“Then I weave a square, and little by little the basket rises.”

– Solrun Hoaas, There’s Nothing that Doesn’t Take Time (1981)

Solrun Hoaas slipped into filmmaking innocuously, initially making films about things directly around her or documenting aspects of her own work and the things that excited her curiosity. Her first film, Effacement (1980), was a record of another of her skills, Japanese Noh mask-making. Her masks had featured in a number of theatre productions in Canberra, where she lived when she first arrived in Australia in the early ’70s, and where she met the filmmaker, producer and distributor Andrew Pike, as well as the documentary filmmakers David and Judith MacDougal.

In 1978 Hoaas went on a journey to the remote island of Hatoma, the furthest island south in the Okinawa group, a distant part of the Japanese archipelago. Hatoma is 1.08 square km in size. This was the first of several visits Hoaas made and, over time, four documentary films were created recording the life of the island. Each film was photographed with a 16mm camera and a separate sound recorder, both operated by Hoaas herself. Her whispered conversations to the women whose work she filmed give these films an individual immediacy.

In many ways, the act of making those films was emblematic of Hoaas. She was an inveterate traveller and explorer, never one to be constrained to the beaten track. The attraction of a tiny place, seemingly on its last legs as a home for human beings and as a source of economic activity, would have been powerful for a person with a desire to seek out unusual extremes. Hatoma once housed several hundred people but post-World War II changes and a lack of water had reduced the population to 47 by the time Hoaas arrived, just two of whom were attending school. Most of the inhabitants were getting old but they still went about their days in an orderly fashion, finding food, making rudimentary goods, repairing their dwellings and coping with the small-scale introduction of new technology including the installation of the first direct dial telephone connecting the island with the rest of Japan. In many ways the islanders’ dogged fight to retain their lifestyle and independence was an early mirror for Solrun herself. She sought out the distant, the exotic and those who were uneasy in their place.

Her education and upbringing placed her as a sophisticated and culture-filled European in Asia. In 1949 her family moved from Mainland China to Hong Kong for a year, then to Kobe, Japan, where they lived throughout the ’50s and part of the ’60s. Their home was a Lutheran church school in the Aotani district of the city. After attending the Norwegian primary school in Shiotaki near Kobe Solrun went to the Canadian Academy, an international school in that city. Thus she had been “embedded” in Japan as a young woman, learning to speak the language fluently and, as part of that, saw the lowering of post-war Japanese cinema, as it happened. For most of us a knowledge of this has come in chunks – Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ozu retrospectives to acquaint us with the classical period, and then Oshima and maybe Terayama and Teshigahara on the way through, almost all via seasons assembled by festivals or cinémathèques. Hoaas’ knowledge of Japanese cinema was broader and more random but still encompassed the classical and the modern. That deeper relationship with Japan allowed her the opportunity to take boats to places like Hatoma, no doubt out of curiosity, and allowed her to focus on the small details of the lives she found there.

Looking back at her career (1) the invitations to screen the Hatoma films extended for decades and they remain highly regarded by documentarists and ethnographic filmmakers. Assembling material shot from the late ’70s and into the early ’80s she made a series of four films about Hatoma comprising: Waiting for Water (1981), There’s Nothing that Doesn’t Take Time, The Priestess/The Storekeeper (1983) and Sacred Vandals (1983) (2). In each a single aspect of life on Hatoma is explored – the small amount of economic activity, the creation of a reed basket, the life of Hatoma’s storekeeper/priestess, and the activities of some of the older women as they preserve the island’s spiritual places and practices. They are sympathetic and non-judgemental. Hoaas develops a relationship with what she is filming by gently seeking explanation and entering into irascible jokes and games.

In between shooting and completing the Hatoma films, Hoaas made a film about the poet Judith Wright, At Edge (1981). Filmed very simply on 16mm – its own rough edges left on screen via bits of leader and other material – the film is a portrait of Wright in her later years when she moved from Queensland to a property near Braidwood in New South Wales. It’s cold, dry country and the film explores Wright’s relationship with the wild landscape, her support for Aboriginal Australia and her concern over the destruction of the landscape. Wright seems to be living almost entirely independently on a property comprising gorgeous natural landscapes seemingly undisturbed by man, a tangled mess of overgrown mineshafts, dry creek debris and elegant new wooden buildings full of light and warmth. The soundtrack incorporates the poet both conversing and reading her own work in a way which genuinely connects with the images.

