Start the revolution: an interview with ‘Hobbyhorse Revolution’ director Selma Vilhunen

by Andrew Parker

For her latest feature film, Hobbyhorse Revolution (which makes its North American premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto this week) Oscar nominated Finnish filmmaker Selma Vilhunen turned her attention to an unusual, growing, fun, and empowering subculture of teen hobbyhorse enthusiasts who take everyday toys and turn them into tools for a unique hobby.

Hobbyhorse Revolution finds Vilhunen following around young women in their early to late teens who participate in highly elaborate equestrian-styled competitions on the ubiquitous titular toys that everyone probably had at one point in their life or another: a cheerful looking horse head atop a broom handle or stick of some sort. Over the past decade in Finland, Vilhunen noticed the hobby taking off, with some stars of “the sport” becoming YouTube sensations. A curiosity was growing into a trend. The trend grew into a phenomenon. And that phenomenon grew into the large, welcoming community of competitive, but friendly hobbyhorse riders we see in Vilhunen’s film.

We chatted with Vilhunen about Hobbyhorse Revolution last week over the phone from Switzerland where the film was making its international debut.

How did you first hear about the phenomenon of hobbyhorsing, and when did you think there could be a film made about it?

Selma Vilhunen

Selma Vilhunen: It was one night in the autumn of 2012, when my friend and my cinematographer, Sari Aaltonen, just sort of gave me a link to a video of a news report that a magazine had made about a hobbyhorse competition. She just thought it was this funny and interesting thing, and I was kind of overwhelmed seeing that stuff. I wanted to know more immediately, and I started poking around the internet, and I found a lot of YouTubers who kind of formed these sort of hobbyhorse stables. (laughs) There were all these hobbyhorse videos that I found at first, but then I found the Finnish Hobbyhorse Forum, which was really active at the time. At that point, a whole new level of this universe opened up in front of me. It was when I found that forum and those videos that I knew a new film had entered my life, and this was something for me to do. I was just so inspired, and I still had a lot of questions, but that was as good a place to start as any.

Sometimes when we see this world of hobbyhorsing, it’s a very inclusive and welcoming environment to be in to the people already in it, but these are also teens and young adults who don’t see your reputation as a filmmaker and an Oscar nominee, and they’ve also faced a fair share of ridicule, teasing, and bullying for their choice of hobby. Was there a certain amount of trust that had to be built by you within the community for this film to move forward?

Selma Vilhunen: That’s a good question, and I think the answer to it is that I started everything quite slowly. I just started talking on the forum, posted my own topic there, and introduced myself and the idea of making a film one day about their community. It was a really great topic, and there was a lot of discussion within that thread about making a film at some point. I invited people to discuss what kind of film they would like to see and what they think their hobby is all about and what it isn’t about.

Gradually, I started to ask if anybody would be interested in being a protagonist in the film, and at first, I didn’t get much response. People didn’t want to be filmed. They were kind of saying they were excited by the idea of seeing such a film, but not as much to be in it. But I wasn’t in any rush at the time. I was making other projects, so it took quite a while before I actually started filming anything. All this time, I was present in the forums, more or less, and I did meet some people when I visited some of the competitions, and very slowly I got to become a part of the scene a little bit. It took about a year and a half before I started filming anything, so during that time I think they got the idea that I was someone who could be trusted at least on some level, but it’s always one of those journeys where no one knows what will happen in the future, so everyone’s just taking a risk to some degree, myself as well. It was that sort of courtship time that really made a difference here.

Hobbyhorsing is such a unique pastime because it’s kind of a cross between equestrian, a dog show, and athletics. What was the learning curve like trying to understand this hobby and trying to engage with them on their own terms?

Selma Vilhunen: (laughs) Somehow, I realized I wasn’t coming into this world from a straight zero. I have been riding horses for a long time in my life, and a lot of these people also ride real horses, as well. So we kind of shared the horseback riding world at first, so I knew all of the language and terminology from that world, and I did my fair share of hobbyhorsing as a kid, but definitely nothing on that kind of a scale. The scene wasn’t there when I was a kid. This scene really started about fifteen years ago, when there wasn’t so much of a community like there is today, but people did play a lot. They just weren’t sort of organized yet. And I actually made a film called Pony Girl, and when I was making that film several years ago, I would see people outside hobbyhorsing with their friends.

Partly, I slipped into the world quite easily, but I learned something new every day. (laughs) I guess they just kept surprising me in many ways with the level of their skills, and their devotion, and their organization. All of the detail in the scene surprised me in a good way. I wasn’t expecting how diverse and devoted they were. When I found out that they have training camps, I thought, “Wow!” When I heard that they had their own sort of governing association with a chairwoman, and they have meetings where the discuss issues and vote on things, that was another thing I was blow away by. We filmed one of these meetings, but it isn’t in the film, and I was so impressed. Eventually, I was most impressed by the inclusiveness and the warmth of the community. It’s a special thing to a lot of people.

What’s it like having the involvement of someone like Alisa Aarniomäki, who has done so much to shape this scene and what hobbyhorsing has become today? Was she an invaluable resource to have on hand?

Selma Vilhunen: I definitely think so, yes. When I had her with me, I felt like I could trust her and defer to her experience. (laughs) There are some things I could state and hand over to the world and say is an accurate representation of this scene, and part of that is thanks to Alisa and all of the girls involved. They helped me keep the information in the film relevant. I did film some other people who are actually quite heavily involved in the community that were helpful, but they aren’t all prominent in the final cut, but I think it was always important for me to get to know them and film those people. It was definitely helpful in getting my own research done.

When you’re looking at something that’s ostensibly a hobby, is it sometimes strange for you to see how seriously some of these people take their craft? There are some people in the film who handle their hobbyhorsing very professionally, despite this being something that has limited potential to continue with into one’s adult years.

Selma Vilhunen: I do allow myself to laugh at some points, and I think they do, too, even at their most serious. I think they can sort of occupy that kind of headspace on two levels, which I like about the phenomenon and the hobby. I like that they can be really lighthearted and relaxed while enjoying each other’s company, and at the same time they can be serious. They can really switch from one approach to the other so quickly that they almost have to exist simultaneously. I think that’s quite interesting. You can be really dedicated and joyful at the same time. But I do think there’s a certain amount of humour in those moments where you see Aisku getting very, very serious about either her own performance or the performance of her friends. I think we can all naturally laugh there because it’s always funny to watch someone taking something so seriously. I think we can all relate to it because we all have our own things that we take very seriously in that same way.

The other main subject of your film is Elsa, who came to hobbyhorsing as a sort of therapeutic way of dealing with depression and loss, and I found her coming forward in that respect to be something really brave and special. What was it like hearing about what hobbyhorsing means to her, and how did it change how you viewed the rest of the film? I think when someone opens up like that, it opens up a lot of new depth and layers in the material.

Selma Vilhunen: The process of getting that story took almost the entire time we were filming. There was a friendship there, where I would learn something about her, and then I would learn something else, or something would happen in her life, and I was there as a person and a friend and not as a filmmaker to witness it. Just the fact that I was there in her life during that time in her life just made us closer. The things that are in the film are the result of a long conversation that went on for two-and-a-half years, and what you see in the film with her is a distillation of those conversations. I didn’t include everything in the film that we talked about, but it was a very strong experience for me, and on a personal level. Even though she’s much younger than me, I would say that we became friends because she trusted me and she trusted her life story in my hands. I didn’t want to tell all of it, but I was so moved by everything. It was a big responsibility.

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