With widespread film and TV experience in leading Swedish productions, Annika Hellström founded her production company Cinenic Film in 2008. Annika has produced several award-winning feature films such as “Beyond Dreams” by Rojda Sekersöz, “Flocking” by Beata Gårdeler and Ronnie Sandahl’s “Underdog.” “Beyond Dreams” won the Audience Award and the Angelo Award at the 2017 Gothenburg Film Festival. “Flocking” was awarded the Crystal Bear at the 2015 Berlinale, screened in Competition at a multitude of renowned festivals and received three awards at the 2016 Guldbagge National Awards. “Underdog” was awarded at the Zurich Film Festival, the Chicago International Film Festival and Les Arc European Film Festival. Annika is also the co-producer of “And Breath Normally” by Ísold Uggadóttir that won the Best Director Award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival as well as the Fipresci Award at the 2018 Gothenburg Film Festival.
Tara Karajica caught up with her at this year’s Stockfish Film Festival were she was one of the panelists at the 2nd “Nordic Female Filmmakers Meeting Point.”
You started in the restaurant industry, but you moved to film and New York at a crossroads in your career. What happened?
Annika Hellström: During the last years I was in the restaurant business, I enjoyed my work very much. I was working at an inn by the ocean, we had nice guests and everything was very nice. I was happy. I was free. Sometimes, I would go on long trips and study cultures and people – I was very interested in this. And then, I got an offer. Somebody asked me if I wanted to be a chef at a restaurant in the city they were going to open. I was twenty-nine and I had never been thinking about my career. Nowadays, people are so focused on their career. I was just living! And when I got this job offer, I was like: “No.” I wasn’t interested. And then came the second thought: “Well, I’m twenty-nine. I’m not going to work here for the rest of my life!” I had a serious crisis and I thought about what I was going to do.
I had been to the cinema and I had watched a lot of films when I was young and I had always been very interested in that and in photography. Like I mentioned before, I had been spending money on long trips. I went to South and Central America and the Far East and I decided: “This time, I am going to spend money on a trip inward” So I went to a film school – a shorter class in Gothenburg – to explore film and I really found that this was my thing and what I wanted to do. My private life kind of looked in that way too, so that made us move to New York to pursue this career. At this time, thirty-three years ago, there weren’t that many schools to choose from. There were the smaller grades or the universities and dramatic institutes that only accepted six students a year. I was also interested in FAMU, but in New York as well, and so I moved there without really knowing. I looked it up a bit – it wasn’t that easy to find things out at the time; you couldn’t just google it and get all the different information. So I stayed there for four years and took separate classes at NYU, the New School and Film/Video Arts and I met other filmmakers and just explored and developed my interest, vision and view on film. What was important is that I am very happy I went abroad so that I could detach myself from social acceptance. I was freer!
You worked then as a script supervisor, as an assistant director and then you moved to producing. Why this change?
A.H.: I enjoyed script supervising a lot. You work very closely with the director and assistant director. There weren’t that many female directors around at that time. This was in the ‘90s. Sometimes, when I was working with female directors, a lot of times I felt that the female voice is not heard, listened to as carefully as the male one and this really upset me. Then, I was also seeing the children’s films that my daughter was watching and I thought it was a very old-fashioned setup: the story, the hero, everything…. I was just thinking: “How can it be?” I thought that what she was seeing didn’t reflect society, the female movement and the changes. The stories were forty years old. These thoughts were moving around in the back of my head and I spoke to some other female film workers from different fields who were production designers, editors, scriptwriters in Gothenburg and they felt more or less the same, so we decided to form a group named “Doris.”
Can you talk about “Doris”?
A.H.: Yes! The purpose of the group was the explore the set up and the stories and other ways to tell them. So we just wanted to sit down and do something about it. And this is very important: we decided to meet once a month and just be a supporting group for each other. We also decided to have one rule and that was that we were not allowed to whine. That was a very good rule because because if you are in an underdog position, of course, it’s easy to whine. You have a lot of things to complain about, but it’s not progressive to sit and listen to all the other stories. But we sat and did several things – w took in speakers and we did research. We also decided that we were going to have a strong sense of humor, otherwise it would get too boring. The group was formed in ’99. Four years later, we launched the “Doris Manifesto,” a script competition. I think we had eleven weeks; it was nationwide and we received 411 scripts – that’s a lot for such a short period of time! The “Doris Manifesto” is the following:
“- All scripts shall be written by women.
