The Woman Teaching the World How to Erase Film-Industry Sexism

As CEO of the Swedish Film Institute, Anna Serner implemented the groundbreaking and controversial 50/50 gender mandate for all Swedish productions. As other developed nations look to follow her lead, she tells us how she did it.

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Apr 23 2017, 11:35pm

Film has a vital role to play in making society and democracy stronger, says Anna Serner. "If you can see it, you can be it."

Until 2012, women in Sweden received only one third of government film funding (a pervasive trend globally). That year, Serner—who is CEO of the Swedish Film Institute (SFI)—announced that women would receive half of all public film funds in Sweden before the decade was out.

She reached that target in just three years. Since then, film industry bodies such as The British Film Institute, Directors UK, Irish Film Board, Eurimages, Telefilm Canada, Screen Australia and more have fast-tracked similar strategies to diversify the voices telling their stories on screen.

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Interestingly, Serner achieved gender parity without using quotas or women-only funding rounds. "It's better not to have special programs for women because they [become] the 'women's programs'," she says. Instead, the Institute demonstrated financial and developmental commitment to women's ideas and careers. The number of applications from women soared in response, dispelling several common myths in the process.

Namely, that "'There aren't as many women who want to make films.' 'Women don't have enough experience,' and: 'Women aren't as eager.' Those arguments are common in all societies," Serner says, "so I was very used to them. Our strategy is to meet those arguments with action."

One such move is to track not only the number of women heading up projects, but also which roles they fill on set. It's crucial women occupy key creative roles such as writers and directors, Serner explains, but they are often encouraged to become producers. This is due to the prevailing falsehood that "women are good at organising and being a mom, but not creative genius." The next step, she says, is to "count the numbers of cinematographers and editors, to make sure all creative parts are under scrutiny."

The next target for us is to get women bigger budgets.

The SFI is also broadening its objectives to examine racial, ethnic, and sexual diversity—behind the camera, in front of it, and on staff at the Institute. "During the past five and a half years, [diversity] has really grown to be one of the big issues. In parts of Stockholm, 40 percent of people are now non-Swedish ... A lot of immigrants end up in a suburb where they don't even know that the SFI exists," Serner says, referring to the exclusionary networks and systems that have historically made filmmaking an impenetrable field for non-dominant demographics.

Serner says her local film industry has been quick to realise its shortcomings, and has developed an unofficial "ethical code" to counter them. The 2016 Swedish comedy-drama A Man Called Ove is a key example of this adjusted moral compass at work, depicting interracial friendships and families that are now commonplace in Swedish homes, but less so in cinemas. "It showed reality how it is, with friends being made even though they didn't look Swedish. The producers and director realised that being non-stereotypical makes your film high-quality," Serner says.

The feature was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Academy Awards, and was the third most-watched film of all time in Swedish cinemas. "The reason for its success was because it felt authentic," says Serner, who admires director Hannes Holm's step toward racial diversity. "It's still a fact that the main box office films, which are usually made with a lot of money, are made by men. That's not because women fail at doing them. It's because they're not allowed to do them. The next target for us is to get women bigger budgets."

Serner would also like to see more women working in masculine-coded genres such as action, adventure and sci-fi. "We're brought up in a society where small boys are dressed in blue, and small girls in pink. We're creating and re-creating the structures of inequality all the time. To change this fundamentally, we need to raise a new generation."

She travels extensively to speak with screen industry professionals of all pedigrees. From film school pupils to Hollywood executives, she's "keeping track of gender equality, because even though [Sweden] achieved parity, the rest of the world hasn't changed at all," Serner says. Hollywood poses a monolithic problem in that regard: Unlike in Europe, the UK, Canada and Australia, the government does not, by and large, keep Tinseltown in the black. Without a voice of authority to maintain diversity checks and balances, only core attitudinal changes will cause Hollywood to catch on. That and cash, says Serner.

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"I really feel sorry for everyone in the Hollywood industry because it's so money-driven, and the [financiers], unfortunately, [are] very stupid. They don't [realize] that half the population looks at films in a new way. They just stick to what they've always done. Eventually, they'll be forced to find new consumer groups. They can't keep on pretending.

"The only thing that will change the system in the US is for the rest of the world to change first and show that it's an old-fashioned way of doing things. Then let the American consciousness wake."

Despite the sluggishness of the Hollywood machine, Serner is optimistic that "there is a future now" for new voices in film. "Women tell the same stories that have always been told: coming of age, falling in love, divorcing, dying, whatever," she says. "But they do it with a different perspective. You feel it immediately. It's like someone punches you in the stomach when you see those films. You realise, 'I've never, ever seen this before.'"

Anna Serner delivers the keynote address at the opening night of For Film's Sake in Sydney on Wednesday 26 April.