Despite occasional triumphs such as Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar, the advance of female filmmakers around the world remains halting and sporadic. A few high-profile auteurs, such as Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola and Susanna Bier, can’t obscure the fact that the proportion of films made by women is still stubbornly low.
But in Europe, where the subsidy system gives greater scope for state intervention than in the U.S., Sweden and Norway have embarked on a radical plan to end gender bias behind the camera once and for all.
This Scandinavian experiment offers fascinating lessons to other countries, and even to Hollywood, about how much progress can be achieved with sufficient political will, but also how deeply rooted the obstacles facing female talent remain.
In 2006 and 2007 respectively, the Swedish and Norwegian governments issued a mandate to their national film industries that at least 40% of their films be directed, written and produced by women by the end of 2010.
Neither has reached that goal. But with female participation in key creative roles running above 30%, and signs of a profound cultural shift in the development of new talent, both are far ahead of other countries — even France, which has long prided itself on having the greatest representation of women in its cinema.
In other countries, policy makers are unwilling to meddle so directly in the artistic process. It’s left to individual producers, such as Denmark’s Zentropa with Bier and Lone Scherfig, or Austria’s Coop 99 with Barbara Albert and Jessica Hausener, to promote female talent. But as a result, progress has been haphazard and unsustained.
Of course, the decision by Sweden and Norway to set gender targets has proved controversial. When Annette Sjursen’s heavily subsidized “Pax” bombed spectacularly in Norway last year after scathing reviews, critics said it exposed the folly of awarding funding on gender rather than merit. Others pointed out that men make plenty of subsidized flops too.
But the Swedish Film Institute and the Norwegian Film Institute also face criticism for not moving fast enough. The Norwegian culture minister has threatened to turn the 40% target into a binding quota.
The problem, say the public funders, is that women aren’t yet applying in sufficient numbers. There’s only so far they can push positive discrimination without compromising artistic quality and prompting a backlash.
“The expectation that within four years you can see change from 10% to 40% was unrealistic from the beginning,” says Hanne Palmquist, head of Nordisk Film & TV Fund. “But we are going in the right direction.”
With woman producers starting to outnumber men, more and more female voices are getting the chance to be heard — not only in genres traditionally associated with women, but also gradually in war films, comedies and thrillers.
It’s no coincidence that this year’s Oscar entries from both countries are by female debutantes: Anne Sewitzky’s “Happy Happy” and Pernilla August’s “Beyond,” the first time Sweden has ever submitted a film by a femme director.
Helmers such as Sevitzky, Sara Johnsen, Maria Sodahl, Eva Sorhaug and Margreth Olin from Norway, and August, Ella Lemhagen, Lisa Aschan, Andrea Ostlund and Lisa Ohlin from Sweden are flourishing in the new climate.
But none has yet achieved the international acclaim of Bier and Scherfig from neighboring Denmark, where the idea of positive discrimination is rejected as absurd, and where women must fight harder to succeed.
The Danes think we’re complete idiots to be making art and discussing gender at the same time,” laughs Swedish producer Anna Croneman.
Scherfig says: “Sweden in general is more politicized, in the best sense of the word, than Denmark. They seem to have stronger principles, whether about how you sort your garbage or about how many women direct films. But we find that it doesn’t make sense for gender to stand before the quality of the script.”
Scherfig notes that only a 10th of Danish films in 2010 had female directors, but has no time for special pleading. “It’s easy for women to complain, but we should just get on with the work,” she argues. “I’ve never felt I had to prove myself because I’m a woman. I get possibilities that no other Danish director gets, regardless of gender.”
On the other hand, her compatriot Kathrine Windfeld has benefitted from the greater willingness of Sweden to back female talent.
When Croneman hired the relatively inexperienced Windfeld to direct the Swedish TV drama “Crown Princess,” the Danish partners dropped out. “If it had been a male director, they would have backed my judgment,” Croneman says. “She was 45 years old and she hadn’t done much, but that was because she hadn’t been given the chance.”
Windfeld went on to direct episodes of Swedish detective series “Wallander,” previously a male bastion, and has broken into movies with Afghan war drama “Escape” and the latest installment of the “Hamilton” spy franchise.
The fact that Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar has made a huge impact on everyone’s thinking, that women can make action movies,” Croneman says.
The Swedish experience has revealed that changing the mindset of women themselves is arguably the greatest challenge. More than 50% of all the SFI’s features, docs and shorts are now produced by women, but directors are in much shorter supply. Only 27% of applicants to Sweden’s film schools are women, and 25% of the feature projects submitted to the SFI have female directors.
Producing is seen as a woman’s thing to do,” says Charlotta Denward, head of the SFI’s production department. “Being a director is being extremely egocentric, forcing your vision upon everyone else. We’re not raised that way as girls, even in Sweden, which is one of the most gender-equal countries in the world. I do think it’s a social thing, not genetic, but it’s deeply rooted.”
Yet when the SFI invited only females to apply for one micro-budget initiative, many times more women made bids than usual. “It’s as though women still feel they need to be asked, like being asked to dance,” Denward adds.
The result was “She Monkeys,” an international festival hit that has made its director Lisa Aschan a rising star of Swedish cinema.
The SFI’s policy is heavily focused on education. That doesn’t just mean making the resources available for females to learn filmmaking — it also means training its own officials, and executives in the film industry, about their own unconscious bias.
Notes Denward: “Men are trusted with money, but a woman who doesn’t smile and asks for a lot of money is still really provocative for some people.”