Images Talk (April 2001)

DARKROOM

Thirty years ago Richard Kerr and I set up a darkroom in my basement and I suppose it was there where I became drawn in to photographic processes… I have always been excited by that moment when the print is put into the developer and the image begins to appear. It’s a fleeting moment when change is most focused and visible and I suppose I’ve continued to dwell in that moment of transformation in my filmmaking…

Here’s an excerpt from passing through/torn formations, it’s Christopher Dewdney’s poem Out of Control: The Quarry:

“It is a warm grey afternoon in August. You are in the country, in a deserted quarry of light grey Devonian limestone in Southeren Ontario. A powderery luminescence oscillates between the rock and sky. You feel sure that you could recognize these clouds (with their limestone texture) out of random cloud photographs from all over the world. You then lean over and pick up a flat piece of layered stone. It is a rough triangle about one foot across. Prying at the stone you find the layers come apart easily in large flat pieces. Pale grey moths are pressed between the layers of stone. Freed, they flutter up like pieces of ash caught in a dust devil. You are splashed by the other children but move not.”

(from Preditors of the Adoration, Out of Control: The Quarry by Christopher Dewdney)

In passing through/torn formations I tried to create a form that wasn’t frozen or fossilized (as film tends to do)… and this was accomplished through the layering of dialogue and collected sound, the layering of story, the repetition of story, superimposition (sometimes three separate image systems on the screen at the same time)… It is my hope that this polyphonic form allows for participation from the audience, and at the same time suggests that all family stories have several perspectives,  there is no such thing as one objective fact/truth, or way of looking at things…

I suppose this open form is taken up further in Opening Series where the audience orders twelve boxes like this and determines an order (there is an interrelated film in each box)… each time the film gets played there is a new order, and I track the various orders as the film screens… What I learn through Opening Series often finds itself in other films. For example, some sections in  Opening Series 2 and 4 find themselves in What these ashes wanted, a somewhat more narrative driven film, so it’s a kind of testing ground for images as well.

I have taken up a method borrowed from Adrienne Rich’s feminist dictum: Collect Reflect Revise. The method of collecting is spontaneous and non-scripted, in which I try to dwell in that fleeting moment, watching time through the lens…

 

GINSBERG

In the early 1980’s,  Allen Ginsburg gave a talk and led a meditation at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and recently I found the tape I had recorded and played it for Janine and she bounced it into Public’s recent Lexicon issue. Here it is.

“It is possible through mindfulness practice, to bring about some kind of orderly observation of the phenomenology of the mind and to produce a poetics. From that instant by instant recognition of thought forms comes a notion of spontaneous poetry which Jack Kerouac and Gertrude Stein practiced. And that form of poetry is a form of Oriental form that is composed on the tongue rather than on paper. It is also a Western form, a very American form. Blues and Calypso poetics were always made up on the spot. There always was a formulaic structure as in all Bardic poetics but it was dependent on the Back blues singer to get it on and make up on the spot all the rhymes and all the personal comments, all the moaning, empty bed samsara lamentations of the moment while singing. So that Tibetan poetics and American poetics are based on the spontaneous. The key to this is that you have to accept that the first thought is the best thought, you have to recognize that the mind is shapely. Because the mind has  shape, what passes through the mind is the mind’s own, so that is all in one mind, it is all linked connectedness and consequence. Observe your mind rather than force it, you will always come up with something that links to previous thought force. It is a question of trusting your own mind finally and trusting your tongue to express the mind’s fast puppet… spitting forth intelligence without embarrassment.”

 Ginsberg’s method may sound familiar to people who follow the work of Brakhage for instance, where his muse directs him through his work… I appreciate this link with the Muse but my background has directed me towards seeing it in a less individualised state. Through the 1990’s I have come to appreciate the way other people can contribute to my projects… that there is an energy around the making of a work that can create a more participatory model during the making… in other words, I get a lot of help from my loved ones, friends and assistants and I see them as part-makers of the film. Chance elements come into play when this kind of energy is set up around a project, and through people, these chance elements often help direct the film. The film is a tuning fork, resonating through people and events.

