercise, at the very least. Serner has been covered extensively by IndieWire and has been interviewed by The New York Times, for example, and she has been cultivating links with people in the U.S. film industry, among others the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
Has this translated into gender equity efforts in other fields – artistic or otherwise – in Sweden?
Sweden has already put a lot of thought, effort and resources into gender equality in child care, education, political representation, etc. For example, a portion of Sweden’s famously generous parental leave has to be taken by the father, with the result that you see many more dads pushing strollers in Sweden than in America. That in turn has challenged received notions of masculinity no less than of femininity. In many ways, this initiative from SFI is the result of a larger cultural shift, rather than its cause. Whether it will lead to further gender equity efforts remains to be seen.