“The Culture Is Quite Patriarchal in Sweden”: An Interview With Suzanne Osten

Suzanne Osten started her career in theatre, and a few years later successfully landed in the field of cinema, too. During her long career, she has shown her talent both as a stage and film director as well as a screenwriter. Currently, she is working on an Ingmar Bergman screenplay. Cinema Scandinavia sat down with her and asked her about her career, and her views on the Swedish film industry.

With her half-century-long theatre career and ten feature films behind her, Suzanne Osten is, by all means, one of the most influential women in Swedish film and theatre. She has worked as an ambassador for artistic children’s films at the Swedish Film Institute for two years, and it might appear that she has established herself in the country’s film industry. As the debates and disputes over the rating of her latest feature The Girl, the Mother and the Demons imply, her boldness as an artist has not at all given a simple success story. At the same time the difficulty of working in the film industry that is still a masculine culture continues to challenge her, “the woman who sees the world more complexly”.  She tells us that “a feminist always has to fight the fear, but the artistic vision can challenge a mainstream industry”.

Becoming a Film-maker

Suzanne’s mother, Gerd Osten, was a leading woman in the Swedish film critique circle in the 40s, a friend of Ingmar Bergman, and practising as a script girl (Bergman’s A Ship Bound For India was one of her tasks) while writing about new film visions. As her daughter, it might have been preordained that Suzanne would also choose film as a career path. However, compared to theatre, the more open world where she could start her career already at the age of nineteen, it took longer to her to break into the industry. As she explains: “It just took a long time to finance my first film. Those time comedies and so-called conventional films were produced, there were hardly any people who would take a chance and produce the kind of art films with an intellectual woman as a subject that I wanted to make. But I met an incredibly good producer who also believed in the film because his wife thought it was the time for a female director. He sent me to the university to take one of those film courses that originated in the USA. I had several discussions with a really good teacher on my script. He taught me some rules and it was up to me to break them. I wrote eight versions of the manuscript, but it was the first one which was made into a film finally in 1982.”

Mamma (1982)

You mentioned that the producer’s wife was reflecting on your gender. Do you think the fact of being a woman caused any difficulty to be able to enter the film industry?

– I don’t think it helped my case that I was a famous feminist. It was the 80s, and everyone was scared of feminists, and there were already a lot of myths and ideas circulating. It is hard to have an artistic claim as to be a woman who discusses the societal issues. Fortunately, now I see more female producers and networks, and we have an official policy, the government, and the film institute to support us.

Although her films were praised by critics and won awards at film festivals, they seldom became commercial successes. Getting financed in fact has not been a simple task in the film industry where one cannot get as large subsidies as in the theatre. “One needs a good producer who believes in the project. Many male producers have not been super hooked on my ideas for films. I’ve thought a lot about this and guess that it might depend on my themes, which have little to do with naturalism. The Creteil International Festival of Women’s Films always invites me, and I’ve received audience awards and jury prizes both there and at other events. So I guess people think my films are unique in a way or ‘ahead of time,’ so to speak”, she says.

Do you think Sweden is not the best country to realise your artistic ideas?

– Yes, I do believe that. The culture is quite patriarchal in Sweden, don’t you think? It’s a man’s society, and the structure plays a role. At the same time, I’ve received funds and excellent reviews. But I can’t complain, I’ve always had jobs, not only making films but also making theatre performances and giving lectures, and I’m still working now even if I’m a pensioner.

Haven’t you thought of making films in other countries?

– When I made The Guardian Angel, Agnieszka Holland (Polish film and television director and screenwriter) said to me: “You should move to Paris, there are film funds available there.” But I had my theatre at that time, so I decided not to go.

The different climates for films experienced in various places somehow interest her. She describes the attitude shown by the Swedish film industry towards her as the following: “I’ve been quite a neglected film-maker, but it doesn’t mean my films are bad. I just haven’t made mainstream films. I’m an avant-gardist and a feminist, and this is an unpleasant combination of the neoliberal culture. Some people don’t know how to deal with my films.”

The Guardian Angel (1990)

Films Beyond Time

Her debut title Mamma, dealing with her mother Gerd’s unrewarded efforts to become a film director, was followed by The Mozart Brothers, a successful opera comedy. Then came Lethal Film, “a fiasco which became a cult film”, The Guardian Angel, a daring, vivid black-and-white film on a political topic, and Speak Up! It’s So Dark, which is a dialogue between a Jewish psychiatrist and a young neo-Nazi. Every one of them shows Osten’s artistic ambition and foresight, making them so actual even after a couple of decades. “If one sees those films today, one would say they are super modern”, she says.

The actuality of the films made by a director who “did things too early” now amazes people, especially women in countries far away from Scandinavia. Mamma, for example, was screened in Beijing last year, making the female audience burst into tears. “They all thought that it was what was China then. Some women began crying and talked about the fact that they still didn’t have the right to get money from men when they got a child. In the film, I depicted things about which Chinese women talked, and then said, “I recognised myself there”. So one can say the film was extraordinarily actual, and, to be honest, I was a bit surprised because of that. So it’s obvious that society is different here in Sweden”, she continues.

