Mai and MAI: A Reflection

by: , May 1, 2018

© Portrait of Mai Elisabeth Zetterling

Having grown up with my parents’ subscription of the Swedish film journal Chaplin (1959-1997) and then later having seen the birth and demise of the short-lived Ingmar (2003-2006), it seems as if this journal takes up a (Swedish?) tradition of titling journals after famous film personalities. However, in this case, the name goes very well together with the journal’s aims and scope in a way that the previous two examples perhaps did not.

Why? Well, there are several reasons, and this is the place to address them. First of all, the journal editors’ UK/Sweden-base mirrors Mai Zetterling’s own Swedish/UK background. Apart from a few years spent in Australia as a child, Zetterling was born and raised in Sweden, where she also had her breakthrough as an actress on the stage of the Royal Dramatic Theater and on the screen. In 1947, however, she emigrated to England, after having played the title role in the British film Frieda (Basil Dearden, 1947) and been offered a contract with the J. Arthur Rank Organization. She would never return to live permanently in Sweden again, but when she left acting to become a film director, her first feature films were made in Sweden.

Second, although Zetterling’s first feature films, Loving Couples (1964) and Night Games (1966) were produced in Sweden, Zetterling would, from necessity, work transnationally, as part of a ‘global visual culture’ corresponding to the global scope of MAI. Her third film, Dr. Glas (1968) was a Danish-American co-production, and after her fourth feature film, The Girls (1968) was a commercial and critical disaster, Zetterling felt ostracized by the production company and left the Swedish film industry. For a long time, Zetterling was conceptualized as a part of the national (art) cinema of Sweden, included among other Swedish film directors of the 1960s as a woman director, a token presence signifying the egalitarian and progressive film culture of the welfare state (Cowie 1970; Sundgren 1970; Björkman 1978). However, Zetterling’s career spanned a lot more than the feature fiction films she directed in the 1960s and eventually in the 1980s. During the 1970s and 1980s, her films and her TV-productions were financed creatively and she negotiated her way with different production companies and broadcasters, even getting the Royal Greenlandic Trade Company to finance a 30-minute documentary about the seal hunt on Greenland (Larsson & Stenport 2015). If she was opportunistic, it was because circumstances made her that way, but it also meant that she worked with producers in Canada, Denmark, France, the UK, and Sweden.

Third, and perhaps more importantly, Zetterling always seems to bring issues of feminism and female agency to the fore. Her inclusion into some kind of national postwar art cinema was always conditioned. The films of hers that were highlighted were the ones about women – Loving Couples and The Girls – and there was always some kind of reservation: she was a ‘suffragette’ (Cowie 1970), The Girls was ‘blatantly feminist’ (Furhammar 2003), or there was some kind of aggressiveness to her work (Sundgren 1970). At the same time, she has come to be a central figure for feminist film scholars (e.g. Soila 2010; Ryberg 2015; Larsson 2006).

Early in her career, Zetterling often highlighted that she was an exception as a woman among men, that she could voice concerns and share perspectives that had not previously been heard or seen. When the film festival at Cannes broke down in 1968 and ultimately was closed down, she took the stage during the volatile talks that preceded the cancellation. ‘It is time that a woman speaks,’ she said to the audience.

In one sense, one could say that she brought it on herself. Early in her career, she often highlighted that she was an exception as a woman among men, that she could voice concerns and share perspectives that had not previously been heard or seen. When the film festival at Cannes broke down in 1968 and ultimately was closed down, she took the stage during the volatile talks that preceded the cancellation. ‘It is time that a woman speaks,’ she said to the audience. ‘You men have declared war, and emotions have won over reason.’ However, simultaneously, during the 1960s she struggled to demonstrate that she could make films for all of humankind and she strove to be taken seriously as a film director, not as a woman film director. When she was interviewed on Swedish television during the production of ‘Longing’, the film that would eventually be titled Night Games, the interviewer asked ‘Longing for what?’ ‘Emancipation’, Zetterling replied. ‘Oh, you mean female emancipation?’ ‘No, human emancipation, that is much more important.’ Night Games had a male protagonist at the center, in stark contrast to her debut, Loving Couples, which had featured three women as the main characters. Like her other male-centered 1960s film, Dr. Glas, it did not receive the same attention as Loving Couples and The Girls. Later she would choose to make her episode of the omnibus documentary for the Münich Olympics about the most hyperbolic masculine of sports, weight lifting, rather than the women competitors.

