The Swedish Gender Equality Package for Women in Film: Interview with Anna Serner, CEO at the Swedish Film Institute

Copy Editing and Posting by Sabrina Hirsch

Anna Serner has been the chief executive officer of the “Swedish Film Institute” (SFI) since 2011. SFI is a national organization that finances the production, distribution, and preservation of Swedish films. Serner’s fresh and innovative approach is highly regarded outside of Sweden, since she has taken the initiative to create a gender-equality program. SFI was established in 1963 as part of a new film policy, and it is subsidized by a 10% levy on ticket admissions at movie theaters.

I met with Serner at the Swedish Film Institute during the centennial celebration of the birth of Ingrid Bergman (August 29, 2015). The evening before we met, the Swedish premiere of Ingrid Bergman, In Her Own Words (Jag är Ingrid) took place at Dramaten, the Royal Dramatic Theatre, where Bergman studied theatre. In Her Own Words is a new documentary film by Stig Björkman on Bergman’s life as told by her children, featuring readings from her diary by actor Alicia Vikander. I attended this remarkable film event, which was introduced by Björkman, producer Stina Gardell, and Liv Ullman, a Norwegian actress who worked with Bergman. The documentary will be reviewed in a forthcoming agnès films article, accompanied by an interview with Stig Björkman.

Anna Serner at the Swedish Film Institute, Stockholm Aug 30 2015. Photograph by Moira Sullivan

Anna Serner at the Swedish Film Institute, Stockholm Aug 30 2015. Photograph by Moira Sullivan

I spoke with Anna Serner about her program for gender equality, Sweden’s unique cultural history of supporting the arts, and the conditions for women working in film today. As Serner explains, the roots that resulted in gender equality had been in place in Swedish culture for over 100 years. Peasant and working classes, temperance organizations, and folk movements established Sweden’s long-standing social democracy in 1889. Some of these ideas were inspired by discussions in the U.S. and reached Sweden, when Swedes who had immigrated to the U.S. returned home to transform Swedish society[1].

Serner is one of the most groundbreaking SFI directors to come along in years. She has made it possible for new voices to receive film funding in a culture that has historically been composed of ethnically homogenous Swedes. Today, Sweden is a multicultural country with exemplary social programs for equality.

Two years ago during the 50th anniversary of the Swedish Film Institute you were at Cannes and said that Sweden’s aim was to have 50/50 representation for men and women for film production funding.

Yes, I was.

And you’ve reached that goal.

Yes, well, we actually did that internationally in 2013, but we did it in Sweden in 2012, so we had already been working on it for a year. Then we said we wanted to achieve 50/50 by the end of 2015, but we reached it in 2014. If we look over the period, however, it would be difficult to have 50/50 every year because we make so few decisions each year. So we always measure equality for a period of three to five years. If we do that, then we are not actually 50/50 because we take into account the years 2010 through 2014. It’s slower, of course, but that is what we want. We want to measure gender equality over a period time so that one year it could be 100% women who receive funding and another year it could be 0%. This is designed to always maintain awareness that over time gender equality for film financing needs to be at 50/50.

Stig Björkman , director of "Ingrid Bergman" in Her Own Words" and producer Stina Gardell at Royal Dramatic Theatre, Stockholm, August 29 2015. Centenial birthday anniversary of Ingrid Bergman. © Photo: Moira Sullivan

Stig Björkman , director of “Ingrid Bergman” in Her Own Words” and producer Stina Gardell at Royal Dramatic Theatre, Stockholm, August 29 2015. Centenial birthday anniversary of Ingrid Bergman.
© Photo: Moira Sullivan

I listened to your interview (Aug 2, 2015) on Kristoffer Triumf’s podcast “Värvet”[2], which was very illuminating—the whole thing (79 minutes). I thought it was a good interview because you speak a lot…

Ha ha, I got a bit tired of my own voice, actually.

Were you with Kristoffer at a studio?

Oh no, I was in his house. That’s his technique. He invites people to his home. It’s not tidy. You use the family bathroom, so you really get into a personal mode. And I think that is what he wants.

Well that came across. You seemed pretty relaxed. He asked you some personal questions but not too many. Because you are a public figure you have to be prepared for that. What I was interested in, is that in Sweden you seem to have some distance from your programs that are highly regarded abroad. I will give you some instances of things that I heard. You said you thought that the praise for Sweden’s equality program was wonderful because it is a country that is doing something that virtually nobody else is. The critics of this program in Sweden are journalists and producers who say that you don’t know what the film branch is all about and that you don’t understand the business. How do you meet that resistance? What kinds of comments do you give as a response?

