Made by Women: An Interview with the Directors of the Swedish Documentary SILVANA

Silvana Imam is a Swedish rapper.

Her mother is Lithuanian. Her father is Syrian.

She’s Lithuanian–Arab, and a Swede.

A Modern Swede who has fought hard to belong not only in the music scene, after all, she’s a woman in a male-dominated industry, but also in a society that claims to be open.

Open to everyone.

Mika Gustafson, Olivia Kastebring and Christina Tsiobanelis have followed Silvana for three years during a highly political time in Sweden and have successfully created the portrait of a versatile, complex persona. The documentary Silvana follows the artist as she makes the first steps of her career, and also shows her fall in love with fellow artist Beatrice Eli. It is a beautiful story that develops on many levels giving us the opportunity to get to know Silvana better. Both she and the directors discuss the challenges in the contemporary Swedish society and invite us to be truly open towards identity, diversity and sexuality and to create new traditions together in a society free from stereotypes of what people can be, and which allows them to act the way they want to. What follows is an interview with the three directors who talk about their film, the women behind and in front of the camera as well as politics in the Swedish film industry.

For starters, please introduce yourself, and tell us how you got into film and started to work together.

Christina: I have a mixed background in film-making. I have been working in a lot of different areas such as directing, scenography, editing, VFX (visual effects), film festival and a lot more. But my main focus has always been documentary. Right now I’m interested in authenticity and mixing my background in VFX with documentary. I met Olivia and Mika at Fridhems Folkhögskola in Skåne. At first, we worked separately, but as we were feeling lonely as film-makers after finishing school in 2012 and were concerned about how male-dominated the film industry was, we decided to do something together as a collective. Our main focus has always been female representation in front and behind the camera.

Olivia: I have a background in making music videos, and then got into documentary quite fast. When I started Fridhem and met Mika and Christina was the first time actually I got together with other film-makers. It felt like a liberating moment in my life as I could finally talk about the film with others. After school, I worked a bit with photography, I assisted directors, but I kept having my own projects on the side that included everything from music videos to visuals and my own documentaries.

Mika: I was always interested in theatre from an acting perspective. I studied gender studies and from the beginning, I was interested in drag that I wrote my thesis about and even worked with it in a performance. I thought it was very interesting with gender dislocation, and images of perspectives of power, namely who’s involved and who’s the one telling the story. At school, I started working a lot with scene settings of YouTube clips. After that, I studied at Akademi Valand, the film school in Gothenburg, where I graduated from last year. I work mostly with fiction, or where fiction and documentary meet, and just as Christina and Olivia, I’ve always been interested in creating new images about women for women.

How did it all start with Silvana?

Olivia: There were various factors that contributed to making this documentary. Firstly, I did music videos for a band called jj, who did a remix of Silvana’s I.M.A.M. song. We decided on making a video for that song, and I also asked Mika to get involved in that project. Secondly, as said before, we were quite lonely as film-makers after school and also felt frustrated about how the film industry was and how it was easier for our male colleagues to get into the business, get contacts and get jobs in comparison to us. So we wanted to do something about it. Thirdly, we also felt that we were missing female role models in film.

Mika: In addition to what Olivia said, Spring 2014 was a very political time in Sweden. SD (Sverigedemokraterna/Sweden Democrats) had got seats in the Parliament; there was a resistance towards xenophobia, F! (Feministiskt initiativ/Feminist Initiative Sweden) was also gaining power. There were lots of feminist demonstrations. We also had elections that year. So there was this uncertainty of what’s going to happen. Could it be so that the racists would get out of the Parliament and the feminists would get in instead? There was a lot in the air.

Mika Gustafson Olivia Kastebring Christina Tsiobanelis_ Credit Märta Thisner

Olivia: There was a certain optimism that felt new in a way. We were attracted to that optimism and we wanted to create a contemporary documentation of that time. A film about resistance. Silvana also made an appearance at an anti-racist demonstration in Kärrtorp, a Stockholm suburb, back in 2013 that made a lot of buzz. After doing the I.M.A.M video, we asked her if we could do a documentary about her and she said yes.

