Film critics divided on Swedish gender bias test

Film critics divided on Swedish gender bias test
Sandra Bullock in Gravity, a film that does not pass the Bechdel test. Photo: AP
A new gender equality rating system being used in some Swedish cinemas has made world headlines, but critics on the home front have said the ratings shouldn't be taken too seriously.

A cinema group in Sweden has introduced a controversial new gender bias rating to shine a spotlight on sexism in films, but critics on Thursday said the move could lead to self-censorship.

To receive the new "A" rating, films must feature at least two named female actors who have a conversation about anything other than a man.

The rating is based on a test made popular in 1985 by the comic strip artist Alison Bechdel.

While the so-called Bechdel Test seems easy enough, many blockbusters actually fail to make the grade, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Star Wars films.

"We are tired that it's been nearly 30 years since the Bechdel Test was introduced and still most films nominated at the Oscars and the Guldbagge don't meet the criteria," an independent cinema group said in a statement last month when it launched the ratings system, referring to the Golden Bug film awards, Sweden's equivalent to the Oscars.

The group is owned by a grassroots organisation, the National Federation of People's Parks and Community Centres.

The rating project has the enthusiastic support of the state-owned Swedish Film Institute, which provides funding for virtually every homegrown Swedish movie – and all 23 films released last year.

"We think it's a really good way of raising awareness of the kind of stereotypes we're shown in films," the institute's director Anna Serner told AFP, adding that 90 percent of the films shown in Sweden last year failed the test.

She said that the "A" rating criteria would not become official policy when deciding which film projects to fund.    

Nevertheless, the body's vocal support for the gender bias rating has led critics to complain about state interference in Swedish cultural life.

"It's naive to think their reaction is not prescriptive. The Swedish Film Institute is a very powerful body in Swedish cinema," said Jan Holmberg, a film researcher and head of the Ingmar Bergman Foundation.

"If this leads to future film makers thinking about these issues during the creative process then it's dangerous. Lots of explicitly feminist films would never have passed the test: films by Marguerite Duras, Chantal Akerman… not to mention Ingmar Bergman."

Another film critic, Hynek Pallas, writing in the daily Svenska Dagbladet, said that the lure of state funding would inevitably lead to "self-censorship" among the country's hard-pressed film makers.

But other industry insiders were more positive.

"I think it's a brilliant idea! It's a political statement," Lisa Bergström, a film critic and producer at Swedish public radio, told AFP.

"We need this… to show how absurd it is that the film industry is so unequal when it comes to who's telling stories, who's directing and how women are portrayed," she added.

"But you shouldn't take the rating too seriously because we all know that very strange films, really any kind of rubbish, could pass!"

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