On 11 December 2009, filmmaker Solrun Hoaas died suddenly in Melbourne, Australia. Having only seen her a few weeks before, I was shocked at the loss of a most passionate individual. At her memorial on December 18, her brother thanked her many mourners for showing their respect for her, and I could not help but think that I did indeed deeply respect her.
Solrun Hoaas worked as a writer, director, producer and, more recently, a visual artist. She worked in both the feature and short film sectors, primarily in the independent sector. Hoaas was born is Norway in 1943, but spent much of her adolescence and early adult life in Japan before coming to Australia in 1972. She held degrees in Arts/Social Anthropology and an MA in Asian Studies. Hoaas first became interested in film in the late 1970s. In 1980 she completed the one-year Graduate Diploma course at Swinburne Institute of Technology. She worked originally very much on the fringes of the industry and in isolation from it, undertaking all the roles in her productions. Her most well-known works include the documentary Green Tea and Cherry Ripe (1988), which she co-produced and directed, and the narrative feature Aya (1990) which she directed, wrote and co-produced. As Andrew Pike observed at the memorial, Solrun’s work was often deeply personal. In the late ’70s and early ’80s she made numerous short, unfunded documentaries until she received her first grants (in the post-production stages) from the Australia-Japan Foundation and then the AFC (Australian Film Commission) for the film Waiting for Water (1981).
On 6 September 1994 I interviewed Solrun for a Masters thesis about Australian contemporary filmmakers and feminism (1). Hoaas was 51 at the time of the interview. This interview has never before been published. I offer an edited version of it now, hoping it will support and inspire further scholarship on her work. I also offer it in memory of Solrun, who was a deeply insightful, creative and productive woman who will be greatly missed (2).
6 September 1994
What are the main themes and preoccupations in your work?
Probably one thing is hybrids of one kind or another – that’s people, cultures and environments – and characters who have different cultures, or different backgrounds, or can be defined in some way or other as mixed.
Most of the films you’ve made have been stories about women.
I’ve never set out to consciously say to myself: “I’m going to make films about women”. It hasn’t been any kind of conscious decision. It’s just somehow been a natural part of the things that have interested me, and the people that have interested me and that I have wanted to make films about. People automatically assume if something has a male lead then it’s focussed on the male, and I’m having a hell of a time convincing people that that’s not the case.
Does an interest in hybrids come out of your own background?
Yes. I came to Australia in 1972 and I see myself as a hybrid, as a mixture. I suppose that’s one reason why I am interested in people who are a mixture [in] one way or another. I grew up in China and Japan primarily, and all my formative years were as a foreigner, so that identity of being a foreigner is one that interests me. I speak English, I’m Caucasian, but a lot of my influences, in terms of the way I think, the way I communicate and my aesthetics, are probably from Japan. On the other hand I’ve been here for a length of time, so even though I do identify as an Australian filmmaker very much, and certainly when I’m overseas I do, I still see myself as, in many ways, an outsider within the film culture here.
Are there elements of your work which you identify as being Australian?
Yes, I think there are, but that’s a tricky question. It’s one that comes up and [one] I am more aware of when I am overseas than when I am here, but there probably are. It is being part of the migrant culture – I identify with that – and it’s something that I think doesn’t come out a lot in Australian films but it is part of the culture, definitely. I identify with a certain egalitarianism in Australia and perhaps there is an American element in Australian culture too which has some appeal; a certain resistance to authority; and I’m sure there are a number of other things that I could identify if I thought more about it. Stylistically, perhaps, there is something in the pacing of the work that some people might assume is Australian. I’m not so sure whether that’s the case automatically. I think there is a certain laid back quality to some Australian films. I actually quite like that.
Is there anything about your work which you think is feminine, or anything you bring to it by being a woman?
Yes, I think so. I think possibly an interest in human relationships, and possibly a certain kind of sensitivity to what goes on, on the inside, what isn’t obvious on the outside, a certain attention to detail, and to subtexts. And structurally too I think there are certain elements that probably are more common in women’s work. Like maybe something that could be defined occasionally as a circular structure that is not necessarily a set-up, a pay-off, [or] a resolution orientated type of structure, but that recognises the recurrence of events. I like to use repetition in my work. I like what I call “internal echoings” where you see something at one time and you recognise you’ve had a hint of this before, or you’ve seen something that relates to it before and so you get a pattern, an interweaving of elements throughout the work. That kind of layering or texturing, I think, you do find in a lot of women’s work.