Mika: At that time Silvana hadn’t really had her breakthrough yet. So we thought we were doing an underground documentary and maybe releasing some clips on YouTube to influence the elections. Then we started talking about how we, as female film-makers, could make a feature film, and if someone like Silvana could be in a film. Those were questions that we had never dared to hope about before. Silvana inspired us, and we wanted others to be inspired by her too, so we aimed at spreading the word about her. There was also some kind of learning outcome in what we did. We’re three different individuals, with three different backgrounds. We taught each other how to film, how to work with sound and instead of doing it alone we took turns. We wanted to make a film that we would have liked to see when we were young but there weren’t any such films.

You’ve built the portrait of a versatile persona. Who is Silvana?

Christina: It’s hard to answer that question. She’s an artist, so she has, of course, a stage persona, but in the film you see a lot more of how she’s off camera, her off-stage persona and that’s also part of who she is.

Olivia: Everybody’s so complex and that’s what we’ve tried to focus on. Maybe at the end of the documentary, you still have no clue who she is, and that is fine. It wasn’t the point to answer that question, and we didn’t even try to label her. We wanted her to be many different things as she was in real life. She’s a dynamic persona that made a place for herself in our society as well as a male-dominated rap scene.

Mika: When I think about Silvana and how she made a place in this world for herself, I also think about how she wants to give place to others.

The story indeed develops on many levels. How did you know which direction to go and how to balance it all out?

Christina: It was really hard because she was a lot of things. I think we sort of tried many different ways. In the end, we felt that the complexity of being a person, being Silvana as well as our complexity as film-makers is what makes this film beautiful.

Olivia: I think we managed to balance it out while editing the footage. We had a common ground when we started, which developed from something very political – due to the general situation – and underground to something very personal, human and simple, which, nevertheless, remained political. During the shootings, there were a lot of questions to be answered regarding what we were going for and what we aimed to do. I think we didn’t even know what kind of film we wanted to make before we started editing the footage. I remember an incident back in 2014, we were four months into shooting, and a common friend asked us what the film was about. Everybody was silent because at that time we really had no idea what kind of film we were making. Still, that was the biggest learning experience out of this journey. It can be okay not to know. Don’t see it as if you have a weak vision or a weakness at all, don’t stress. Through time, you get to know your film. You investigate. Trust in that. Silvana is complex and so we are, and that made the film, and what took the film further was that we were not just one director with one vision or one clear idea, but three. As directors, we didn’t have a script or an agenda but we had certain openness in every situation and every decision we made.

Mika: We were talking about the footage a lot. But it didn’t even matter because it didn’t mean that each time we shot, we got the result we aimed for. Nevertheless, we got to get to know Silvana better and ‘be there’ to document everything as it happened. Then we discussed how we’re going to navigate through this process and decided to go for everything, everything that everyone likes. We had a ‘more is more’ kind of attitude while filming. Also, being three directors meant that we could calm each other when we thought we reached a dead end or we weren’t completely satisfied after a shooting session. Our own tones can be seen in the film, too. Maybe it’s not as clear from the outside, but for us, it’s very clear who did what. However, even while editing we had a lot of questions to answer and thus had long discussions regarding all the different themes: what is political, what we wanted to get out of this story, how it would be to show that still not everything is acceptable and can be problematic.

Photo: Mantaray Film

You’ve shot some beautiful and personal scenes as well. Wasn’t that difficult, especially because of those seemed to be the beginning of a relationship between Silvana and Beatrice?

Christina: The girls had a camera and they were supposed to film themselves. It wasn’t easy. Yes, you need your privacy when you start falling in love with someone. We gave Silvana a lot of space. If she said no, we said OK. And within that space, that she was able to say no, she was also able to trust us and eventually say OK, you can come along this time. And it was also difficult because we had a verbal agreement with Silvana, but we didn’t have one with Beatrice. That was one of the reasons why we gave them a camera and the liberty to film themselves as much as they wanted to. We didn’t know what was recorded until a year ago.

