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Photo by Mikael Marcimain11

Call Girl and Swedish sexploitation

Speaking to the director of a gritty Nordic answer to the wave of celebratory‎ skin flicks

In contrast to the recent slew of 70s era films beatifying sexploitation like Linda Lovelace, Call Girl is Mickael Marcimain’s gritty, Nordic answer to Hollywood. Like Lovelace, Call Girl sports plenty of bell bottoms and is also based on actual sexual events: a brothel scandal involving underage prostitution and high-ranking government officials. But that’s where the semblance ends.  With a notable lack of glam retro hazes or a heavily nostalgic soundtrack to escape into—ok, Abba briefly performs on a TV set—Marcimain’s film feels much closer to Truffaut than the post-hippie feel-good sing-a-long that you might expect from a country internationally recognized as a "socialist utopia." Call Girl questions if that glossy image of Swedish society still holds up today. Or did it actually ever exist?

What inspired you to make Call Girl?

I was looking for a new project to do after my series "How Soon Is Now." After Marietta (the writer on Call Girl) sent me her script, I immediately connected to it. Her poignant story about two young girls in a juvenile home reminded me of Truffaut's The 400 Blows except that it was also set in late 70s Stockholm. It explored the morals of a period when Sweden was considered a socialistic Utopia with an ultraliberal view on sexuality—only it showed the other side of the coin. I was intrigued by the idea of doing a film on a period that I’d loved growing up, but also showing how human good and evil coexist.

Have audience reactions differed at home and abroad? 

As far as I know, the film has been very well received abroad. In Sweden we got fantastic reviews, but it enraged a lot of people that we based the film very closely on an actual event: the brothel scandal. They related to Call Girl like it was a documentary and not a work of art, as if we were telling our own alternative truth of the past. It’s a difficult subject, and in Sweden we aren’t used to political thrillers that reflect our own recent history. For us the 60s and 70s period is still very glamorized, almost sacred.

Were you trying to make a political statement about sexploitation or gender politics?

I just wanted to make a good film about people from different layers of society; a film that asks questions. Its a statement, of course. Call Girl is told from the point of view of two young girls, Iris and Sonja. It's their story. Am I a feminist? I think men and women should be treated equally and have the same chances in a democracy. If that makes me a feminist, then yes, I am a feminist.

Despite the fact that prostitution is illegal in Sweden, would such a story be possible today?

When we were preparing the film there was a scandal about a high-ranking police officer who was known for championing women’s rights and lecturing about gender equality. Then he got caught as part of a ring of men that exploited very young girls quite brutally. So I don't really know. The fact that prostitution is now illegal has not changed anything. Young girls and boys in juvenile homes are still prostituting themselves, and with the explosion of internet, I think the problem is even harder to tackle today.

In Call Girl its clear that the ultraliberal image of the 70s Swedish government—spouting gender equality in the workplace—was not only very much admired abroad, but still is today. Do you consider that image still relevant? 

I like and believe in that image, but as I mentioned before, good and bad coexist. Its always been like that, and will never change. Its the story of mankind. Sweden is a paradise with dirty spots, just like everywhere else in the world.

Is the social system, which provides foster care for Iris—however well-intentioned—not to be trusted?

In the film the caretakers try the best they can to keep the youngsters from running away, and are unduly soft. But that was the period—the belief in being sweet, understanding, and liberal was their way of educating. 

Even though Swedish society is theoretically based on universal equality, is Call Girl also a social critique of the class system?

Despite Sweden’s egalitarian outer image, there is a class society with huge differences when it comes to living standards and the distribution of wealth. I think the healthcare system, education, and care for the elderly worked much better in the period of the "Folkhem."

In Call Girl, The ruthlessness with which all opposition is dealt, in terms of the Ministry cover-up—the murders, spying, and intimidation—is shocking. Are we helpless to resist the government from controlling our lives in often unethical ways? 

We all have social responsibility as individuals, but I think its hard, almost impossible, to fight the system. A lot of people today make fun of the 60's and 70's movements in Sweden—demonstrations, alternative communities, etc. But at least they tried to do something. Now we are much more cynical, and only interested in being active consumers.   

Call Girl releases on August 16th 2013 in the UK.