Wakefield Doc Fest: New Swedish film focused on feminist foreign policy

A scene from the documentary The Feminister in which Margot Wallström negotiates with her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.

Viktor Nordenskiöld is a former Swedish journalist who covered foreign affairs. Hw now directs documentary films among other things. His fascinating behind the scenes film profile called The Feminister about the Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallström, will be at the Wakefield Doc Fest on Oct. 19. He answered some questions from ARTSFILE about his fascinating project.

Q. Please tell me a bit about yourself and your career in filmmaking? 

A. The backstory could be like this: I was intrigued by the combination of pictures, words and time. As a kid I plunged into the world of comic books, made my own fanzines and sold them all over Sweden. Fast Forward: I studied journalism and started to work as a Foreign News reporter at Swedish Television (nyheterna TV4). Then, driven by the urge to tell stories that could not fit in the news template, I quit and travelled around the world doing a youth world TV-magazine, the long reports soon resembled short documentaries, and eventually I made my first TV-length doc (Girls in Jeopardy). That was followed by a short film Out of the world that premiered at Berlinale. Feminister is my first released feature length documentary.

Along the way I got a Master of Arts too, from the Stockholm University of the Dramatic Arts.

Real-life storytelling has been closest to my heart for a long period of time, thus documentary filmmaking seems to be a perfect fit.

Viktor Nordenskiöld.

Q. What attracts you to a subject?

A. A good story is a good story, of course, but, normally, I want to say something as well. I want to try to show the outer and inner world as it is and conquer things like xenophobia. I’m still very very curious, and still love the feeling on set when real-life turns into a film. I’m intrigued to have the helicopter view as well, finding metaphors to let the viewer ask questions of the bigger picture.

Q. Why did you focus on Margot Wallström? 

A. First and foremost I wanted to follow a foreign minister at work. I wanted to understand how they worked, be behind the scenes of world politics and learn from that. For a Foreign-News-Reporter-Who-Became-a-Documentary-Filmmaker, it was perfect. As a filmmaker I had met Margot Wallström before, and her personality was fascinating too; deep into high politics, but still with her feet on the ground. When she declared her Feminist Foreign Policy it was even more interesting.

Q. How do you describe the film?

A. I decided to use time as a character and tried to follow that strictly because I wanted the viewer to feel the place, the process, the normalcy and the particularity of that job (it’s so familiar and so unfamiliar) and also the stress. All in all, I tried to get into the foreign minister’s mind. Wallström started out with a lot of energy, but soon she was pushed back by big world players and heavily criticized in the media. Eventually it got under her skin, so she had to fight back.

I deliberately wanted to start in the workplace, and waited for the home-stuff until later in the film. I also did not include her old career in the UN or the EU.

Basically it is about how it is to it to be a feminist world politician. Some reviewers called it a document of the moment in history too.

I see it like this: The film is closer to me than it was when I started filming five years ago, not only because of the work, but also because of the ways in which the world has changed. It’s a portrait of a person, a profession and an extraordinary time in politics.

When the fight between ideas, ways to rule and truth has become dirtier, it’s intensely interesting to be behind the scenes exploring and observing a (new) political vision, tactics and realities. Sometimes scary, sometimes surprising, sometimes just fun.

Q. Do you have an opinion on whether she was successful?

A. It’s politics so it depends on which side your are on … but I believe the concept of a Feminist Foreign Policy will live for long time, as a trademark, to like or dislike.

There are plenty of things written about her and the concept’s legacy including foreignpolicy.com and thelancet.com.

Q. What kinds of pressures does the film focus on?

A: Here is the text of an early pitch:

‘In an era of male despots, she declares a Feminist Foreign Policy. And on the side, she secretly starts the mediation between U.S. and North Korea, ironically headed by the not-so-feminist despots she fights.

‘The Feminister reveals Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallström’s campaign as a mediator and for a seat in the UN Security Council, as well as the cost: stress-related disease and death threats.’

Q. Interestingly Canada’s last government had a female foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland. Are you aware of her? She too has had her battles with men including Donald Trump.

A. Yes, I’m very much aware of her. I would imagine the Swedes gave the Canadian minister some advice, having gone through a similar story. The Swedish Foreign Ministry often says, not without pride, that Canada and, to some extent France, have adopted, or been inspired by their Feminist Foreign Policy. Last autumn Canada actually hosted the first-ever meeting of female foreign ministers. Foreign Policy magazine wrote: ‘One Small Step for Feminist Foreign Policy’.

Q. What’s next for you?

A. I have a sort of follow up project with the working title The Femediators, focusing on gender diversity in peace building and mediation/negotiation. It’s not rocket science that more gender diversity among peace-makers should potentially make better deals, but it’s a learning process for all of us. For instance: As a news reporter I was covering the Good Friday Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland, at the time I did not know of the women who laid the groundwork behind the scenes.

I also have a coming of age film called Lust For Life/CarryOn, about a young Syrian boy who literally carries his wounded friend to Europe, soon both of them become caretakers of a German boy with epilepsy, and the question is: Who is carrying whom?

Wakefield Doc Fest presents The Feminister (Viktor Nordenskiöld, director)
Where: Centre Wakefield La Peche (38 Chemin de la Vallee de Wakefield)
When: Oct. 19 at 2 p.m.
Tickets and information: wakefielddocfest.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.