You’ve written all the films you’ve made, is that right?
Yes I have, but I did a job for the Women’s Film Unit once in 1985. I directed a drama that somebody else had written and it was like a training program. It was written by a relatively inexperienced scriptwriter, and then it was further developed through the process, and I also interwove documentary material in it too.
If you took up a script written by a man, do you think you would add something else because you are female?
I think so and I would love to do that. I grew up in a family of boys. I have three brothers and at University most of my close friends were male. I’ve worked with men a lot, and I never, when I grew up, and when I was at University, I never felt that that was a problem. I never felt inferior to men. I never felt that it was a problem being a women dealing with men and relating to men. I was never made to feel that way in my family. I could see [that] as being a very healthy interaction in that way.
Have you ever been made to feel that it was a problem dealing with men in the film industry?
Yes, but I find it difficult to draw out an isolated incidence. But I think that there is probably a fear in the film industry of women taking too much power. For instance with Aya, I wrote, I directed and I co-produced. I was involved in raising the finance, and this gave me a great deal of power. But I think there is a resistance to allowing women to do that, and [to] give them credit for it. I remember once I was told by one bureaucrat when I wanted to apply for funding, and stand as developing producer myself, I was told I had to decide what I wanted to be: “do you want to be a writer, director or a producer?”
Meaning they’re mutually exclusive?
Yes, and I suspect he would never say that to a male who does the same thing. I don’t see my strength as being in the management area, the producing side, but I do have some ability as an entrepreneur in getting my own projects off the ground. However, I wouldn’t say that, in terms of problems I’ve encountered in working in the film industry, they have all been because of men… not at all. I hate to say this, but it’s true, probably one of the worst working experiences I had was directing for the Women’s Film Unit. So I don’t think it’s necessarily one or the other, but I think it is difficult sometimes when you are working in a crew where you have highly experienced men in key positions and you are a relatively inexperienced female. So it’s the combination of being female and inexperienced. And I think if I, when I get my next picture off the ground, that I would probably approach it differently as a director.
In what way?
I think I would probably emphasise a different style of communication more. I think there’s an image of the director, which tends to be an up-front image, and tends to be one that you lead the troops into battle….
There must be a lot of males that aren’t like that?
Exactly, they’re not, and I said at an AFI [Australian Film Institute] seminar [that] I envy the mumbling male directors in Melbourne. I think it’s hard for women to get away with being like that, and I would certainly assert my right to be that way if I want to. I had an interesting conversation just recently with Pauline Chan about some of her experience of directing and dealing with some of the men on crew [on Traps, 1994]. And I had a certain feeling of a similar experience in terms of what she was saying because the assumption is often [that] if you are soft spoken and you don’t yell and shout, and you keep a low profile, then you are basically just communicating quietly, that you are not being assertive. But the thing is, for me, I had that experience just as much when I worked for the Women’s Film Unit, directing women. It was assumed that being unassertive is a female characteristic because of the Western-style of assertiveness training, which emphasises the individual, and an up-front assertiveness. I thought a lot about this after that experience, because interestingly all my brothers communicated the same way, and it has to do with growing up in Asia as much as anything.
Is there any pressure to take on the male culture that dominates the industry?
I think that’s true, but I think there are ways of countering that. You have to find your own strengths and then use them. I had one advantage on Aya in that I speak fluent Japanese, and I was communicating with the lead actor, and some of the others, in Japanese. I could use it when necessary, and it did work in certain situations because it gave me something that they didn’t have. I didn’t deliberately use it as a power tool, but I was aware of the fact that [it] did give me a certain element of power in relation to some of the other people. I think one can actually find other ways of asserting one’s authority, if necessary. And I think on another production I probably would be… well I like to listen to ideas and take on ideas, take ideas on board from everybody and listen to them and discuss them, and so on. Ultimately the vision is with the director and you have to really hang on to your vision, although there were compromises that were made for one reason or another… some of which I think had to be made because of circumstances, others perhaps not necessarily so. On Aya we had a team that was quite strongly female controlled. I had a woman director, writer, producer and production designer and we were all doing our jobs for the first time [on a feature], which was quite unusual too. And we were all women. So to balance that I had brought highly experienced people into it in other key technical areas because I felt it was important. And I think that was good, but it did sometimes lead to an attempt on the part of the highly experienced people to try to bully the less experienced, and I don’t think it was necessarily the male/female thing but it would have been seen that way.