– All scripts have to have a female leading character.
– All primary decision-making functions must be occupied by women.
– All original music shall be composed by women.”
And then, when we were looking for producers – because the idea was that we should not do it within Doris – there were forty-eight female producers and we wrote a letter to all of them and only one answered. This was 2003 and it was still not favorable to take stands for this. Without interest, we were talking about how to do this. We decided not to stop because we received all these scripts, so we decided to produce them ourselves. And to answer your previous question, this is how I became a producer.
As a script supervisor and assistant director, I often thought that, for example, the directors had the budget limitations too late in order to get the best and, of course, I had ideas about how I would want to set up a production, but on the other I hand, I don’t think I would have ever taken this step of saying myself: “Hey I want to become a producer” if it weren’t for this. It’s about risking and failing and if I had not done that, then the “Doris Manifesto” wouldn’t have moved forward, so that’s how it happened. And then, I really felt like: “Oh, this is what I love! This is what I want to do!” I worked on two short films as a producer and then there was a guy who came to me and said: “Hey, Annika, you’re producing!” And I was just like: “Well… you know, I’m finding my way…” He had a documentary and I knew him very well and I knew he’s very professional and a good photographer, so I was certain that I would get a good product. And it has just been moving on like that. Learning by doing.
How has the film industry changed in the thirty years you have been working in it?
A.H.: It has changed a lot. When I started out, it was totally more out of passion and a theme that I thought was interesting and that was enough. And also, of course, the script, the director… I’ve always been and I will always be thinking of the importance of visual quality, even though the visuals can’t stand in front of the story and the acting, but there has to be a strong visual communication. How I’ve changed lately, in the last two years, is that I’ve been doing several low budget productions and now, what I am more challenged by and trained for is to manage to get a content story within a genre film so you can actually reach an audience – because you want to reach a wide audience. I just think that that’s one step more of a challenge to put your personal story into a genre package. There’s so much you can do there and I didn’t see it this way at all when I started producing fourteen years ago. It was all about the auteur or the artistic quality. It’s still about the artistic quality, but it’s about tempting, putting what you want to say in a tempting package and to also have – and this is totally kind of a new thing, I’m still amused when I hear myself say it – to identify really early the target audience. If anybody would have told me this ten years ago, I would’ve been like: “What are you talking about? This director wants to tell this story and it’s about this and it’s so important and it concerns a lot of people…” But now, I consider everything by identifying the target audience. Filmmaking is about a lot of choices: which direction will the script go in? And then, which actors are you going to choose? In all these choices, if you’re a little bit uncertain, you can just ask yourself who your target audience is. What do they like the most? What do they want?
I think it was when I was in New York, and I had this question in my head: “Who is taking responsibility for the stories we tell?” and I don’t know where this idea came from. Maybe I already then thought they were one-dimensional.
You say you are a feminist and that you are convinced that gender equality is the way to improve the world. Can you talk about that?
A.H.: Yes! One is kind of a naïve point of view and it is that if men would take care of children as equally as we women do, it would be impossible for them to go out and fight wars. Sometimes, I think it’s the detachment from being close to raising a child that actually makes them able to go out and kill another person. I can’t generalize and say that that goes for everyone, but I’m confident that it would make an impact on that. Before I actually started “Doris,” I think it was when I was in New York, and I had this question in my head: “Who is taking responsibility for the stories we tell?” and I don’t know where this idea came from. Maybe I already then thought they were one-dimensional. We are 50% men and 50% women so, therefore, I think it’s deadly important. In a way, it’s about democracy, but if we should have equal rights, I don’t think you can demand and count to be 50-50 exactly. Of course, that’s not possible, but 60-40, yes. It’s so important. That’s the second one. And this is not only about gender, it’s also about minorities and diversity. That their stories be told in different ways and that we get to take part in it. It’s very inspiring for you as a human being to have to understand things from another viewpoint.
Do you think “Doris” has helped in the gender equality fight in film in Sweden? And do you work with the Swedish Film Institute and Anna Serner on this?