They actually don’t tell me. They tell you, or they tell each other. But, of course, I understand that they say that because it is a very common argument. And the thing is that I don’t think I need to be the expert in making films. I should be the one that is the expert in making it possible to make films. And that includes making it possible for anyone to make films. And this is very different from the actual handicraft of how you make films, such as shooting on location, and, of course, I don’t know that. I don’t need to know that.


And as long as I know that I know what I need to know, I just take the criticism, actually.

What is at issue with dissenters is your idea that achieving equality in a broad spectrum of representation creates quality. For them, equality doesn’t create quality.

Yes, there are those that believe that it doesn’t create equality but you need to understand that there are a lot of people who agree as well. Those who claim that I don’t know the branch are part of some kind of establishment. It’s very understandable as well because, if you are in your own fishing pond and everything is working out your way and suddenly the whole business model breaks apart, you can become really distressed. On top of that, I come in and make things less clear about how to get production financing. And some filmmakers are the ones used to getting money, so they get really threatened by that. The ones who never got funding get new opportunities. You need to listen to both, and I do. I just need to have resilience in believing in what I am doing. And of course I would need to change if we did things that hurt the film business. But I don’t think that we do. I think it affects the old model and the conservatism of preserving it. It is, of course, a challenge for everyone, for, as we clearly say, there should be more voices competing for SFI’s funding.

Swedish Film Institute, Stockholm © Photo: Mark Standley

Swedish Film Institute, Stockholm
© Photo: Mark Standley

Can you speak about how equality creates quality? You have said that you used to work in the advertising business with mostly white young men with headphones walking around, and it wasn’t very interesting for you. When we think of representation and you only see the kinds of films made for a certain demographic it’s not quality.

That is one part of not being quality. The other part is that film is a part of art, just as pop art is. The challenge happens when more courageous and more norm-breaking art occurs and influences mainstream art. That is how everything works in the art world. That is how the big publishing houses work. They have poetry and crime fiction that sell millions and millions of copies, but everyone knows that there needs to be art. In the same way, if you keep on looking for novelty and innovation within a very narrow field you will never get norm breaking or challenging art. You then lack the possibility for innovation within the business. In order for it to be as good it can be, you have to allow for many voices to be heard, such as a majority of female directors or a majority of different ethnicities, and religions. We have a long way to go before we can really take advantage of everything our country provides us with. By that I mean allowing different voices to work together to tell stories. The 23-year-old white male would disagree that this should be the norm for the film business. The film business today looks more like the white heterosexual family that existed in Sweden 100 years ago. If you look at the people who take the subway in the Central Station in Stockholm today, we never see them represented in today’s films, because they represent what it looked like when the subway was invented with only white, mostly men, coming from work and that is not how society looks. Films should mirror our society and all our citizens should be reflected authentically and we should evaluate films in this way. But when film is only composed of stereotypes, that is not quality.

It has been statistically proven that Sweden is no longer composed of white nuclear families and most of the citizens are mostly single, women.


So it’s baffling that this kind of representation exists and I am sorry that the critics of film equality don’t see that.


You’ve made a good impression abroad because of your contributions about Sweden’s equality programs at Cannes and you’ve been looked up to. agnès films is, of course, very interested in what you have to say. It was not just the seminar organized by Créteil Women’s Film Festival and the Society of Dramatic Authors (SACD) entitled “Women Make Great Movies: Strategies for Success” [3] with different women producers and festival organizers, but also the Kering “Women In Motion” talks [4] with famous women working in film. There seemed to be a dichotomy in the focus groups because at the Créteil/SACD seminar there were many women still trying to get their films shown but the women at the Kering talks were women who had already—so to speak—made it. Was that an issue for you?

