Film producer Helene Granqvist and her team had their cameras rolling when Sweden went through its “Feminist Spring” in 2014.
That year, the Feminist Initiative party won 5.3 percent of the national vote for the European Parliament, and thanks to a coalition of left-leaning parties, Sweden proclaimed the world’s first “feminist government”. All the while, the documentary cameras were focused tightly on long-time advocate and FI leader Gudrun Schyman.
“When we started this project, surveys showed us that 11 percent of Swedish people said ‘I’m a feminist,’ ” says Granqvist, speaking over the phone from a gala in Stockholm, where, fittingly, the nation’s culture minister is handing out awards for female filmmaking. “Then, after the election, 46 percent said they were feminists. So something happened; you had this tipping point. Before that, the word feminist had a stigma.”
A big reason for the change was decades of reasoned, calm advocacy by Schyman, whom we follow in Granqvist’s film The Feminist, campaigning everywhere from “home parties” in people’s gardens and kitchens to FI’s pink-balloon-and-banner-filled rallies. Throughout, the youthful 70-year-old pushes a simple message of feminism as human rights. As Granqvist puts it, “Nationalism is a bad thing going on in society right now. But Gudrun always works with an open hand, not a fist.”
In the documentary, which will show locally at the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival, Schyman is often treated like a rock star by her young Swedish fans out in public, though her detractors—usually older guys—aren’t afraid to confront her on the street.
Still, the movie goes far beyond politics and theory. The Feminist follows Granqvist’s remarkable personal journey, from growing up poor with an alcoholic father to struggling with her own drinking and the ensuing political fallout in the 1990s, as well as dealing with abuse in her own family. In some of the film’s most touching scenes, she reflects with her adult daughter on the toll it all took.
“Gudrun has never been ashamed,” explains Granqvist. “She really believes that as complex humans, we have to allow for faults for change—and the same is so for political change. And this tells us something about how difficult it is to change.”
As the president of the global advocacy network Women in Film & Television International, Granqvist, who will attend the screening here, recognizes many parallels between her own work and that of Schyman.
“I see the similarities with what Gudrun is dealing with and what I’m dealing with, and that’s organizing people,” she says. “For a big change, we need to go together and we have to define the goals and aims.”
In her film, the metaphor for that slow building of a movement is shots of the ever hard-working Schyman painstakingly reconstructing a stone fence on her windswept property in rural Sweden.
Amid #MeToo and women’s marches (late in the film, Schyman dons her first pussy hat), the feminist movement is surging on this side of the Atlantic too. But Granqvist has watched the long struggle, in film and politics, and she is as realistic about progress as her film’s practical heroine is. “I have a Norwegian colleague, and she has a snowman theory: to work with gender equality you have to build the snowman and it will melt, and you will have to be there all the time to rebuild it again,” she says. “You can’t sit back; you have to be always active.”
The Vancouver International Women in Film Festival presents The Feminist at the Vancity Theatre on Friday (March 8) at 3:30 p.m.