Olivia: We were filming, and suddenly, Beatrice got in front of the camera and we didn’t really understand who she was. It felt that we were also following that relationship in a way, but sometimes it was hard to understand that we were in the middle of a romantic situation. It developed successively and all those amazing moments that so many think is staged, were actually things that we maybe didn’t even realize were taking place when we were filming and we eventually saw while editing. We were very focused when we were filming.

Mika: Also from whose point of view were we watching the story? Having a camera, we gave them the opportunity to tell their own story and they got to choose what’s happening in front of the camera. I also think that it was very important that at some point Beatrice was holding the camera and filmed Silvana as well as the opposite as they got to choose about the gaze and narrative. So it’s not just our perspective. What’s funny is that they kept saying that they didn’t film at all, so when we got to see the footage we were like: ‘Oh my God! What do you mean you haven’t filmed???’

Do you think it was hard on Silvana being the front image of a feminist, lesbian revolution for young people in Sweden? Someone who people can identify with, have a role model?

Mika: We need to be clear that she cannot be a representative of everything we need – all those stories, all those faces. The film alone isn’t enough. It needs to generate other stories. People need, of course, to find role models, a leader; we have that in our nature. I think that her wish is to give place to other people and trigger them so that they can come also to the front and tell another type of stories that are equally important. We never questioned why she was who she was. We thought of her as a person and were interested in how she dealt with a situation, how she reacted, etc.

Olivia: A paradox with Silvana and also many other famous people at her level is that they become leaders of a certain movement without their intention. You don’t need to have a banner or a political agenda when this is simply who you are. And that’s art at its best.

You presented a part of Sweden about which we talk and, at the same time, we don’t talk: diversity and identity. Those are images that I feel are definitely missing from Swedish film and I’m afraid that isn’t promoted within the Swedish society. Is Sweden really open?

Christina: Being of two cultures, is something that you feel inside. It’s hard to explain, and you can definitely feel a connection to someone who grew up in the same way like Silvana and I did. I’m Greek–Swedish. In one way, Sweden is very open because we talk about a lot of stuff and it’s OK to feel one thing or another. In another way, it’s closed, as eventually, you have to choose. You’re one thing or another. What I feel inside is sadness but also richness because of having two cultures. Sad, because I’m always in one of them. It’s hard for me to feel that I’m allowed to be both. Usually, other people decide in different contexts what you are and what you’re not.

Olivia: The problem is that it’s still very controversial when it comes to a woman who actively takes place in the public discourse. That’s why I got inspired by Silvana from the beginning, as with clarity and seriousness she’s against stereotypes. At the end of the day, we all carry different background stories and we see things from different positions of power. It’s interesting how Silvana’s still pointed at because she’s a lesbian, a feminist, an Arab–Lithuanian, etc. There’s limited tolerance regarding who someone is allowed to be or not to be. And that’s one problem apart from the role of women in society. Then, we say that we want to see new stories and images in a film but it feels that it’s just words. I know that Sweden is progressive and open, but even when it comes to the cultural industry, it is a white people that keep getting production funds, for example.

Mika: Silvana keeps getting labelled as a ‘strong woman’ but we need more women stories. I’m longing for films that focus on different types of women that are maybe ugly, disgusting and immoral, evil, but at the same time amazing at every level. But if we want to talk about the role of women in society we need to think of all the rights we already have. Abortion rights, voting rights etc. Those things don’t go without saying. Women have worked hard to earn those rights and we need to keep working hard in order to retain them.

Silvana Imam
Photo: Adam Falk

Looking back to those three years of filming. Did you expect that it’d be so well-received?

Christina: Both yes and no. When we started filming, we realised that there’s hunger for this kind of stories. From those we met, especially Silvana’s fans, we knew that they’d like it and that it’d actually mean something to them. We wanted to do it well. We didn’t want to reproduce stereotypes all over again. We’re proud of it, and Silvana feels good about it. Then there might also be parents who after seeing it can understand their kids better and that’s positive. Then there were a lot of men who apparently saw it too. I didn’t expect that.