Are there any political issues you want to tackle today?

– I’m currently working on a script written by Ingmar Bergman (64 Minutes With Rebecka, a project for a planned omnibus film with Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa) and I put it in a context where feminism starts and builds up to an explosion. It is a film about freedom, more precisely about a person who is searching for freedom but doesn’t know how to do that. The main character is a young, deaf girl and her struggle for freedom touches my heart. We need to support the youth’s creativity because if we don’t do that, we don’t have any future.

Please elaborate on this a bit more. What do you mean by not having any future?

– Young women have always needed support, and young men, too. The man’s role in a rapidly changing society is tragic… Have you ever been to Ulaanbaatar, for example? A lot of men are alcoholics there, while some women know what to do: “Okay, I’m not appreciated in my culture, then what shall I do? Ah, I will go to university and study! Will gain knowledge.” But men who have had positions as leaders or shepherds in the society are so confused now. So there are huge groups of men who don’t have any function in our post-modern society as Susan Faludi (American feminist journalist and author) wrote about in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991). They can run amok and be dangerous. In the worst case, they can be a root of hatred toward modern young women. That’s why I eagerly engage in these questions with focusing on the young – conditions for the youth.

The Upcoming Bergman Project

You’ve mentioned Ingmar Bergman’s screenplay earlier, so let me ask you about that. You had a complicated relation to Bergman. Why did you decide to take on the task?

– I differentiate between people and the art they make. My mum taught me that. It can be difficult not to become furious when you’re treated poorly. Of course, I became angry at him, because, you know, he was a man of power. But I was offered to do this play for the radio, so I read it. I got very enchanted. It was a screenplay, let’s say, a story that became a world on its own. Later I learned that he was enormously interested in contemporary society. I imagine him sitting and watching women demonstrating on TV and being greatly inspired. He was also surrounded by sharp female actors who felt the tide and new ideas. They were surely modern women. I think he cared a lot about the struggle of these women, who fought for rights. One can see that in the script. The liberation movement was in fact very much in progress during the time he was writing the screenplay.

Do you think it’s just this screenplay in which we find his concerns about then-contemporary events?

– He made Shame, for example, which is a visionary, fantastic film, and another interesting one is Passion of Anna. He was open-minded, especially for his time, but later he became more conservative and made other choices.

I’m just wondering what you’d think about yourself as “a female director who shot Bergman’s screenplay”…

– There is an irony there. I play with the cliché myself.

The Girl, The Mother, and the Demons (2016)

As a Pioneer of Children’s Film

The concerns about the youngsters might have been a driving force for Suzanne, one of the pioneering figures – not only nationally but also internationally – in children’s theatre and film. Nonetheless, she was more productive acting on these concerns in her theatre named Unga Klara and has made only two films so far, Bengbulan and The Girl, the Mother and the Demons. She thinks that it depended on the fact that the film world for children is really behind all the development accomplished in the theatre. Censorship, which occurred regarding both titles, somehow proves that. Her fundamental understanding of children’s view on reality and compassions for the youth made her express such revolutionary thoughts in children’s films. Those were perceived as provocative by some.

What was your approach when making Bengbulan and The Girl, the Mother and the Demons?

– I tried to put myself in the child’s perspective. It can’t work otherwise, since I’m an adult, and that is also the reason why I chose an adult to play the role of ‘the monster’, Bengt. I wanted to make the situation more grotesque. He is a big bully. Such an idea that children cannot do anything to a person who they’re scared of comes from an authoritative perspective in which it isn’t tolerated when children are not kind. What I tried to say in the film was: “Unite! This is the only chance!” And the children do unite and do nasty things to Bengbulan as revenge. Children do talk about issues like that they are scared of some adults or older boys and girls, who are bloody-minded towards them, and they can resolve the issues in various ways. What my aim was only to give a hint that if they had united he would have become weaker and they stronger. However, adults became very upset because of that, since they wanted the children to be good, but I wanted to tell something real. What is more, adult film-makers became outraged, and the film was nearly torn to pieces and was censored.

I thought the censorship also had something to do with sexuality…

– Yes, I think so, too. I’ve been a children’s film ambassador for two years and travelled around and shown films as well as talked to children. When I asked eleven-year-olds about the appropriate rating for the film, they said they would set it from one-two years old, because they had seen much worse films in their life. Having said that, when asking them whether they would take their parents to the screening, they were shouting no because of its sexual matter.

How do you think we should deal with the question of sexuality?

– We should try to show and talk about it whenever it’s possible. Once the girl who played Carmen accompanied me on stage, and all children shouted with joy since she looked the same as when she was a teenager. They were interested in that kiss…(In the film, the big bully Bengt kisses the girl, Carmen, quite passionately, when she pretends to be nice to him.) I do think children want to know everything and want to ask about everything. An adult, on the other hand, lies all the time. However, we should be able to talk about sexuality, which is sometimes wonderful, sometimes gross. We need mentally stable adults who aren’t afraid of questions about it.