Fourth, Zetterling worked across traditional genre and media boundaries (cf. ‘across traditional academic boundaries’): her documentaries included surrealist components or were dramatized enactments that were also meta-reflexive psychological explorations. She worked in TV and cinema, but she also wrote novels and short stories. Her fiction films were often adapted literary or dramatic works: Swedish authors Agnes von Krusenstjerna and Hjalmar Söderberg, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata or her own works. Or they were biopics: Amorosa (1986) and maybe, too, the eerie van Gogh-film, Vincent the Dutchman (1972) that was more about the dangers of acting and told the story of an actor who is taken over by the role he is playing.

Finally, Zetterling was challenging – as a person, as a director, as a significant woman in film history. She was challenging – even exasperating – to herself and to the people around her. Determined, obsessive, headstrong, opinionated, always exploring, always questioning, always working on her next project, she demanded attention and claimed a space in a world that was and still is dominated by men. Also, her legacy is challenging, regardless of whether we want to see her as a role model or want to explore her work from a feminist perspective. Because although she planned to make a seven-episode TV-series of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, her films, or her life, do not easily fit into any cookie-cutter feminism. She was never uniform. And she, too, believed that ‘the future can be better & it starts with us learning to listen’, as says MAI Manifesto.


Cowie, Peter (1970), Sweden 2: A Comprehensive Assessment of the Themes, Trends, and Directors in Swedish Cinema, London: A. Zwemmer Ltd (Screen series).

Furhammar, Leif (2003), Filmen i Sverige: en historia i tio kapitel och en fortsättning, Stockholm: Dialogos.

Larsson, Mariah (2006), Skenet som bedrog: Mai Zetterling och det svenska sextiotalet, Lund: Sekel bokförlag.

Larsson, Mariah & Anna Stenport (2015), ‘Documentary filmmaking as colonialist propaganda and cinefeminist intervention: Mai Zetterling’s Of Seals and Men (1979)’, in Film History. An International Journal, Vol. 27, No. 4, pp. 106-129.

Ryberg, Ingrid (2015), ‘Mai Zetterlings taskiga tajming’, in FLM, No. 31, pp. 49-53.

Soila, Tytti (2010), ‘Passion at the Threshold: Doctor Glas the Flaneur in the Films of Rune Carlstén and Mai Zetterling’, in Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, Vol. 2, N0.1,  DOI: 10.3402/jac.v1i0.5227.

Sundgren, Nils Petter (1970), The New Swedish Cinema, Stockholm: The Swedish Institute (Sweden Books).

Download article


Feeling inspired by MAI? Dedicated to intersectional gender politics in visual culture? Want to keep your feminist imagination on fire? MAI newsletter will help refresh your zeal for feminism with first-hand news on our new content. 

Subscribe below to stay up-to-date.

* We'll never share your email address with any third parties.


The team of MAI supporters and contributors is always expanding. We’re honoured to have a specialist collective of editors, whose enthusiasm & talent gave birth to MAI.

However, to turn our MAI dream into reality, we also relied on assistance from high-quality experts in web design, development and photography. Here we’d like to acknowledge their hard work and commitment to the feminist cause. Our feminist ‘thank you’ goes to:

Dots+Circles – a digital agency determined to make a difference, who’ve designed and built our MAI website. Their continuous support became a digital catalyst to our idealistic project.
Guy Martin – an award-winning and widely published British photographer who’s kindly agreed to share his images with our readers

Chandler Jernigan – a talented young American photographer whose portraits hugely enriched the visuals of MAI website
Matt Gillespie – a gifted professional British photographer who with no hesitation gave us permission to use some of his work
Julia Carbonell – an emerging Spanish photographer whose sharp outlook at contemporary women grasped our feminist attention
Ana Pedreira – a self-taught Portuguese photographer whose imagery from women protests beams with feminist aura
And other photographers whose images have been reproduced here: Cezanne Ali, Les Anderson, Mike Wilson, Annie Spratt, Cristian Newman, Peter Hershey