 

EDITING

Whereas the spontaneous is most connected to the shooting of films and is quite light and free the editing process has been tortuous, these collected concrete forms of memory do not always go together, and it can take a long time before I sculpt them into shape, blending story and form. Maybe this is why some of my films take five to seven years to complete.

 

FILM FARM

This process-oriented approach to making was used when I and my late partner Marian McMahon set up a Filmmaking Retreat in 1994, in Mount Forest. Participants are urged to shoot without scripts, letting the camera’s confrontation with the world be the first place to start, rather than the written word …the camera meets the world. Since hand processing facilities are available, participants can shoot and re shoot, experiment with various photo-chemical processes and gradually films surface. My motto is, if you can write a poem in a day, you can make a film in a week. Participants do not need to necessarily come to the film farm with an idea… my sense is that there is a film in everyone which can be drawn out anywhere… The atmosphere created at the film farm by the  assitants/teachers who help out every year, make it conducive to creative expression.

 

DIGITAL VS VIDEO

I am more interested in passing on a way of working than a medium(for example celluloid), in the so called digital age….

What these ashes wanted was finished on film but it makes use of high-8 and 3/4″ video, digital video, 16mm reversal, 16mm high contrast and negative, digital to film transfers and so on… It’s a way of working that I would be more concerned about losing during the corporate mandate of this millennium. Film has a beauty we should use when we need it, even if we have to get into making our own emulsion up at the film farm…

Helsinki Trip

by Philip Hoffman

Once again I find myself in Finland, and wonder why I am drawn to this place. It isn’t only because I have good friends here from my many other visits. This is a place where I feel comfortable, and maybe the only place in my life that reminds me of my mother’s eastern European heritage. Of course, I know that Helsinki is as developed in city life as any Canadian city, yet somehow  life is more the pace I can handle, compared to that of the busy North Americans cities. I know I’m romantically naive in these judgments, but I also know that our experience of the world is always filtered through our  greatest passions, and the foundational moments. Babji (my mother’s mother) taught me how to shoot from the hip. When she took pictures, she did not look through the lens, but just kind of used her body to find the picture. This daily practice of acknowledging the body (and not only the mind), in my filmmaking, working the hand with the heart, telling stories that are both personal and, I hope, universal, finds its source in Babji’s kichen, where supper chats went on through the night, as light and dark tales of their past were laid out one by one on the kitchen table.

 

The Trip

Sami picks Janine and I up at the airport. I’ve come to do six days of workshop with Finnish filmmakers. Sami, who will be co-directing this venture, and Tuula who is hosting the workshop for her students at UIAH along with some students from the Art Academy, have organised everything just right. It is colder and darker than Canada. I look out the window and think about my friends back home who have gone to warm climates for their holidays.

After a day of organising the workshop (it starts tomorrow) I decide to take Janine out to an old haunt. Elite. The wine and food are good. This is familiar. There is an open screening next door at a local gallery, so we slide over and during the film breaks, the old gang starts appearing before my eyes, one by one: Denise, Mikko, Oliver, Seppo, Ali, Sami… they are all continuing to make and screen their work locally and internationally. There is great energy in this little basement ‘open screening’  and the work covers the range of alternative practice from documentaries that skillfully deconstruct Finnish history to campy critiques. This reminds me of the old days of the Funnel experimental Film Theatre in Toronto where people show up not knowing what will be screened but always leave entertained, stimulated and yes, a little tipsy.  What is great about it is that it’s a place to share an image, a work in progress or a brand new short, and have at times a deep exchange about some aspect. It is a place where old ideas and films get revamped and new ideas for films develop. It is polar-opposite to the ‘pitch,’ a process used nowadays in the commercial and independent film world which is less about development and the nurturing of an artistic practice and more about authoritative control through an industrial model. What I saw  in the ‘Open Screening’ follows what Jonas Mekas meant when he called the New American Cinema movement, a living cinema. In that little basement screening no one talked about not enough funding for their project. I heard nothing about problems people were having trying to secure a producer, so they could make their film. There seemed to be no yearning for the most up-to-date digital tools. This kind of film and video is more akin to the Canadian artist, Joyce Weiland, who made films on her kitchen table. In her work the stuff of everyday life surfaced.

