Anna Serner blazes trails at the Swedish Film Institute with her 2019 gender equality report “What Women?”

I’m elated to kick off the new year at Cinema Femme by sharing my interview with one of my personal heroes, Anna Serner. Anna is driven, like myself, to get to 50/50 gender parity in the film industry. As CEO of the Swedish Film Institute, Anna can influence real change in her country, part of her influence is in providing crucial data. Annually, the Swedish Film Institute puts out a gender equality report exploring a different area of gender inequality in Sweden’s film industry. Last year’s 2018 report was called The Money Issue. Being released this March, the 2019 report is focused on race, women of color in the film industry in Sweden and will be called “What Women?” I’m very excited to see the results of the report, especially since the inequality of race in gender in the film industry is not examined enough.

I get so excited about what Anna’s doing because to me, she is showing us how being on the right platform with the right tools can get us closer to achieving gender equality in the film industry. Cinema Femme is a platform that is here to elevate the voices of unique and diverse women in the film industry. We also elevate the female voices that are blazing paths for equality for these voices. Anna is blazing her own path and I’m excited to see where it’s headed as we begin this new decade.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Anna Serner
Photo: Marie-Therese Karlberg

REBECCA MARTIN: What led you to your position as CEO of the Swedish Film Institute?

ANNA SERNER: I grew up as an academic person, and my parents were politically aware and politically active. I had an upbringing with a lot of conversation and discussions with a lot of friends about justice and equality, and everything.

When I finished school, I started to go to film school, and I got a practical film school education. I went there for a couple of years, but I soon realized that there were a lot of guys who were choosing the cool girls, and that I wasn’t chosen by them. I realized that if I want to make films it would take a long time–a long line of going up to make coffee–and I wanted to have some influence. So I decided to leave the film industry, which I never entered. Then I decided to study law, and I got my law degree, which gave me a totally different platform. I would start off in the advertising business, because at the time it was a creative business, even though it was commercial. I got to lean on some of the things I learned at film school, and it was a great place for me to start off.

I became the CEO of their PG, Producers Guild (equivalence of the Advertising Association). I was there for a quite a while–ten years–and then became the CEO of a similar association, but for newspapers. This platform is a really powerful one for democracy, and that is when I really found my place, my influence. When I was there, I was asked about being a CEO for the Swedish Film Institute. During my time in the advertising industry, I did a lot of gender equality work. Because I’m a woman, I guess? [laughing].

MARTIN: Yes. [laughs]

Anna Serner
Photo: Jessica Hanlon

SERNER: I became a CEO fairly young. I was 34 years old. The first thing they told me is that you’ll get a lot of questions from reporters in regards to how you manage with family life, and I got a lot of personal questions. I was old and aware enough to be able to understand that now we’re talking about gender in-equality, so I addressed that. It was clear from the beginning that we have a problem in society. And being a woman in this kind of leadership role is very rare.

Women hesitate in talking about these issues because they don’t want to be stigmatized, and they just want to do their work, to be the token for quantity. Since the #MeToo movement, there really has been a big change, which is very helpful. When I started off the work, I was in no real position to make any change, because the organization that I was a part of didn’t have any real power. We were just members of an organization, so the members have all the power to do everything by themselves. I was very tired of having to talk about the problems without any tools to do anything about it. I decided to stop talking, and start acting.

MARTIN: I love that. 

SERNER: Because I realized it doesn’t really matter what you do. As soon as you do something, you start a conversation about your process of change. Even if you do things that don’t really make a change, the action makes a change in attitude. When I got my position at the Swedish Film Institute, I suddenly got power because we are responsible for so much of the decision-making for the films that are being made in Sweden. We are the public funders. If we say things, they really react and listen. Suddenly I had a position where I could make change. As an outspoken feminist before, the media was very interested in what we were doing. I’ve had to answer hard questions, and I did it by saying we’re doing okay, but we’re not happy with our numbers, and I will face that. I give myself three years to reach parity 50/50 by 2020. I’m not afraid of quotas.  

MARTIN: I love that, I applaud you for that.

SERNER: I gave myself six months to find out what the real obstacles are for women. Then we went into action, and our studies are all online. We developed a lot of information about the industry and that has a significant impact on how people act. 

We reached 50/50 after two years. We met it over time, and because we are a small country, we are in a different position. It would be good if it went to 50/50 every year. We want overtime to be 50/50. Some years we are up to 60 in gender, other years we are down to 40. But the average for a four-year period should be 50/50.