What compromises did you make in terms of your vision?
Some of them were visual. In terms of visualisation, sometimes, even though the script was a very simple one, it was not as naturalistic as some people assumed. I think there could have been a greater stylisation that could have worked to [the film’s] advantage, and I was working with the DOP who was used to working in a very naturalistic vein, and was very experienced and good in a lot of areas, but was very used to the naturalistic style.
Is this because you had been a prolific documentary filmmaker prior to Aya?
Possibly, but there were a lot of things that I intended to do that were not necessarily there in script. And the story was a very simple one that people often assumed would be naturalistic.
What were your experiences with the Women’s Film Unit and do you think it was a valuable venture?
I do think it was important, very important, and I’m not detracting or trying to in any way detract from that just because, for me, it was not a good working experience. What it achieved was a lot of experience for quite a number of women in the course of a year, but the problem was that it wasn’t clear at the outset whether the purpose was primarily training, or to produce a final, professional product. And we were caught in the middle of the two, I think, particularly the production I worked on which was the first one up. It fell a bit in between the two, which made it very difficult to work on because I had an 80 percent inexperienced crew in terms of the jobs they were doing. People were doing their jobs for the first time, and at the same time there was an expectation that it would be a fully-professional product. And it also suffered from factionalism in terms of what the purpose was – the political ideas of various people – and we tried to deal with the way it had been put together and structured. But I think a lot of the people who worked in the course of that year have gone on to actually get further work in the industry afterwards. I would say for me it was a very good training ground. I didn’t apply to be in the program. I was asked to direct, so I came in on it in a different way. But it was the first time I had ever worked with more than three people on a crew. It was in Melbourne in 1985, and I think the previous year in Sydney.
Do you think there is any “vision” for films made in the 1980s and 1990s; perhaps being led by the fact that the industry is government funded?
I think there will always be some influence, in certain directions, dependent on who happens to be in power within the funding bodies, and who is allocating the funding. That will always influence what sort of films we get. I don’t know that I would identify one particular direction, and I think sometimes these trends are media created afterwards – a certain group of films are described as the trend in that period of time. Whereas there would be lots of other films that didn’t fit into that category, that are mentioned less…. But I think it is probably true to say that we do have more contemporary films now than there were before…. I think with regard to films, some films that were funded through, say the AFC, there were some identifiable directions there.
Films dealing with women’s bodies, women’s sexuality, women in the workplace, issue orientated films, to some extent, and films that were defined overtly as being feminist within the Western feminist tradition that was prevalent at the time. And I had the experience of applying several times to the Women’s Film Fund for funding for films. I will never forget one of the letters I received that said that although what the women were doing was quite exceptional and they were very strong characters, they were still functioning within a traditional culture (they were Japanese women), so it was setting up the notion that you had to break away from tradition in order to be accepted as… a feminist film. And I reject this outright. And I think the attitudes have changed a lot. They are [changing] within Western feminism across the board; there is a much stronger recognition now of… cultural difference within the feminist movement.
Are you saying it was a form of censorship?
I think there was some of that at that time and certainly this letter that I received indicated that…. I did in fact, at a later stage, get a half apology from the person who wrote it, who recognised that it had been the wrong approach to take. But that curiously came after somebody within the feminist movement up in Sydney, [who] was highly recognised as being a feminist filmmaker, had recognised the significance of my work. So there is a great deal of trendiness in all this.
Is there a shift?
I think there is much greater openness to a variety of work, a variety of thinking in terms of what it means to be a feminist and what it means for women to make films.
What does feminism mean for you?
It means, quite simply, recognition that women have equal rights and assertion of that in one way or another…. I was never out there on the barricades; I was never a great political activist in the ’70s or the ’80s. I had my personal views and I would get involved on the sidelines and also in terms of what I was doing as far as developing my work.