Before sleep I remember the words of a former teacher of mine, Rick Hancox. If the Romans made films, would we be most interested in seeing their feature films, or their home movies and personal films?

A bunch of nervous students, and a couple of nervous instructors find themselves in the same room, 9am at UIAH,  on the first day of the workshop. Sami decides to put on the comical film …Mongoloid by American Avant Garde (comedian) filmmaker George Kuchar…and the ice is broken…..we come together  in laughter. Many more films are screened. There is no shortage of questions and opinions regarding the work, once again dispelling the myth that the Finns do not talk (as I was told during my first workshops at ETL in 1989 -92…I can’t imagine  Anu, Kiti, Petri, Arto, Sami, Heiki, Vesa not speaking!!!). Starting tomorrow the participants will bring in projects they are working on. Ones which they have had problems with. We will look at them together.

The projects screen one by one. People explain what they are trying to do. These projects are as deep and dark and as strongly felt, as anything I’ve seen, as anything in life. The most obvious problem surfaces time and time again. The form often does not fit the subject. Participants are forcing the passions of their life into conventional forms, handed down byHollywood…handed down by funding agencies…handed down by film schools. I understand this problem so well as I have been teaching within filmmaking institutions for years. So often, the curriculum cannot keep up with all of the needs of the students, of the industry, of the art form. At York University where I have been teaching for four years we finally decided to make a change to allow the possibility of developing innovative forms, yet maintaining the needs that students and the industry has to develop conventional narrative. In year three and four, students choose one of the following as a major: Fiction Project Workshop, Doc Project Workshop or Alternative Project Workshop.  Alternative covers everything from innovative non-linear fiction to experimental projects to hybrids of Doc, Narrative and Experimental. When the decision to change the curriculum from one that favoured fiction filmmaking to one that allowed the possibilities of three genres, one of the Professors suggested that every year we would have trouble filling the alternative class. This past autumn, we discovered that this class was the most sought after, and the only one in which students were turned down due to over enrollment.

Days are filled with screenings, talking about films…getting to know the group, what they most would like to realise…the fears we all have about making work that pushes boundaries…how much? Is it enough? Too much for an audience, and not enough for the filmmaker is the usual answer from experimentalists.

The nights are filled with meeting old friends… Seppo takes me for a ride in his new ambulance…finally he has room for all his film projectors, cameras, films and videos. He tells me about a plan to use the speaker system for a poetry/film performance…he’s already got the projector rigged through the back window, and powered up. It’s good to hear what people are up to in work and life… Denise… Mikko…gathering their new projects to show at our Fabulous Festival of Fringe Film in Canada, where we screen films in rural Ontario during the month of August  in galleries, town halls, against old barn walls, under the stars, and the grand finale at the Drive-In. I want to show Ilppo’s Routemaster there this summer …last year I ran his Plain Truth to the applause of horns honking exuberantly by  the end. Sami’s Twone would look good, sprinkled throughout the program… it would be magnificent to have some Finnish visiting filmmakers. ..let’s keep the exchange going! As well, as it will be the 10th Anniversary of my Film Farm Workshop, a 35mm hand-processed group film will screen under the stars at the drive-in.

By the last day of the workshop it appears everyone has come some distance….Sami and I  never really know how these kinds of creative workshops affect filmmaker’s work, but I like to think that they give participants confidence to go a bit further then they have already. I know it has worked that way for me. Workshops with Jean Pierre Lefebvre, theQuebequois narrative director, helped me understand that pushing narrative boundaries is as important and exciting as pushing boundaries in documentary and alternative film. During our mandatory pool game at the local  hall, I realised the worth of these visits, how they have fueled my own filmmaking  (the thankyous to Finns on the end credits of  my latest film What these ashes wanted, is as long as your arm, and proves that). And  the thankyous are mutual as the talks continue that night in the pool hall with Anu, Ilppo, Kiti, Toni,Juha, Sami, Passi…and much, much later an ecstatic Petri rolls in, plays  me a few games, we’re the last ones left, and we talk about the first workshops in `89, the old times are always the good times …what is everyone doing.? Where’s Arto, Heikki, Monday is she still shooting? We talk it out to the cold Helsinki streets, and down to the railway station…