Over the last twenty years, my knowledge has become pretty deep. I am not afraid of taking arguments, I am not afraid of meeting people and explaining things, because I know what research has been made. The reason for our work is–we’ve been working a lot on talking about equality, instead of just gender equality. We have a responsibility to find the equality in the industry. We want to work with gender equality and diversity, and we want to take ALL of the talent in consideration. It’s really a matter of us doing our job properly. And I think everyone can do that because it’s just ridiculous to believe that you leave half of the population out, specifically to find the best filmmakers despite of gender and race. I’ve been working a lot with that message. 

Anna Serner speaking at the Swedish Film Institute

MARTIN: I’d love to see what you’re doing in Sweden be applied more here in the U.S. With your research, you are able to answer why there is in-equality, and it’s making a difference. 

SERNER: We are still not equal in Sweden either. There is still a lot of work to do. To keep aware of the state of equality, we’ve made a new action plan, and in our action plan there are two things that are always there. One is the numbers, getting the latest and aggregating the numbers. We must always understand where we are right now. What do we have to do to achieve 50/50? The challenge is that once a year you gather all of the information, by April you have the numbers, then you realize you did not reach quota on that aspect either. So then you have your goals going into the next year.

We are calculating every decision we make every month. By June, we can see the diagnosis for the year, and then we can make a proper diagnosis for the coming year. We ask ourselves where is our problem right now. We have too few female screenwriters in bigger budgeted films. What can we do? OK, we make a special request for female scriptwriters to be used for films with bigger budgets. Like what we are doing right now, for instance. That is really keeping up the pace through aggregating and monitoring.

The second thing that we have in our action plan is to always try to find new knowledge. We have decided every year to publish our gender equality report. The first one, which was in 2018, was summing up what was happening in Sweden, because we have been doing a lot of work since the 70s. And we’ve acquired the knowledge that there are a lot of women working outside the limelight and power, and what had to be done. What I really did was take over the big work that had to be made, and sharpened up the requirements by stressing them with a quota. No one before me had done that. 

Our 2019 report for 2018 was the money issue, because we realized that the report actually reads parity in funding decisions. We wanted to understand if the funding decisions were equal, so we started to count money. In the money issue, we could measure how big the inequality is the bigger the budget gets. By making that report, we made everyone aware of that problem. And we made a new announcement, which really pissed people off. If we don’t see change I’m not afraid to give bigger budgets to only women for one year.

MARTIN: That is great. 

Cate Blanchett accepting her Oscar in 2014 for Best Actress in a leading role for “Blue Jasmine” (2013)

SERNER: Well it didn’t look great. There were a lot of people who hear what they want to hear, and I’ve been accused of a lot of things, but we started to see a difference. We are now working on pushing that difference so that we don’t have to. Since Cate Blanchett got the Oscar in 2014, [Best Actress in a leading role for “Blue Jasmine”], she addressed how it is to be a woman in the Hollywood industry and how much less women earn. She made a lot of remarks about that. And that Oscar speech really kicked things off. Because of Cate Blanchett’s speech, I started to get a lot of phone calls from all over the world and invitations to go to other countries and talk about how we do gender equality, specifically a lot of film festivals were interested in hearing more about my work. I think it was due partly to the fact that the media was looking for it. And they couldn’t find anyone doing everything, in terms of payment and investing, like myself.

After #MeToo, it became glaringly apparent that it was a very white women issue, and the Women of Color didn’t feel included in the 50/50 by 2020 when the quota was released in 2016. What we are now doing in our report, which will launch in Sweden first [March 2020], and it will have the title “What Women?” We have two women of color who are researchers and are doing in-depth interviews with women of color, mostly actresses, and asking how their lives are in the industry. They have learned that there are racial harassments along with sexual harassments. #MeToo has been focused on the sexual harassments. Through our research, we have discovered so many other kinds of harassments that has to do with the color of skin. We did in-depth interviews with nineteen women. I think it’s going to be dynamite.

MARTIN: I’m excited! I’m excited to see it. 

SERNER: It’s really nothing new. I mean we always look over gender equality and discrimination, but when you read it and see the consequences, it is shocking. It’s time for us to raise our horizon and start to have women of color feel included. This is the work that we’ve been doing since June, and we’re now finalizing the analysis.

MARTIN: Thank you for speaking with me Anna. You and your work has been an inspiration to me.

Alice Bah Kuhnke, Swedish Minister of Culture & Democracy holding the “A” rating for films passing the Bechdel Test.

A great pairing to this feature is to watch the film “This Changes Everything”, streaming now On Demand. Anna is featured with top women in the industry speaking up about gender parity in the Hollywood film industry. Also featured is another Swede and trailblazer, Ellen Tejle. Ellen started the “A” rating system movement based on films passing the Bechdel Test.

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