sophie hyde: interview
Australian filmmaker Sophie Hyde doesn’t shy from telling often difficult, yet socially and culturally relevant and important stories. Her impressive portfolio ranges from the critically acclaimed feature drama 52 Tuesdays, which tells the story of a parent and child as one undergoes a gender transition, to her latest project with collaborator Bryan Mason, To Look Away, for the upcoming 24 frames per second exhibition at Carriageworks. 24 frames per second is a landmark exhibition in Australian contemporary art which explores the increasingly trans-disciplinary nature of the art world, through the fusing of art, film and dance. Hyde’s work builds on her established concern with social issues and features video portraits of five young performers, questioning the historical precedent of the portrait and the relationship between audience and subject through gaze. Sophie Hyde’s impressive practice, extending from filmmaking, to video artist, and founder of filmmaking collective Closer Productions, is informed by her belief in a filmmakers responsibility to ‘offer something emotionally and intellectually stimulating and meaningful’, an objective undeniably achieved in her plethora of poignant works.
I had a chat with Sophie about her career in filmmaking so far and about To Look Away.
How did you get started in filmmaking?
I grew up doing youth theatre and realised that I didn’t want to act but I loved creating. I began directing theatre and then went to uni to do both theatre and film studies. When I left uni I got a grant in South Australia to make a doc and so I returned from Melbourne where I had been studying my final year and made the film (it was about women’s toilets and included interviews in toilets and song and dance numbers as well as an investigation into whether the women of Australia were ‘scrunchers or folders’). I started working as a producers assistant on feature films but found I was really unsatisfied watching the rigid hierarchical model that a lot of filmmaking is created within. From that point I made my own films and worked in theatre and in youth arts for sometime before slowly and gently moving back into filmmaking more on my own terms.
How did Closer Productions come to be?
Bryan Mason and I started a partnership called Closer Productions in 2004 and within this we made shorts and TV docs and a lot of video work for live performance and art spaces. In 2009 we were in a LAB developing our first feature drama (52 Tuesdays) and we started working a lot with documentary director Matt Bate who we had gone to uni with. We had a kind of simpatico but very different ways of working and we enjoyed the challenge of that. After the workshop we decided to join our companies together, so the guy working with us and the guy working with him, all joined with us to form the new Closer Productions in Jan 2010. In Jan 2011 we were at Sundance with Shut Up Little Man! our first film as a company and we had made another feature doc Life in Movement that same year. Soon after, Bec Summerton joined and Closer as it is now began. It really was a matter of us all wanting to combine forces to gain momentum and also realizing a way of working out loud and without tiptoeing that was really conducive to creative ideas.
What inspires your practice?
I get a real thrill out of making, of working with other people to uncover something about the world and work out how to tell stories in a way that means something to us. I love developing characters, experimenting with form and working with a group of people to create an experience.
Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming work in 24 frames a second?
It’s a series of five moving image portraits created with five young performers. Three of the five are part of the Restless Dance Theatre ensemble – a company who create performance work with disabled and non-disabled young people – and two of them are actors from the film 52 Tuesdays. Together and alongside a great film, design and sound team, we created these individual portraits, all single shots that are inspired by particular 19th Century portraiture. Each portrait is a movement piece and each is a different length and they all loop so the experience at any one time is always new. Watching them all as a group with minimal sound means attention is taken from one to the other but it’s also possible to listen to a different soundscape through headphones and be drawn into each individual piece.
Many of your works have a particular focus on social issues, how do you see the medium of film and its role in orchestrating dialogue surrounding these issues?
I like to think that stories are hugely important and that the way we think is influenced by the stories we are told and who tells them. So being part of that conversation and opening up audiences to people who may not always be seen or understood is vital. For me the best way to do that is through genuine immersion in the story or the experience, for the makers and for the audience. So I love films or work that suck me inside them and allow me simultaneously to consider my own life. That’s what I aim to make as well. It’s not a lesson, but an opportunity and it shouldn’t feel like work but it should feel stimulating or challenging, not only escape.
What do you hope those who see your work at the upcoming 24 frames a second exhibition will take from it?
My personal experience viewing it is that there is a lot of humour and joy in it and it’s a delight to watch the movement and consider it with the naturalistic sound as well as the more stylised sound in the headphones. It’s possible to watch the pieces and consider them as moving portraits that give some insight into each of the people who made them. It’s also possible to think about the nature of portraiture and who the subject is historically and how much power they have and I suppose consider the changing nature of who is rescored in this kind of work. For me, the five people in this work hold a great deal of power in their gaze and because they created the movement, they are also involved in what they do, not always concerned with us. The piece is called To Look Away and so the gaze shifts in each of the pieces from an outward one connected with the audience to an inner gaze – involved internally, not submissive.
What has been the biggest challenge in telling the often difficult, yet real and important stories that you have endeavoured to tell in many of your works?
The work I make is generally fairly niche. It has connected with audiences all over the world but that doesn’t mean it is commercially viable. That’s a great challenge in film, which is primarily funded as an investment with expectation of financial returns. Making work is always exceptionally challenging, I feel a great responsibility to the people I work with and the people in the work and this can create internal conflict but is also an important thing for me to manage. I also feel a strong responsibility to the audience to offer something that is intellectually and emotionally stimulating, that feels vibrant and vital and meaningful and really really enjoyable too, whether because it’s funny or inspiring or cathartic or difficult and hopefully all these things.
How does working within more conventional filmmaking platforms in works such as 52 Tuesdays, differ from working in a more ‘art’ based exhibition context, such as your upcoming project in 24 frames a second? And how do you view this increasingly blurry distinction between notions of ‘film’ and ‘video art’?
I think this is the first time 52 Tuesdays has been described as conventional filmmaking but I know what you mean. In making feature films generally, the focus is on story, even in instances where the form is playful. Within the work I have made for 24 Frames and I suppose in particular working with Restless Dance Theatre, the work is not designed to tell a story but to engage a viewer in a different way, in this case through the frame, the design, the movement, the sound and these elements can maintain an ambiguity. This work is made of a series of 5 looping portraits and together they become a kind of piece that is different to each individual one. I suppose working in this form I have found no one is questioning what I am making, no one was telling me who the audience is or that I should do something different- that doesn’t mean that there was no one challenging my ideas because I still worked within a team of very strong creators, all of whom had opinions, but there is no one saying their knowledge about how it should be is more advanced. In film, everyone has an opinion about how the story should go, what will work for an audience and what you should make.
What’s it like to be a female in the primarily male-dominated world of the film industry?
This is such a complex topic. I love being a woman and I think my experience as a woman has a particular influence about what stories I tell and how I tell them. We know there is trouble being a woman in film because there are still so few female filmmakers creating our stories. It’s between 4 and 20 % of films that are directed by women and at either end of that stat, it’s not enough. My personal feeling about this is that we are missing out on a lot as an audience. My experience as a female in the film industry is that I don’t come up against out-loud obstacles because of my gender very often, the bias against women is more insidious than that. But the prejudice is something that I think very many of us can even recognise in ourselves if we are being honest and it really has to shift.
What would you say to aspiring filmmakers and artists who want to get into the industry?
Do it but be prepared for how consuming it is.