A.H.: I think the “Doris Manifesto” has had a huge impact because we were ahead, before anyone else started fighting for this, and we made eight short films and we put them together by 2008. I think Anna Serner started in 2006 and yes, I am in contact with her, but “Doris” has always been kind of a loose organization and it’s based on voluntary input, no-one has a salary to be there. It has some advantages, but it’s very hard to keep the continuity when it’s set up in that way. We have constantly been in different dialogues with Anna Serner. I think she is brilliant. She is a lawyer and the great advantage with Anna Serner is that when you come from the law side of things, you don’t mix it up with emotions because being in an underdog position involves a lot of time a lot of emotions. She was seeing the obstacles in the theories and everything that always came up when you questioned why women got so little support. She was very clinical about what to do about it. Her idea was to count heads and this is what she did. When you start counting heads, you just present the numbers and then you ask: “Why do you think it looks like this?” and you ask how many applications we got from women and how many women got support. It’s all statistics and it’s wonderful! They help you a lot when you want to move forward and investigate where the problem really is. The interesting thing is that since the Swedish Film Institute started working consciously with it, Swedish Film has been much better represented in the world, at festivals, and has won a lot more awards. One of the most important things for me with the “Doris Manifesto” was specifically the D.O.Ps and we have so many great D.O.Ps in Sweden and Doris has had a big part in that because we demanded a female D.O.P. We have six really highly skilled female D.O.Ps in Sweden now. It’s wonderful!
In that sense, there has been a lot of talk about women in film today? How is it in Sweden? Are you happy with what is going in there today in that respect?
A.H.: From where I started, I am totally overwhelmed and I am so, so happy! I think we have moved forward so much. There are so many new stories. There is so much going now. I’m very happy, but this is, I think, mainly for Scandinavia and only Denmark doesn’t think they have this problem. It’s very interesting. In Sweden, there is a tendency for female directors not to get the high budget films, but for men, it’s more of a feather, a goal to have a high budget – you have accomplished something just by having a high budget. Sometimes, I think that women are aiming more at making a very good film. I don’t think high budgets are their goal. The field hasn’t been open for them for so long so you learn, you train yourself: “How should I ask for this? What story would I like to tell?” because you have to think about these things. If, for example, you want to do a five-million-euro film, you have to have the right content, the right story and the right actors and I think that maybe it hasn’t been in the consciousness of women so much yet, but I believe it will come. #metoo was also an incredible movement. American actresses are taking strong stands and they are speaking up. I am very positive and optimistic. I think there are a lot of things going on. Of course, to really make something happen you would actually need to write it in the law – not about filmmaking, but about gender equality. There’s a long way to that; a very long way…
What is your favorite film that you produced?
A.H.: I think that it’s Flocking. I think it’s extremely high artistically speaking. I think Beata Gårdeler is brilliant. There are so many elements that I really love about it. And the story is very strong.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker? Someone you would love to work with? And a film by a female filmmaker?
A.H.: I love Jane Campion. I’ve always loved her. I also love Beata Gårdeler who I worked with on Flocking. I think Lisa Jonsson in Norway is very interesting. And we’re working with another interesting woman now, Sanna Lenken, who made My Little Sister. My producing partner, Erika Malmgren, is an extremely talented director and she’s been doing some TV series which I think are absolutely brilliant. And film… Happy as Lazzaro by Alice Rohrwacher. I am also thinking of another film that is typically of a female gaze and that is Mustang by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, which was very smartly made.
What was the best advice you were given and what advice would you give a young woman who is starting out in the film industry?
A.H.: Maybe, I never asked for an advice. Maybe, I never got one. All the things I’ve done in life, I’ve always done them with the aim to stay true to my heart and I still think that, in the end, if you work very hard and you’ve done it close to your heart, it’s worth it and you won’t regret anything. That is one thing. And the other advice I would give is that anybody can make mistakes, that’s impossible not to do. There is so much going on in a film production, but there is no excuse for anyone not to come and say: “Hey, I lost this” or “I goofed on this” or “This didn’t work out. What do you think I can do about it?” or “Let’s work it out” and to constantly address if you have done anything because otherwise it can grow and cost you a lot of money.
What are your next projects?
A.H.: I have two. One is a youth film about a very charming young girl who has an attention disorder and is falling in love. The other one is a feministic horror film.
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Stockfish Film Festival.