Has feminism influenced your work in any way?
I think so, yes. I think the feminist movement in the ’70s and ’80s has in terms of a greater consciousness, but I think part of it has to do with personal politics. I became more aware of some of the issues, and some of the problems, after my marriage ended, than I was when I was married. So I think the experience is varied for women.
Are some people anti-feminist?
I think it’s a great shame; I have to say that because I really think that Australia is still so far behind…. I heave a sigh of relief when I go back to Norway and I watch television and I see all these women Ministers talking – Ministers of Agriculture, Defence, whatever it might be, they are women. About 30 percent of ministers are women. And it’s sort of taken for granted that women appear in very high-powered public positions all the time, and it’s something that is more of a natural thing… I feel there is a greater respect for women and I do really think that Australia has an awful long way to go still. I don’t blame younger women for feeling perhaps that it could disadvantage them to say they are feminist, but I would think that it needs a mark of courage to accept something that may, to some people, brand you in one way or another. And I feel that it is a pity that anyone should be afraid of it. I don’t see how [any] woman in her right mind wouldn’t be a feminist…. But on the other hand I can understand that, say, a generation in their 20s today don’t want to be told how to think and what to think by somebody who had a totally different experience in the ’50s, you know. I’m 51, and looking back in many ways, as far as opportunities for work, for a lot of things, we were very lucky.
Do you think it would be true to say that women working in the Australian film industry come from middle class backgrounds?
I think it is but what concerns me more, and which I’m more interested in, is the lack of representation of people who are not born and bred Australians in film…. Given that at least 20 percent of the population are born outside of Australia, what we see on our screens does not reflect that at all. And the reason for that is that the people who are in power, all the commissioning editors, be it SBS [Special Broadcasting Service], or any other broadcaster, and the people who are making the assessments, the people who are in the hierarchy, they are predominantly Anglo-Saxons and I think that is a really serious problem. And the fact that they are predominantly male too, of course, that affects how women are presented as well.
Does it affect how other groups are presented?
Yes. I think it has to do with perspective and point-of-view. If you look at the urban age program of Film Australia, which is said to reflect multiculturalism… by definition that seems to me to be [just] Greeks in the inner city. It focuses on particular groups or it is an Australian experience of the Asian as a threat. And it is a perspective that tends to be the born and bred Australian…. And it doesn’t allow for very much other perspective on the part of people who come from the outside
Are you thinking of Romper Stomper (Geoffrey Wright, 1992)?
Well that would be one example, yes, and Holidays on the River Yarra (Leo Berkeley, 1991), the same thing. I think, as far as I know Aya and a film called Prejudice (1988), directed by Ian Munro, are the only two films with an Asian woman as the central character. And I think that Prejudice should be required viewing for everybody in the film industry. It’s about a Filipino woman in the nursing sector. What I’m trying to say is that maybe my interest is shifting. I think I’ll probably continue to make films about women because it just feels more natural for me to do so. Although I would also like to make a film that focuses on male characters.
With the film your working on at the moment, The Okinawan Daughter, which has a male central character but you said wasn’t about a man, could you explain your position on that?
It is a male lead, in the sense that it focuses on the experience of a male who goes to Okinawa – and it’s an Australian male. And so the assumption is that it is his story, that is the most important element, and to me it isn’t. His story is the catalyst somehow for what happens, and we follow him and it is his search. However, the people that he encounters are mainly women.
He’s a vehicle to meet them?
Yes, as much as anything, in terms of the way the story is constructed. And it’s very difficult to convince people [of] that… and I think that has to do with the assumption that if it is a male lead then you have to get inside the head of that male and that that is more important than anything else.
Who are you trying to convince?
Oh some of the funding bodies, for one.
Why does that matter to them, who’s story it is?
I think it’s based on certain assumptions. I think all these things are interrelated. Maybe the training programs… have [some role] in scripting the influences, what is seen to be the ideals in terms of the commercial sector of the industry, particularly because this is quite a commercial script. It’s a little bit difficult, maybe, to clear [this] up without going into more detail.
