Interview with Signe Zeilich-Jensen

Sarah Hurtes
Sarah Hurtes

The Dutch Film Market to Lead the Way 

With the Netherlands Film Festival recently coming to the end of its 34th edition, I had the opportunity to interview the delightful Signe Zeilich-Jensen, the head of the Holland Film Meeting, which is the international heartbeat of the festival. It is a platformproviding a series of business-oriented events for international professionals, welcoming annually around 150 foreign guests that gather for an exciting four day program where film projects are selected from all over Europe. Signe’s background in film and television is known to be focused primarily on films for children, where she has been a Commissioning Editor for National Television for youth programming, also being a programmer for the Dutch festival Cinekid. Signe enlightens us on Holland’s situation in terms of gender parity in the film industry with rare positivism, and confidence.

What makes the Holland film market unique?

I think our national festival represents very well the general mood of the Dutch film market. Comparing the Netherlands Film Festival to bigger ones such as the Berlinale or Cannes, it provides a small and intimate venue for newcomers, as well as for the more established film makers and producers. This enables an easy access for everyone to mix with one another in our lovely venue – an old hotel in the centre of Utrecht. Besides there’s always beautiful weather in September to which people can enjoy having informal meetings in the garden of the hotel. Naturally the film industry is very much a people business - so it’s good to have the possibility to truly have the time and opportunity to focus on your projects, and share ideas with a variety of professionals. Cannes has a charming festival which attracts a huge crowd but I think that the opportunity that you have here in Holland – you were asking about the uniqueness – it’s a different size of platform with a small dedicated team who are always interested in providing contacts and doing the matchmaking in an extremely proficient way. We also travel quite a lot to other festivals and markets to meet people – therefore supporting those who attend our festival and arranging for meetings between professionals from all over the world.

Would you say that the ratio between female to male film makers and producers in Holland is about equal?

When I met Francine last year in Istanbul, EWA’s Executive Director – we talked about gender parity in the industry. This led me to have a closer look at the Holland Film Meeting’s selection list. I realized that in the 20 projects we select annually, we’ve always had a great number of female film directors and producers. I mean if you look at the current situation of gender parity within the industry in countries like the US, for sure there is still a lot of work to be done. I was talking with Francine of doing maybe a female project prize – even though it’s a little opportunistic I think it would benefit certain parts of the world as it’s still an important issue that needs to be dealt with. So this year our selection team really had in mind to look at numbers of female and male winners – though not during the selection process because I still think you need to premiere quality. After making the selection we took a closer look and saw that almost 50 percent of projects were either realized or connected to a woman, which I’d consider a great number.

So you think that there are many female producers and directors in Holland?

Definitely. I think in Holland there are many excellent female film directors and producers. Key positions within the overall Dutch film industry are held by a great number of women - it’s almost the opposite situation as to what you’d expect. I wouldn’t say that there are too many women in the Dutch film market, but for sure there are a high number of awesome female directors, scriptwriters, producers and so on. I really believe that in Holland we have a good situation. During this year’s Netherlands Film Festival, the nominees of the Golden Calves for best directors were announced. We had one male director with two very strong female directors. Similarly when looking at the best film nominations, many of those films are linked to female producers. This is added to the fact that many of Holland’s film festivals are actually headed by female directors - so in that sense it’s also great.

Do you know why that is? How did Holland achieve such a good place for gender equality in the film industry?

I use to work in various international platforms of television and what I’m about to say also goes for the film business - if you look at who fills in the senior positions in the film industry, it still remains men, and certainly it was like that in my time. But when working at a certain level its rather equal - 50/50 women and men. It’s as soon as you grow older - I am almost 50 myself – that you can see that in the higher positions, it doesn’t continue to be a 50/50 gender division, leaving primarily men to occupy the key influencing roles. Despite this women are definitely present in the film industry – but perhaps rendered less visible than their male counterparts. Holland is lucky to have a high number of women already placed at the top, which helps to maintain a sort of clear gender balance. If you look at our new generation of film directors and producers you can see that there are a lot of very talented and strong women who will themselves lead the next generation.

But how did these women get access to these top positions in the first place?

Well it’s not really men “or” women that need to get their voices heard – it’s both. And that is very important. I mean the ideal situation – what we really want is to have a gender neutral playing field where you look at the individual rather than their gender. You want a unique voice to be heard and you want everybody who has a story to tell and is a talented film maker to be able to do just that and make sure that any preconceived gender barriers is avoided. It’s not a question of all women need to be film makers, or all men who are making films should stop and do something else - I think it’s more about creating an equal situation of possibility, to get all those who wish to have their voices heard and accepted, and not be confronted to decision makers who make their choices based on gender stereotypes.

So to answer your question I think in Holland there’s been a turning point already some time ago where people understood the importance of that. And it affects all kinds of platform in the Dutch television and film industry, for example TV shows also have excellent strong female presenters. We have a great presenter in the entertainment business called Linda de Mol and she’s definitely a power house - not considered at all as a stupid blond in contrast as to how female TV presenters are generally depicted. She also created her business, develops formats and scripts, and created her own magazine. I think people similar to her really set an example in Holland – it also sets the space for a lot of different voices of women to get the chance to be heard. You also have a generation of female directors who have already been able to reach a wide audience, who have been exposed to international film festivals and influence many young aspiring female directors to believe in themselves. Women need to obtain that and it’s never for granted. It’s also easy to think that all the male-female ratio are now in complete balance – even though our situation is really good there is still a long way to go until all the top positions are equally divided.

Do you think that because Holland is quite gender advanced in terms of its politics and culture it has a positive impact on the film industry?

Well I am Swedish so actually I wouldn’t say Holland is completely emancipated. Gender equity did not reach such an advanced level as of yet - even though it’s true that compare to other countries of course it is rather well ranked. Though there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s quite old fashioned in the way that it views women’s position in society - mainly because of the way it places high importance on the old structure of family values. With that comes positive sides but the whole tax system is very much constructed around the family unit and not the individual which I find limiting. In Sweden when you’re 18 you’re out there on your own! In Holland you only have three month of maternity leave – so if you have a baby what do you do? You’ll see many career orientated driven women that keep heading for the top positions but their choices in terms of balancing their work/private lives are not as flexible and as easily achieved then in Scandinavian countries. It’s a lot of juggling – it’s not even sure you can get your old position back, and often three month is not always enough time to find a replacement so your colleagues might have to take on extra work, and this will add extra pressure to already having a baby! Nevertheless, generally speaking Holland is a very practical and modern country. It’s a solution orientated society. Increasingly it is being discussed how to provide better facilities for working parents – but of course, other issues come into play, like time and money.

Any suggestion you’d like to make for the film industry to be more equal?

I think that perhaps women are better at pitching somebody else and maybe not always so good at pitching themselves. This needs to be seriously improved so that women’s voices can be heard. I really believe that trainings and capacity building might help – the perception of a man telling us a story is different than that of a woman. So yes I’d prioritize mentoring, trainings, and networking. Also I think what use to be the signatory mark of the European film market – art house – is evolving and leaving place for the more big hit releases with a rich variety of genres on the plate. In contrast as to what was done in the US – I think this will leave women from all over Europe to have a bigger part of thecake!