From Iceland — The Boys' Club: Men Are Strong And Carry Around Big Cameras?

The Boys’ Club: Men Are Strong And Carry Around Big Cameras?

The Boys’ Club: Men Are Strong And Carry Around Big Cameras?

Published June 24, 2015

Ciarán Daly
Photo by
Helga B. Kjerulf

On May 13, a new billboard went up outside Kolaportið.

As billboards go, it was pretty good. It used an excellent shade of pink. It didn’t peel. It was big enough to see from Bæjarins Beztu. Most importantly, though, this billboard had a message for the hot dog eaters of Reykjavík: the Icelandic film industry is sexist.

After examining figures for gender participation within the arts, the world-famous feminist art troupe Guerrilla Girls put up this billboard as part of the 29th Reykjavík Arts Festival. When it came to the film industry, what they concluded was that 87% of Icelandic Film Centre funding (i.e. the “Film Fund”) has gone to men rather than women—and that this was because of discrimination.

The numbers

The figures used on the billboard were based on a BA thesis by Ívar Björnsson, entitled ‘Konur í íslenskum kvikmyndum’ (“Women in Icelandic Film”). Ívar looked at every Icelandic film made from 1980, the year the Film Centre was founded, through 2012—134 films in total—and found that 87% of funding had gone to men over the last three decades. Furthermore, only twenty films (15%) featured women in leading roles, including acting, directing, production, or writing work.

At first, these numbers appear to sit in stark contrast with the figures provided by the Film Centre: women had a 68% success rate applying for screenwriting or production support grants in 2013 and 2014, while men had a success rate of 58%. On the surface, it would seem that out of the very few women who apply, the majority of them are successful—more so than male applicants.

Looking more closely at the figures, however, tells us another story. In 2013-14, there were 352 applications for Film Centre funding, with 217 of those successfully receiving grants. Men accounted for 70% of applications, and received 67% of the total grants awarded. In comparison, women have accounted for 23% of applications, and received 25% of the total grants. Meanwhile, mixed-gender “team” applications made up the remaining 6% of applications, taking the final 8% of awarded grants.

These numbers do not account for how much funding was allocated to men or women, but if the stats the Guerrilla Girls cite are true (i.e. “women receive 13% of all Film Centre funding”), it is reasonable to conclude that women not only make up a much smaller number of grant applicants than men, but also receive less funding individually.

The reason given for this is simple, according to Laufey Guðjónsdóttir, director of the Film Centre, who is quoted in Ívar’s thesis: women are often more realistic and moderate in estimating their budgets. If the work of women costs less than that of men (thanks, gender pay gap!) then we can grant more women less funding, or so it goes. Sort of like Victorian orphans, or worker bees.


The way funding is allocated by the Film Centre is similar to the way other Nordic film institutes do it, according to Laufey. “Film consultants evaluate the applications and make a suggestion accordingly to the director of the Film Centre,” Laufey explains. “The director is responsible for all the funding.”

It might seem surprising that a woman is in charge of allocating funding, given that it is distributed unevenly. However, this highlights the structural— rather than individual—nature of the issue.

“There is a problem, as we get fewer applications from women than men,” Laufey says. “The discussion about a limited number of women in the creative key roles in films is both very urgent and important—for us at the Film Centre and the whole film community. [This] is not only a women’s issue—men have great responsibilities in this matter too, of course.” If the film industry itself is male-dominated, and much of its success has thus far relied on films that speak to that experience, then the so-called “film consultants” tasked with judging applications will act on that basis.

Looking at the proportionally low number of funding applications from women, alongside the miniscule numbers entering film school (eleven applicants, or 28% of Icelandic film school graduates between 2009-2011), the “problem” becomes more readily apparent. Although women are more successful in applying for grants than men, they are simply not being encouraged to get into the industry in the first place.

Not an option?

Laufey makes a good point when she tells me that there is no simple explanation for why there are so few women involved—in both film and other areas. There is “limited education at all stages” for film, she says. This is compounded by “very narrow infrastructures” within the industry itself.

The director of the Reykjavík Arts Festival, Hanna Styrmisdóttir, argues that young women simply are not given the opportunities to break into the industry.

“They do not direct films because they do not get the chance to – because they don’t hear from society that they can do it, that we will support them in doing it, that we will fund their work equally – as we do the work of men.”

“There is a small war going on in the Icelandic film business and I’ll be damned if we lose it.”

She views this as pervasive throughout the arts in Iceland: “Young women are simply not receiving the message that filmmaking is a viable option for them.” With only 20- odd films produced by women in the last three decades, it’s no wonder why.

One of the most well-known Icelandic filmmakers and certainly one of the most prominent women in the domestic industry, Guðný Halldórsdóttir (‘The Quiet Storm’ [2007], ‘The Honour of the House’ [1999]), says that when she started out, Icelandic cinema was entirely male-dominated. It was three women in the theatre who inspired her to go to film school. “I knew that I would have to work twice as hard as my male colleagues,” she says. “That was thirty years ago, [and] there has actually been little progress.”

Guðný argues that, while there are now more women in the industry than before, many do not last—and those who do end up working in an administrative capacity or as actors, always “something less than features.”

Add a lack of opportunities to the funding issues that we see further down the line, and it would appear that things are structurally weighted against people who aren’t men at nearly every single level within the industry. Whether this is the result of deliberate discrimination is unclear. Regardless, it is obvious that filmmaking seems out of reach for many women—something that extends far, far beyond any individual prejudices those at the Film Centre might hold.

Telling tales

Even if the industry wasn’t backwards in terms of its structure and how it allocates funding, what still remains is a problem of visibility for anyone who isn’t a cisgender man.

This is reflected in the films themselves. All the ‘big’ Icelandic films only really tell the stories of men. You can see this in ‘Hrútar’ (‘Rams’, dir. Grímur Hákonarson), which tells the story of two brothers, and which also just won the main award in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section of Cannes – the highest accolade an Icelandic director has ever received.

“It is wonderful to see an Icelandic film (‘Rams’) receive that honour and the stories of men are not less important than the stories of women, but we have to have both,” Hanna argues. “There is something wrong if almost all the films made in Iceland tell narratives of men, because that doesn’t really give a good idea of the society and the things [it] stands for. If you don’t see yourself mirrored in a way and your experiences mirrored in what’s happening in the arts, it’s harder to become interested in it.”

Furthermore, despite the international success of a film like ‘Rams’, Guðný points out that there is little domestic appetite for Icelandic cinema. “The audience does not trust Icelandic films, which is a shame,” she says. This in part down to many of these films only representing the experience of a narrow section of a society— what Guðný refers to as the “so-called ‘underground’ in Reykjavík.” She argues “there is a gap in the history of culture in Iceland—this medium is one-sided, whereas our society is not.”

This is simultaneously a cause and effect of the lack of opportunities in the industry for people who aren’t men. When asked about the impact of an unequal film industry on young filmmakers, Guðný says, “Concerning young women who want to make films, please do. There is a small war going on in the Icelandic film business, and I’ll be damned if we lose it.” The absence of representation and opportunities in the arts, but also the public sphere, is not just a major issue for women who want to break into filmmaking—it is a major global issue for people of all identities.

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