From the start of her filmmaking Hoaas’ films were distributed by Andrew Pike’s Canberra-based company Ronin Films. Andrew supported her applications for funding and made significant production investments in her two films about Japanese war brides in Australia. She had always had ambitions to make dramatic features. That ambition was part of the reason why she enrolled in the Graduate Diploma course at what was then called Swinburne College Film School, directed by Brian Robinson. Her graduation film was a smart comedy about a hapless Australian trying to export budgerigars to Japan. Before a feature film could happen she got funding from Film Victoria to produce an hour-long documentary on Japanese war brides. This was to become Green Tea and Cherry Ripe (1988), a touching documentary about a group of women Solrun located and with whom she maintained friendships thereafter.

After Green Tea and Cherry Ripe, Hoaas finally got funding for a feature film based on a script she had written about a war bride coming to live in Australia in the late ’40s and on through to the ’60s. As well as an investment by Pike, part of the private sector investment made in the project was contributed by a major Japanese distributor (with which Hoaas negotiated personally). Aya (1990) starred the Japanese actress Eri Ishida, Nicholas Eadie as her troubled, sullen, withdrawn, depressed and alcoholic husband, and Chris Haywood as the family friend Mac, a mysterious figure who might once have been an ASIO spook and might be gay, at least sometimes. The ambiguities of the Haywood character, who is introduced early and without explanation, created particular problems of exposition not least for many of Australia’s critics who seemed discomfited by the display of female strength and male weakness and diffidence.

Notwithstanding a raft of festival invitations, at least abroad, and six AFI nominations, Aya failed at the box office and that was that. As with many other filmmakers, Hoaas wrote a large number of scripts, many of them dealing with themes involving Australia and Japan. These were not received sympathetically, at least not by anybody with money to invest.

Undeterred, Hoaas continued to travel, to teach and involve herself in the film community. In the late ’90s Hoaas accepted several invitations to screen her films in South Korea. As was her wont, she pushed the authorities until she got a visa to North Korea as well and, seizing the moment and using the new digital technology, put together a remarkable little film about her travels. Pyongyang Diaries (1997) remains one of the first, and still one of the few, films to show anything of what life is like in the odd, very secretive modern autocracy of North Korea. Made virtually surreptitiously it employed the time-honoured methods famously used by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin in Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer, 1961). By asking people simple questions and getting back answers that reveal much truth, Pyongyang Diaries was almost a harbinger of what the future cinema might hold for anyone with a camera and a good idea. It sold all over the world and she followed it with a much more elaborate contemplation of Korean society, Rushing to Sunshine: Seoul Diaries (2001). Here she could afford a crew, interpreters, even a “second unit”. The film looked at the then current state of the North/South relationship just at the time when Kim Dae-Jung was elected President of South Korea and had promised to review the National Security Act (which makes a crime of virtually any contact with or support for the North). The is a complex issue, and Hoaas started her examination through the eyes of a group of North Korean soldiers only recently released from South Korean prisons after decades of incarceration

The two Korean documentaries were the last films Hoaas completed. In recent years she devoted much of her time to studying and practising printmaking. Much of the visual material she used for her prints derived from stills of her own films which she reworked and recoloured into quite remarkable pieces of art. In her last year she was represented in a number of group shows and had solo exhibitions at Gasworks Arts Park, the Joshua McClelland Print Room, and the Benalla Gallery in Victoria, and the Albion Street Gallery in Sydney.

Endnotes

  1. For an excellent list of her film productions, which includes festival prizes and invitations, go to: “Solrun Hoaas”, Melbourne Independent Filmmakers: http://www.innersense.com.au/mif/hoaas.html.
  2. A package of three of the “Hatoma Films” (comprising Waiting for Water, There’s Nothing that Doesn’t Take Time and The Priestess/The Storekeeper), At Edge, Sacred Vandals (the other Hatoma film), Aya, Pyongyang Diaries and Rushing to Sunshine: Seoul Diaries are available on DVD from Ronin Films. The DVDs are taken from the best available material but are not of optimal quality. They do not have removable subtitles, menus, chapter headings, scene selections or extras of any kind. They are intended to be used by educational and other not-for-profit organisations.

About The Author

These days Geoff Gardner blogs away on matters of film interest. He was once the Director of the Melbourne Film Festival and once also a film distributor. His thoughts can be found at http://filmalert101.blogspot.com.au