Finnish director Selma Vilhunen has been making films for over a decade. Having worked in both documentary and fiction, she gained acclaim in 2014 for her Oscar-nominated short film Do I Have To Take Care of Everything?, and made her fiction feature debut with Little Wing at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016. This year she brings to Hot Docs Hobbyhorse Revolution. The film follows three teenaged girls, Alisa Aarniomäki, Mariam “Aisku” Njie, and Elsa Salo, as they explore their interest in the hobbyhorse, a stick with a horses head, which the girls pretend to ride. Vilhunen’s film explores the girl’s lives and growth through their unique pastime, as well as the flourishing underground subculture of the hobbyhorse.
POV: Chelsea Phillips-Carr
SV: Selma Vilhunen
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
POV: How did you first discover the hobbyhorse subculture, and what about it interested you?
SV: I came across it through my friend and cinematographer, Sari Aaltonen. She sent me a link to a video with a hobbyhorse competition that a magazine had made. This happened in the fall of 2012. And I went through all kinds of emotions. I was laughing and puzzled and whatnot. I’ve been riding horses, and I’ve been actually riding hobbyhorses a little bit as well, and I was charmed. There was some sort of energy there, with dozens and dozens of girls just sort of frolicking around with hobbyhorses. I was really fascinated by the fact that these were teenagers and they were still riding hobbyhorses.
They were using their imaginations, basically, and I just wanted to know more: how come they’re so organized, how come they’re so fancy. And so I started browsing the internet and I found great things. I found the Finnish hobbyhorse forum, which was very active, and there was a lot of discussion happening there. And I found some really great YouTubers, who make hobbyhorse videos, like Ali (Alisa Aarniomäki), for example. I was really blown away by her videos. After seeing those, I knew that I wanted to explore this topic. I wanted these people to be given credit for the amazing things that they do
POV: You mention the imagination aspect of hobbyhorses, and it’s interesting that you chose documentary as a medium to depict something so based in fantasy. Why did you choose documentary to depict this subject matter?
SV: I think that it’s very important that we cherish our ability to imagine things. It was quite obvious to make a documentary about this because there’s something quite radical about what these kids do. There’s a lot of tension around their hobby and the fact that they have to keep it, or had to keep it sort of hidden at the time when I started. They [refer to] some bullying and things like that; there are a lot of layers around this. I think making a fiction film would’ve blurred the idea a little bit, because they are actually doing it in this world, which doesn’t give so much space to something like this.
POV: How did you make the girls feel safe about opening up about their hobby, since there is so much bullying and stigma against hobbyhorses?
SV: I took my time before I started filming anything. At first I hung out at the online forum and I discussed the possibility of making a film there. I started to ask for people to volunteer as characters in my film. I didn’t get so many applications at first. People were excited about the idea of there being a film about their hobby, but no one wanted to be in it. They hoped that maybe someone else would be in it. But then gradually I did start to find people who liked the idea of being filmed, being in a movie. But I did that part quite slowly and I guess that was part of gaining their trust. So I became this character in their communities during the one and a half years before I actually started filming. And when I did start filming, I took it kind of slowly, sort of one day at a time with a “let’s see where this takes us” sort of attitude. I didn’t really demand so much from them but I took what I got. I think that was a good approach. They weren’t obliged to give me anything but somehow over the years I became their friend, in a way, and they wanted to tell their stories.
POV: One thing that was striking to me was that there were almost no men in the film. Could you speak to your decision for this? Was it part of creating a safe space for these girls?
*SV: * Well, there just weren’t so many men around! There are some boys in the hobbyhorsing scene. Not so many, but there are some. I actually filmed one boy, and he’s great, but in the editing process we realised that the three girls and their arcs are so strong, that they took all the space. There wasn’t really room anymore for the boy’s story. So we cut him out! The majority of the people in the hobby are girls; that’s where this comes from. I didn’t [make] a decision while I was filming. It was in the editing room when we suddenly realised, “Ok, we don’t really have any men here at all!” . And that’s because we wanted to focus on the kids. We don’t have many adults there. This is a girl-dominated scene.
POV: Your films tend to focus on women, especially younger women and girls. Can you speak to the importance, for you, of presenting women’s stories on screen?
SV: Well, it’s very important. It’s kind of a new thing for me, talking about this whole “girls on film” thing. At the same time I’d like to talk about them as humans, but of course I recognize the fact that so few girls’ stories are on screen. And even when we do have girls on screen, they have a limited space. Somehow they are not portrayed as quite as round characters as men. So while I like to think they are humans first, then girls, I also think it’s important to portray girls in more varying ways.
This particular hobby is very, very interesting because it does create, like you mentioned, a safe space. And that’s something that I find is very, very beautiful about the phenomenon. These girls, I feel they are really just free to be who they are when they are hobbyhorsing together. And it’s important to see girls as they really are sometimes. Film is a very strong medium, so it’s important that we have films about girls.
POV: Do you know how hobbyhorses are doing now? Are they becoming a bigger pass-time?
SV: I would guess that it will become a little bit bigger, even in Finland, with the film, and maybe around the world. With the girls, we think that probably it will remain in the margins, but I’m quite sure that there will be some enthusiasts here and there who will be simply so inspired by this that they cannot avoid making hobbyhorses and riding them! So I’m looking forward to that!
POV: Have you ever made a hobby horse?
SV: I did make one just to try [to find out how] hard it is, and it was actually really difficult. It took a lot of time for me to do it. But yeah, I made a hobbyhorse, and it’s OK!
POV: I was really impressed in the film, because it did seem like it took so much skill to make a horse, and also a lot of physical endurance to perform in competition. Do you think that it has the potential to become seen as a higher art?
SV: I don’t know. It’s an interesting question to think about. It’s something that they talk about amongst themselves, the defining and redefining of their own hobby. They’re always talking about how organised they want to be, how public they want to be. Or what is considered as something to do with their hobby, and what is not. There is no clear answer. So it [would] take an individual who [would] want to take it there. Then it’s possible, yes. But at the same time, maybe some people [would] like to keep it more relaxed, something you do in your backyard!