It wasn’t that obvious and I went to all of them. I was invited as a guest to the Kering talks and I was invited to the seminars for women organizations with primarily women. I would have wished that the Cannes talks had taken a more generous approach and invited more women who are established filmmakers, who had really come far in their work. But Cannes is not there yet. Since we have made so much progress in raising awareness, it’s a problem when there is discrimination. When I launched our gender action plan in 2013, no one was interested. I didn’t get one interview. And we had a big party[5] and everyone wanted to come but it wasn’t their choice to hear about gender equality. It took only one year to get this new issue to the top, referred to as “the new black” in Sweden[6]. Everyone talked about it and it would have been impossible not to do anything with such a tremendous step forward in one year. Famous actresses have really been outspoken during the last year, such as Meryl Streep, Emma Watson, and others, about how things are and how discriminated they are. As soon as you get red-carpet famous people to talk about things, you get media attention. So I hope everyone keeps it up so it becomes sustainable over time. We should have a goal in five year’s time that more films made by women will be invited to Cannes in competition, but in three years time, there should be discussions where men and women work together.

Emma Watson, U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson for U.N. "HeForShe" campaign, 2014. ©Copyright Robin Merchant, Getty Images.

Emma Watson, U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson for U.N. “HeForShe” campaign, 2014.
©Copyright Robin Merchant, Getty Images.

Well, for Cannes it’s taken a long time.

Beginning from nowhere to something really happening only took one year, so you can take big steps, sometimes.

Cannes has always maintained that it chooses good films regardless of gender but it just so happens they are made mostly by men. The same goes for the few women who win Academy Awards.


On another note, Swedish film critic Hynek Pallak said that Roy Andersson’s film presented at the 2014 Venice Film Festival, Golden Lion winner A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, had different representation and he couldn’t understand why that film wouldn’t get funding because it was made by a man.

It got a lot of money from us, but I think he was talking about the Bechdel test.[7]

Yes, he was.

Pallak claims that the Bechdel test doesn’t show anything about quality and is not useful, which I really disagree with. You have to make a point to study valid research and statistics and look at trends. If you look at different subject areas you can always explain why someone isn’t contributing to greater gender equality. And you can argue as much as you want regarding Roy Andersson’s films. He is a great artist and his films have really high quality but nevertheless they don’t pass the Bechdel test and maybe they could have. But it’s not interesting to talk about just one film in the context of whether the Bechdel test has a point or not. Film critics seem to get involved with the subject of the film instead of what the research shows about representation.

Here is another illustration of this. One of the films in competition this year at Cannes was Hou Hsiao Hsien’s The Assassin. The director spoke during the promotion of the film about the historical time period with countless examples of female samurai but only showed one in his film. Actress Shu Qi, who played the assassin Nie Yinniang, was asked if there were so many female samurai, were there going to be more films made with women? And she replied that Hsien was not interested in men or women, but just how the shot was made. This seems to be the same for Roy Andersson, whose aim in making quality films has more to do with form, rather than representation. Women who speak to each other in major or minor roles in film reflect a quality that most people are not aware of. That is why your program is so important. In a sense, it’s uniquely Swedish. Sweden is the first country to have a gender equality program and the country is looked up to even if politically things aren’t going as well as they should today.[8] Sweden has always been that kind of adventuresome land. And the Bechdel test that was created by the Alison Bechdel in the U.S. has been tweaked in Sweden so that it takes on new meaning. [9] What is it about Sweden that makes this possible?

The Bechdel Test Infographic: Gemma Solomons,

The Bechdel Test
Infographic: Gemma Solomons,

I’ve been asked that question quite a lot lately and I think there are numerous reasons. We’ve had social democracy for 44 years without interruption, which is about equality. So, we have a very strong awareness that each person in society should have rights and have their needs heard and this is the structure that we work from. The social democrats weren’t very feminist back in the day and we weren’t wealthy, perhaps not as poor as other agrarian countries, but we were an agrarian society that evolved into industrialism without war. So our wealth has grown, and few countries have had that possibility. That means that we have gone from social democracy to a point where “it was not good enough any longer”. Then in the 70’s the state had really strong women’s rights and a strong women’s movement. At the same time we had a lot of wealth. That means that without interruption, we have experienced economic growth, which means that we can address those questions no one can really argue against, even if they try. One of the arguments when discussing gender equality is what do you do about ethnic equality, for we have to work on other discriminatory practices today. Women are 50% of the population and are an ethnic minority as well as other minorities—but are not a “minority”. We have a feminist party, “Feminist Initiative”, with a very charismatic party leader, Gudrun Shyman who was enthusiastic and got young people to believe things could be changed.[10] She has really been very important, and now the other parties have realized that we need to be feminist too, and they are competing in how feminist they are, which means that we have a feminist government. We have a feminist foreign affairs policy and that means that when I am invited by other countries it’s actually the Swedish Embassy that pays the ticket, a very big help to have the government behind me. So what I have been doing in the context of everyone believing this is really important. Unfortunately, politicians don’t find film as important as stock market companies. How should we put pressure on them? They tell me to finance film projects equally but they don’t tell the companies in the stock market to have equal representation. They say to them you “should” be aiming for more equality, but for them since there is more risk involved, they are not subject to the same criteria.