You talked elsewhere about children’s advanced view on reality. Why do you think we lose it when growing up?

– Because we pay lots of prices to become an adult: to define our sexuality, to earn our own money, to get our own freedom, but, after all, everything is limited by an employer or a market or whatever. To live as an adult we need to push aside that childish, incredibly open-minded and curious view. We become a bit more stupid as an adult. When I do research on children, I learn new things. Ironically enough, though, many kids often have a ready-made idea: “A child should be like this.”

Do you think as an artist you are closer to be a child?

– Artists cultivate their own childishness. We’re childish. We want to make our stories, we want to have our money, and we want to tell a story without anyone hindering us. It’s really childish, indeed. However, I’ve cultivated my childishness, or rather, I’ve controlled it.

Concerns for Children in Today’s Society

Her deep concerns for the dysfunction in today’s society where children can anytime be victims are expressed several times during the interview. “Nowadays mental illness is very common among children and the youth. Our modern society is not good for people. Children must work hard in school and go to good universities, however, some cannot manage that – especially those with severe learning difficulties and all those refugees who come with their traumas. Some end up in the streets and become criminals. Suicidal rates are another concern”, she says.

What do you think we should do about this?

– We need to take this issue seriously. We must know whether they feel comfortable in school or not, that learning is not scary. If children are so important as we proclaim, we should have a different society created. Schools and the arts are designed for adults and not for children. Children’s film, for example, is mainly built on a purely pedagogic aim or is light entertainment. It’s an adult culture, not the children’s that dominates today.

So do you think the society should take responsibility for this?

– It is the society’s responsibility, but the society doesn’t have any responsibilities today. It’s just about greediness. Now, however, Convention on the Rights of the Child is about to become Swedish law. We need to prove it’s not just a paper tiger.

How do you think you as an artist can influence society?

– You must reach ALL school audiences. If you make films like The Square (directed by a Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund), you can really influence society. But most films can’t really find their audience. Therefore, I’ve thought a lot about schools as a place to make things happen. I’ve had the opportunity to work with theatre in schools, so I’m thinking of trying to find my audience for my films there. School children should learn to see and reflect on films. Ruben Östlund even showed one of his films for children in collaboration with a theatre. I think such attempts can be very good effects on the young


You have finished your tasks as an ambassador for children’s film recently. Do you think it was an effective way to promote children’s films?

– I’ve become pessimistic… There are fewer and fewer opportunities due to things teachers need to teach according to the study plans. Another factor is the difference between urban and rural areas. Big cities have more theatres and cinemas, but in the countryside the number of opportunities is limited. No parents would go to the cinema with their children but watch TV. This is devastating. The growing child needs a cultural dialogue.

Suzanne Osten

Art, a Secularised Church

“In 2002 I made a play called Baby Drama for six-month-old children. It was a kind of research whether such small children could understand it was theatre. It was obvious that they were interested in the art form and the narrative. We are human animals with a big inner question mark, therefore, we need theatre, religious rituals, or opera performances and so on. Something happens to our thinking and senses there, and we tend to look at things and process our impressions differently. Art is a synthesis of a lot we are reflecting and pondering over, a process on in our inner world, and that is what we need”, she articulates.

She beautifully describes what art is for her, namely “a secularized church”. After her long career, it seems that she has established her position, but she does not agree with it. “There is not such a thing as a good artist or established positions”, she says. “I live in a three-room flat in a rich country and I have a pension. But it’s not enough to live in a rich country. For an artist, there should always be tension between spirituality, meaning and the materialistic world. Why would you watch films if you’re not emotionally and intellectually interested in what is made and told? The role of art is really exciting.”

Your passion for cinema and theatre is undeniable. Are there any differences in terms of having more access to funds and opportunities to express your thoughts through films now that you’ve become older?

The difference is that everyone presumes I get money for what I do, but I don’t! Everyone assumes that I have the money for the Bergman film, but I don’t. I’m in competition with those young film-makers who also apply for funds. And I do think they would choose among the young film-makers or the middle-aged applicants. So it’s not that I automatically get money due to my status or experience.

Don’t you think that you can perhaps become a role model for the new generation of female directors, now that you’re a big name?

– I guess they think I’m good, but I don’t know if they have the energy to see my films.

What do you expect from new female film-makers exactly?

One must be allowed to train until they can find their own voice, but the problem is that they can only make a few films. They should also do theatre, meet actors at an early stage, and try different things to gain as much experience as possible. Just waiting to make a film in every fourth or fifth year is equal to death.

Several awards and the good reviews her films have received seem to bear witness to the reputation given to Suzanne Osten, as a leading woman in Scandinavia cinema. If one thinks of that, her words about the hardships she has faced when realizing her artistic ideas are almost surprising. Her experiences shared with Cinema Scandinavia vividly tell how demanding it is for a woman to pursue a career in the film industry without any compromise. During the interview, she was both humorous and passionate, which gave a glimpse of her warm-hearted treatment of the neglected shown in her films. It is certain that there is still much to be seen about this talented woman who knows no fear to explore something true.