While entertainment news headlines in the United States have been dominated for the past few months by stories of misconduct against women within the Hollywood studio system, many international studios and production companies are using the opportunity at Berlinale’s Drama Series Days to debut projects that put female characters front and center in the narrative.
“The series will look into the depths of the human soul, and portray the insatiable hunger for wealth, power and acknowledgment,” organizers of Berlin Drama Series Days said when announcing programming that includes the Australian cult classic “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” Israeli TV’s “Sleeping Bears,” Germany’s “Bad Banks” and Norway’s “Heimebane,” which translates to “Home Ground” in English.
Many of these series dive deep into political and societal turmoil in various ways that may be specific to their country of origin, but what they all have in common is a powerful and complex female heroine at the center of the story.
Jo Porter, director of drama at FremantleMedia Australia and executive producer of “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” believes there has long been a “hunger” for female-led programming but in the past there has been a barrier when it comes to commissioning such projects. However, Porter also believes the global conversations occurring today around the need for change in many fields is helping these projects carve out space in an increasingly crowded landscape.
“It is exciting to see a growing global ambition to be really bold and show the many shades of the female experience in the stories we are bringing to the screen,” she says.
“Picnic at Hanging Rock” is written by Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison, and stars Natalie Dormer as a “strict headmistress” of a boarding school who is forced to confront a dark past when three girls mysteriously disappear during a school outing.
“Against the backdrop of a chilling mystery we tell the story of women rebelling against the roles society has preordained they should play,” Porter says. “‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ shows women taking control and owning their destiny.”
Created by Johan Fasting, “Heimebane” follows another woman in a male-dominated field, focusing on the first female trainer of a Norwegian Premier League men’s football team.
“When we first started developing this idea we were in a minority, now just a few years later we are in very good company, and we’re very happy about that,” says “Heimebane” producer Vilje Kathrine Hagen, citing “Big Little Lies” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” as examples. “What makes ‘Heimebane’ unique is that this show is actually about the fact that we still live in a world where women, even if they are strong, smart and have lots of experience, still [are] not taken seriously and still have to witness men that are far less competent getting the job. Every scene in ‘Heimebane’ is about this in some way or another. In this world, every room Helena walks into is loaded with that structural inequality.”
“Bad Banks” producer Lisa Blumenberg says she is always interested in working on projects about complex female characters, so she feels it is “always the right time” for these shows. What she believes the show adds most to the conversation around such characters at this time is that it’s a story of a “duel between one woman at the peak of her power in a male-dominated professional environment, who is afraid of being stopped by her superiors.”
“Bad Banks,” which was written by Oliver Kienle and is distributed worldwide by Federation Entertainment, follows this “very ambitious” young woman as she works in the world of finance. Through her, the audience explores themes of greed, egotism and the pressure to succeed.
“[She] alters from an instrument of manipulation to a powerful player who is about to change the rules of the game,” Blumenberg says.
The Keren Margalit created and directed “Sleeping Bears” also has a protagonist who has to face her past when her therapist dies and someone sends her transcripts of their sessions as an anonymous threat. She is then plunged into trying to prevent her family from finding out her “most intimate secrets and dreams.”
“‘Sleeping Bears’ doesn’t make a big deal of placing a strong, complex woman at its heart. It puts it out there as a legitimate, normal thing as it is and should be,” Margalit says.
Beyond the gender of the protagonist, though, all of these series also share a common objective: to resonate with as wide an audience as possible. In today’s increasingly crowded television landscape, these producers feel it is most important to play to emotions in order to capture worldwide attention.
“To appeal to a global audience every good drama needs to come from a place focused on truth,” Margalit says. “As with any art form it needs to emerge from a passion to tell a compelling and meaningful and entertaining story.”