Do you think that having a male lead is considered to be more marketable or acceptable and is the male lead perceived as more acceptable to the entire range of male and female audiences?
I think it’s true. I didn’t sort of set out consciously to do it for that reason, but when I wrote it I felt that it would make it more accessible for a lot of people. But at the same time it would somehow take the burden of making you accessible away because of having that male lead, and so I could focus on developing all these other characters. But it does create problems when I do that and I am aware of that. It is a difficult thing to do and I’m not sure that I’m achieving it.
Is it important to the funding bodies who the audience is in the way we’ve just discussed?
Yes, and I personally think there is a lack of clarity about who the audience can be as opposed to who one assumes it is, especially now. I mean we hear a lot about [the] push to Asia and [the] thrust into Asia, etc., etc., and then assume greater interest in Asia on the part of Australians. And I think a lot of it is really purely market oriented.
Who do you think the funding bodies think the filmmakers are talking to?
On the whole, regardless of what sort of film you are trying to make, and even if you make it clear that you are trying to make a certain kind of film, they are assuming a broad general public, and I do think they’re white and middle class. And I think probably, if one looks at the experience of people who have been distributing Asian films in Australia for instance, it is very difficult to draw audiences to films that do not have a white lead. I think black American films fall outside of this category in a way.
Do the funding bodies have a different audience in mind in terms of whether you are making a mainstream or an independent film?
Yes, I think so, because they assume that independent shorts won’t get much distribution anyway – which is why I mean, in answer to that question about whether women prefer to make a certain kind of film, and I think you will find that a lot of women make documentaries and shorts, but I don’t think it is necessarily because they prefer to, it’s because that’s where the opportunities for them are to get the funding to make the films. They are allowed to take a more, maybe idiosyncratic approach. But I think even there, there are pressures to communicate to a broad spectrum….
Do you think there are limited opportunities for women in the features arena?
I think for a lot of women… with a few exceptions, people who have for one reason or another managed to build up a certain standing, you know, within the industry, which can have a variety of reasons, and there are only a few in that category who have made say more than three features… I think most women in features have directed only one feature. But then you will find an enormous number of men who have directed only one feature as well.
Does the critical or box office success of your film make a significant impact on your ability to make your next film?
Particularly with box office. I think even if you have a film that has been well-received critically if it has not done good box office, it’s very difficult to get the next one off the ground.
How important do you think affirmative action is for women these days?
I would think that within technical areas there’s probably still a lot to be said for it. I think there are some problems associated with it in other areas.
What is the problem in technical areas? Why are women lagging behind?
I wonder if some of it has to do with networking, and the fact that people get their jobs through people they know…. People are comfortable working with people they know and guys are on the whole more comfortable working with guys. And I think in some areas that is changing and breaking down. I mean there are men working in technical areas who like to work with women, who for instance feel that it’s better if you have a woman director, that you have a mixed crew and who personally feel more comfortable with that. There was one conversation I had recently with somebody who said that… if he had a male working with him, that there was more of a tendency for the men to get together, and so you would end up having more of a polarisation. For that reason, he preferred to work with a woman on crew when he was working with a woman director, because he felt it created more of a balance…. I do think there are a lot more men now who are conscious of these things and who in fact like to work with women, and also there are more women who have asserted their technical abilities… but it wouldn’t hurt at all to have more emphasis on training in those areas so we can have even a greater range.
Is there a perception in the industry that women have achieved equality, and even that it is female dominated given the percentage of women working for film funding bodies?
That’s what people always mention, that issue comes up. It’s always “look at the AFC”, or “look at the AFI”. Well both of them also have the emphasis on the cultural sector, and you will always find a lot of woman in any areas that have to do with the cultural sector anyway.
Do a lot of men feel women are getting an unfair advantage?