That’s a very good answer and is one of the reasons I love living in Sweden. I went forward in time rather than backwards, coming from America and studying film here. So you were at the premiere last night of Ingrid Bergman, In Her Own Words. What did you think about it?

Well, it’s a fantastic story and Ingrid Bergman was a fantastic person, but very non-normative, even for today’s women. So even I was a bit shocked by the fact that she actually abandoned her children in such a selfish way. Men have always done that, except for her first husband (Petter Lindström), who obviously took care of their daughter (Pia Lindström). But although she was a pioneer, it is still shocking. She was really breaking the rules, and at the same time she was a superstar. Ingrid Bergman, In Her Own Words is the kind of film we want that sort of shakes us up and is still amusing and fascinating. You can admire it but you also get to reflect, so I really think it is a fantastic film.

I thought the comments that Liv Ullmann made about Ingmar and Ingrid Bergman were interesting at Dramaten. Ingrid Bergman “the artist” and Ingmar Bergman “the genius,” as she called them. She said that Bergman didn’t think her lines in Autumn Sonata were authentic but Ingmar had her say them anyway. He didn’t understand women’s illnesses and made Ingrid do things that were difficult for her physically.[11] She was very good about playing her role out and you don’t often get to hear things from behind the scenes about Ingrid Bergman and Ingmar Bergman.

No, and I really appreciate that Liv said that, because they were married, so they have a history and everyone realized that, so she’s allowed to say it and people accept it as her telling the truth. They accept it because she is Ingmar Bergman’s “ex,” and they have sorted things out. That is the way you have to work with feminist issues. I believe you have to wrap them up in some kind of humorous way. You have to realize that pure facts are so frightening that people don’t listen. So you need to make a package. That’s how you make a gender action plan: five easy bullet points that you can talk about instead of writing long essays or speeches, because nobody is listening.

Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman in Ingmar Bergman's "Autumn Sonata" (Sweden 1978). © Still: Swedish Film Institute.

Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman in Ingmar Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata” (Sweden 1978).
© Still: Swedish Film Institute.

Yes, too much rhetoric. What about networking and the fact that women are used as networking? Ingrid Bergman made a comment shown in the documentary that she was not used to discussing things with women, and she liked that she worked in the theatre with Liv. Because of our cultural upbringing, women are more used to doing that. This is a point that you made in Värvet, that men are not used to networking outside their business. So perhaps that practice will rub off on men. Do you think they will find it as exciting as women do?

It’s really dualistic, for what women need to understand is that networking within business means that you have something to give and not only to get. There are so many women starting networks within their communities and it’s all about talking about what they want, but there is no one there to give it to them and they have nothing to offer themselves. What men’s business networking is all about is that you target the people that you are interested in because they have something you want and then you set up something that you can offer that they want. It’s that mutual exchange of services, that’s how you do business. What women’s networking has been all about is spending time, helping and giving each other something that you sometimes have too much of. It’s not a question of just transferring that into business networking. You have to network much more strategically and have tactics to do that. And not just think you will be invited to a network. I get invitations to women’s networks that want me to be part of different boards. Some are typical networks, where women whine and try to help each other, but no one has the answers. I always say no to that kind of network because I am not interested.

Really important men get very lonely when they lose their jobs and are challenged by women and other ethnic minorities. They have a much harder time if they are not at the top. When those men lose their jobs they lose their lives. Women have a life that we’ve had even too much of. So I’d rather be a woman in that case than a man, but women have to learn how to network on a business level. And men who need to network on a personal level need to give time and to open up their lives to others.

