with Juul Hesselberth
Interview: Elisa Routa
Photos: Juul Hesselberth, Samuel Fairbank, Luke Feeney, Chelsea Williams
“When we were competing, there was an emphasis on being marketable” claims former professional surfer Grace Styman-Lane in the documentary entitled Just Go Fucking Surfing, described as an ethnographic documentary.
In the surfing industry, being gay, being fat, having an athletic physique for a female surfer, and being overall different, is not allowed because it doesn’t sell enough products, especially to the male customers. It’s not marketable. We are not marketable. For documentary filmmaker and visual ethnographer Juul Hesselberth, surfing was the starting point of her realizing the gender-based inequalities happening in the water.
For 3 months, the Dutch filmmaker followed four Australian female surfers – Jess Grimwood, Grace Styman-Lane, Audrey Styman-Lane and Kirsty Best – who somehow never suited the marketed ‘sexy surfer girl’ image exploited by the surfing industry. Through intimate confessions and the perspective of feminism, Juul has been using her camera to cover the reality of female athletes within the surfing industry. “If we all know these injustices exist, we can change them,” she says. Here is a condensed transcript of a phone interview conducted in May 2021.
I’m from the Netherlands. I grew up in a town that’s not necessarily close to the coast. I first got introduced to surfing in Seignosse, France, at the age of 13. I took two surfing lessons but, at the time, I didn’t think I could do it in Holland. I never really saw it as an option to pursue. During my studies, back in 2014, I ended up in this student’s society, called Spin Boardsports, a group of people who skateboard, wakeboard and surf. They introduced me to surfing in Holland. I have been surfing ever since. Today, my home spot is called Scheveningen, and I don’t think I’ll ever move away from the sea again.
“Becoming more aware of how women are disadvantaged in our societies, I started noticing these differences in the water.”
I felt the pressure to perform and show that I could actually surf. Wearing my bikini, I felt uncomfortable being looked at as a girl. I just wanted to go surfing and not feel like people are looking at my butt. There is so much stuff happening in the water that is taking my mind off surfing. Surfing with my boyfriend at the time, I noticed a difference in how we both coped with what was happening in the water. So for my Master documentary, I really wanted to do something based on both gender and surfing — not only show how the world is working but bring a little bit of hope. I wanted to not only reveal how women have been coping with these differences for a long time, but share the solution instead; focus on how we can make change, or at least try to be a change. If we all know these injustices exist, we can change them.
During my studies in Australia, I noticed that women were very much outspoken about the surfing industry and about what was actually happening in the water. At least, it was something they were comfortable talking about. I met Grace and Audrey Styman-Lane very quickly, through surfing. I actually lived next to the twins so I always saw them. They were amazing surfers in Coolangatta and got the best waves. I noticed Grace when she was shredding out of a barrel. I thought, I want to talk to her, but I was too impressed so it took me about a month before I got to meet up with them and talk to them. I met Audrey through a friend; they connected me. My only goals were to meet new people and work. The twins got so much abuse in the water, it was a difficult topic to talk about, but they were very approachable and very kind. As for Jess Grimwood, I was actually appointed to by a friend. We had an instant connection, it felt very natural, open, and outspoken. I really wanted to have that in the film as well because the personal connection is very important. If the women feel comfortable with me, they won’t be nervous about the camera anymore.
“Feminism is in everything I do. I found in documentary films a way to speak up.”
I think the documentary Just Go Fucking Surfing manages to show that it feels different for some girls. Jess is like, I’m just gonna do my own thing, I don’t care anymore, I just want to be me. In the film, she explains: “I wouldn’t get sponsored because I couldn’t be a bikini model. When I was doing it, I couldn’t be a lesbian.” Today, Jess really stepped out of the system. Audrey and Grace are still between both worlds. They still suffer from the consequences of the industry and how it treated them. Concerning Kirsty, she knows what’s happening. She’s more relaxed about it, doing her own thing, less dependent on the industry.
“I wouldn’t get sponsored because I couldn’t be a bikini model.”
Feminism is in everything I do but I’m not really the feminist who goes down to the streets and says, “Things have to change.” I’m more influencing my friends and people around me, talking about what I find important and what I think needs to change. That’s why I like documentary work because you have so much time to explain. I don’t like to be at the forefront so I found in documentary films a way to speak up in a way that suits me. I can also check everything, especially if what I’m saying is correct. Taking time is important to me. Before actually shooting my documentary Just Go Fucking Surfing, I had read lots of feminist articles based on gender, then I educated myself on Gender and Sports in our contemporary society. I started filming with all this knowledge in mind. Today, I also include the notion of feminism in my job. I’m working as an audiovisual content producer for Oxfam, making videos to bring out the principles I believe in.
“If we had these voices heard more often, that could really spark a change.”
In the beginning, I didn’t understand that being a female documentary filmmaker myself also means I am part of the change. When I sent my films to film festivals, I noticed that there was a whole category for female directors. That’s when I realized that my film was an all-female production. Looking back at it I’m really proud doing it that way. If I had to start another documentary, I’d want to be more inclusive, and add more layers to what I’ve done because only white women are included.
If we had these voices heard more often, that could really spark a change. I think everybody needs to be onboard. I believe in a better world.