Yes, … absolutely, I’ve come across that quite often. Which is why I have mixed feelings about affirmative action in a lot of areas because it sets up this fiction that across the board women are getting a better deal. I think it probably is true that in some areas there has been positive discrimination, and I think maybe if one were to look at the fully-funded features for instance, in the AFC, [recently] they have gone to women directors and writer/directors and there has been a certain direction which was probably influenced by whoever was in charge at the time. But then the next year you [probably] have a couple of men getting it, and nobody makes as issue of it. I think it’s when a number of women happen to get something, then it is being made into an issue. One of the disadvantages too of some of the programs for some of us is that it’s automatically assumed that any woman who does anything or gets anything in the industry has had her hand held by the government. I’ve come across this a lot because I never have had project funding from the Women’s Film Fund for any of my work. The only thing I’ve had was a Producer Support Scheme grant for Aya, which was to assist us on the producing side to get access to a lawyer. Aya was funded along very commercial lines with a very hefty pre-sale from Japan, FFC [Film Finance Corporation] funding, and Film Vic[toria] funding – no AFC funding at all. But there were people who assumed that the Women’s Film Fund funded it, and it was a Special Women’s Program because it was focusing on women. This is a perception overseas as well, that Australia is a haven for women filmmakers, and all women filmmakers get government funding just like that.
My most recent experience with that view was from a Korean film team that I was looking after recently who travelled around [Australia] to do a TV program, a documentary on the Australian film industry…. They had this idea that Australia is the greatest place for women filmmakers, and the main reason [that] we have so many women filmmakers and film directors is [because of] the Women’s Film Fund, and they kept wanting to know about it…
On what grounds would you justify affirmative action?
I think, if [you are] looking at a survey there are certain areas… where women are very under represented and where there is a perceived need to have greater representation of women, that over a period of time there could be something said for that…
Can you tell me about your experience of Swinburne Film and Television School in 1980?
It was a good thing for me to do, because I started out very much on my own doing idiosyncratic little films and when I went to Swinburne I got in on the basis of footage that I shot in Okinawa, which is footage [that] eventually made [it] into the Hatoma series of films. When I went to Swinburne I had four unfinished films hanging over my head. I’d shot a lot, but I hadn’t completed any of them. So while I was there I completed one on my own, and I applied for funding for one of the Hatoma films. I got knocked back once but then I kept on working on it and by the end of the year, because I’d been to Swinburne, I got some funding for it. So I think Swinburne was a calling card, very much, and it also did give me the experience of working with other people, and seeing what attitudes to filmmaking were. I was in the Graduate Diploma course in film and I guess I was their token ethnographic filmmaker. It was assumed that I would make an ethnographic film but I decided to just use the year to learn as much as possible and different techniques and experiments, so I made In Search of the Japanese (1980)…. There were no women there on staff, absolutely none. It certainly affected attitudes…. One really good thing Swinburne did for me was it really brought out the rebel in me because I was just appalled at some of the attitudes, the sexism and also the ignorance… of a lot of students when it came to other traditions than Hollywood. I remember at the end of my year I was called by one of my lecturers… “intransigent”, and I thought “Oh! It was wonderful at the age of 35 or 36, or whatever I was, being called intransigent!” (3)
- Lisa French, Do Contemporary Women Filmmakers Share a Feminist Perspective in their Work?, MA Thesis, La Trobe University, Melbourne, 1995.
- The thesis itself has a complete transcript of the interview, which was also recorded on video.
- For further tributes, information and material on Solrun Hoaas see: “Solrun Hoaas”, Melbourne Independent Filmmakers: http://www.innersense.com.au/mif/hoaas.html; “People: Solrun Hoaas”, Ronin Films: http://www.roninfilms.com.au/person/350.html; Solrun Hoaas, “In Search of the Japanese in Me”, Gangway: http://www.gangway.net/34/gangway33_34.Hoaas.html.
Solrun Hoaas Filmography:
Rushing to Sunshine: Seoul Diaries (2001, producer, director and writer)
Pyongyang Diaries (1997, co-producer, director and writer)
Aya (1990, co-producer, director and writer)
Green Tea and Cherry Ripe (1988, co-producer and director)
Pre-Occupied (1985, producer, director and writer)
The Hatoma Films (1983, producer, director and writer)
Sacred Vandals (1983, producer, director and writer)
The Priestess/The Storekeeper (1983, producer, director and writer)
At Edge (1981, producer, director and writer)
There’s Nothing that Doesn’t Take Time (1981, producer, director and writer)
Waiting for Water (1981, producer, director and writer)
In Search of the Japanese (1980, producer, director and writer)
Effacement (1980, producer, director and writer)