Liv Ullmann, "Ingrid Bergman" in Her Own Words" at Royal Dramatic Theatre, Stockholm, August 29 2015. Centenial birthday anniversary of Ingrid Bergman. © Photo: Moira Sullivan

Liv Ullmann, “Ingrid Bergman” in Her Own Words” at Royal Dramatic Theatre, Stockholm, August 29 2015. Centenial birthday anniversary of Ingrid Bergman.
© Photo: Moira Sullivan

That’s a very important distinction. I have a final question. At the Créteil Films de Femmes film festival in Paris, women have historically premiered their films, before Cannes, before Venice, Berlin and any of the A-festivals. Suzanne Osten was one of them, Marleen Gorris, another. Women historically wanted to show their films there first because it was a woman’s film festival. Sweden has been very important to that festival, too – the auteur and the short film filmmakers always win prizes. What would you think of that film festival getting more films from Sweden for premieres?

Well, the awareness has to be higher. I’m sure women want to premiere their films there, but nowadays it is easier to premiere at one of the established albeit male festivals. I think they would choose that and it is probably wise to get the opportunity to rate their films, but in the case that they are not invited to Cannes or Berlin, of course, they should. So it is a matter of understanding what is in it for them.

Well, in this case it has gone backwards because before many women premiered their films there. Many spectators from Paris showed up.

I haven’t been there. I have heard about it but have never understood what it is about. [12]

It is supported by the Minister of Culture and from the borough.[13] It is unique in that respect, like Sweden, with generous government funding for films made by women. And it has gone backwards. 

So maybe they need to refresh how they work.

How could they do that?

I don’t know how they work, but if it has gone backwards, it is because of something. Either because they don’t pay enough attention or the status quo, or it is more often that women get their films accepted into the larger festivals and they choose them and that is what was meant to happen. Maybe it was time.

Well, that may be true, but by just looking at the statistics from Cannes, there are very few women who have gotten into Cannes. Some women don’t want their films labeled as “women’s films,” and maybe it will come to the point that women won’t want their films evaluated according to the Bechdel test.

There are a lot of female directors who don’t want that already. It is not that all women are feminists. There are a lot of women who haven’t made that distinction and don’t want to because it is a burden to be regarded as a woman who speaks about this. They want to be one of the men, so they pretend that they are a man until reality hits them or until they die. There are people, and then there are feminists, and among the feminists there are a lot more women than men, but there are male feminists and the rest who aren’t feminists. In Sweden we are both male and female feminists, more so than the rest of the world, but certainly not everyone.

Certainly not. Even Ingrid Bergman had problems that most women experience when she was an aging actress and no longer considered “beautiful”. She had to experience that in her “short life” of only 67 years. Thank you very much for speaking with us, Anna!

You’re welcome!

Ingrid Bergman, in her own words, directed by Stig Björkman Photo: Weslayan University Cinema Archives/Mantaray Film

Ingrid Bergman, in her own words, directed by Stig Björkman
Photo: Weslayan University Cinema Archives/Mantaray Film

Here is Anna Serner’s profile at the Swedish Film Institute. To visit Moira’s Profile, click here.


[1] Tur och Retur Amerika, Utvandrare som förändrade Sverige, Hans Lindblad, Ingvar Henricson, 1995. A study of Swedish emigrants from the U.S. who come home with ideas that helped to create social democracy in Sweden.

[2] Podcast by Kristoffer Triumf with Swedish cultural personalities such as filmmakers Ruben Östlund and Suzanne Osten.

[3] “Women Honored at the 68th Cannes Film Festival. June 3, 2015

[4] Ibid.

[5] 66th Cannes Film Festival Day 6 – Swedish Film Institute 50th Anniversary, Inside Llewyn Davis and Shield of Straw, May 22, 2013,

[6] Sweden is influenced by media trends in the US.

[7] “Women Honored at the 68th Cannes Film Festival.” June 3, 2015.

[8] There are political parties that have recently won seats in the parliament based on hostility toward immigrants to Sweden.

[9] The Bechdel quality stamp (A-Rate) was first used to designate film at the Swedish cinema house Rio and then adopted in other theatres in the country. June 3, 2015.

[10]Feminism for Everyone”.

[11] Ingrid Bergman had been diagnosed with cancer at the time she made this film.

[12] Established in 1979, the Créteil International Women’s Film Festival (Créteil Films de Femmes) welcomes women film directors from all over the world, with nearly 150 talented films each year which focus on the women of society.

[13] City of Créteil, General Council of Val de Marne, Ile-de-France with the support of the Ministry of Women’s Rights, City, Youth and Sports, ACSE, SACD, and the European Commission Creative Europe Program.