Mika: I believe that the film is about what is to be human, and everybody who sees it will get a feeling about what it is to fight for things in life. And since it handles so important issues, we kept lifting each other and hoped that it’d be good and well-received.

It also feels that the documentary is made by women for women. Sweden, through the work of the Swedish Film Institute (SFI), is proud of itself for gender equality in film. You were luckily funded by SFI, and you also worked with Mantaray Film and TriArt. All three have a female CEO. However SFI funds two-thirds of the Swedish film productions. Is it difficult for women to get funded?

Mika: I wish I knew why it’s so difficult, why this is still happening and why we haven’t solved it yet. There are so many talented people that maybe haven’t got the opportunity to study or simply set a foot in the film business. Furthermore, we apparently still need to talk about class. There’s ‘class washing’ when it comes to the film industry and who gets to be part of it. What you’re wearing, the way you talk, everything’s important. Of course, many institutions encourage diversity but the people’s background may still affect their decision. So where do we find resources for people that might be of different racial, social and educational background? The industry is still very close and it’s not easy to be part of it, as you need to know people to get in.

Olivia: There’s a structural problem and for some reason, there’s less trust in women. Even women have less trust in other women. It’s annoying. When people are hiring and creating teams there’s this stupid belief that men are more capable. I know a lot of people in this industry who call themselves feminists and claim that they work for equality and so on. But still, they don’t incorporate those thoughts when they hire their team. Some people just make it so easy for themselves. And I’m not saying that male-based teams aren’t good, but if we still need to talk about gender inequality at workplaces, then I know a lot of people in this industry who call themselves feminists and claim that they work for equality and so on. But still, they don’t incorporate those thoughts when they hire their team. Some people just make it so easy for themselves. Another thing is that in Sweden everything is centralised in cities. Just think about SFI being based in Stockholm, Film i Skåne in Malmö, etc. What’s happening outside the cities? That is where the voices that need to be heard.

Christina: Yes, it’s difficult to get funded if you’re a woman. As a woman, you always have to answer questions that men don’t need to answer. If I get in a room and say I want to make a film, then I’ll probably get more questions than a male director would. There are a lot of women stories that need to be told, but it’s very tiring to be a woman in the industry, as you have to constantly fight. Industry people say: ‘We want more women but we can’t find them.’ That’s nonsense! I think a lot of women who are able to do a good job, don’t do it at all because they don’t have the energy as the industry is the way it is, and that’s just sad. Going to a male-dominated production company and try to pitch a story from a female perspective, you have to keep explaining your point of view. Thus, it’s easier to work with other women, but women also need to lift women because we need to support each other.

Where are you standing with the #metoo movement?

Christina: Personally, I get sad because it’s late, as we already knew about this, but it also makes me happy because it gives me hope that things maybe are going to change. I feel empowered seeing people talking, communicating and making a change. We need to discuss more that it’s mostly men in powerful positions that intimidate women and act this way. Furthermore, it feels that the #metoo debate has made an impact on the Western world, so one question remains: What is happening to the rest of the world? Hopefully, the change will be bigger.

Mika: Of course, we support this whole campaign. What’s important is that stories that would otherwise remain hidden have finally been heard. Sexual harassments are a type of silent terror. I really wonder how a problem like this couldn’t have been solved before in our society. So we need to admit that there’s a problem in our societal structure, which is rather patriarchal, and so it is bigger than this, it’s really about power.

Olivia: For me, it’s also divided in two. It’s like my brain want to be in Utopia where we don’t need to face this. Where women don’t need to go out with their painful stories and somehow experience them once again. It’s tiring that women are the ones who have to upgrade men, upgrade the society. I thought that this campaign would only last for a week but it holds on and more and more stories are coming to light. Such campaigns are needed in order for change to come. It’s great and I’m so proud of all those women who came out with their stories. The fact that we live in a patriarchal society and we have those structures, which at least the majority of women are fighting against, that is what is a very important part for me in this campaign. We’re finally going to acknowledge this troubling factor that affects our society and start working towards eliminating this sexist behaviour.