Originally published in AVEK (Magazine for Audio-Visual Culture), Finland, Feb. 16. 2004

Women, Nature and Chemistry: Hand-Processed Films from The Independent Imaging Workshop

by Janine Marchessault

The representation of nature has been a central and longstanding aesthetic preoccupation in Canadian art and iconography. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in a series of films that have emerged from Philip Hoffman’s Hand Processing Film workshop located on a forty acre farm in Southern Ontario. Since 1994, the films coming out of this summer retreat have been remarkable in terms of the consistency of their themes and innovative aesthetic approaches. One finds here a new generation of women experimental filmmakers exploring the boundaries between identity, film, chemistry and nature.

The creative context for these films is no doubt shaped by the experimental films and critical concerns of Hoffman and his late partner Marian McMahon. Since the late eighties, both Hoffman and McMahon were interested in autobiography, film (as) memory and pedagogy. Hoffman, weary of overseeing large classes and high end technologies at film school, conceived of a different pedagogical model for teaching film production. Instead of the urban, male dominated and technology heavy atmosphere, The Independent Imaging Workshop would be geared towards women and would feature hand-processing techniques in a low-tech nature setting.. The process encouraged filmmakers to explore the environment through film, and to explore film through different chemical processes. The result is a number of beautiful short films that are highly personal, deeply phenomenological and often surreal. Dandelions(Dawn Wilkinson, 1995), Swell (Carolynne Hew, 1998), Froglight (Sarah Abbott, 1997), Fall and Scratch  (Deirdre Logue, 1998), Across (Cara Morton, 1997) and We are Going Home, (Jenn Reeves, 1998) are among the most striking, recalling some of Joyce Wieland’s most artisinal works and the psychic intensity of Maya Deren’s ‘trance’ films.

By artisinal I do not mean the aesthetic effect of ‘homemade’ movies produced by the uneven coloration of hand processing and tinting techniques. I am referring to the process of making  films that is embedded in the final effect; that is, the work of film. Joyce Wieland’s work was often characterized as artisinal, a term that in the sixties and seventies was the opposite of great art. Famously, she made films on her kitchen table, bringing a history of women’s work to bear on her productions. In a video document of The Independent Imaging Workshop, three women sit at a kitchen table in a barn discussing the varying and unpredictable results of processing recipes: the thickness of the emulsion, the strength of the solutions, the degree of agitation, not to mention air temperature and humidity. Out of the lab and into the kitchen (or barn), film production moves into the realm of the artisan and the amateur which, as Roland Barthes once observed, is the realm of love. This is the home of the experimental in its originary meaning, of finding what is not being sought, of being open to living processes and to chance.

Like Wieland, this new generation of filmmakers is exploring the relationship between bodies, the materiality of film stocks and the artifacts of the world around them. The simple images of nature (daisies, fields, frogs, trees, rivers, clouds and so on) and rural architectures (bridges, barns, roads, etc.) are exquisite in their different cinematic manifestations.  This is not idealized or essentialist nature, rather the landscapes are grounded in an experience of place. In Dawn Wilkinson’sDandelions for example, the filmmaker speaks of her relation to her birthplace and to home, “I am Canadian.” As the only black child growing up in a rural town in Ontario, she was frequently asked “where are you from?”. As she tells us about her experiences of being connected to nature while not being included in the history of a nation, we see her with dandelions in her hair; she films her various African keepsakes in the landscape; we follow her bare feet on a road and later, she does cartwheels across fields. The montage of images is delicately rhythmic, and is accompanied by a monologue directed at an imaginary audience “Where are YOU from?…I was born here.” Like so many of the films produced at the workshop, the film explores the relation between the natural landscape and social identity.

Several of the films display quite literally a desire to inscribe personal identity and history onto or, in the case of Carolynne Hew’s Swell, into the landscape. In Swell, Hew, lying on a pile of rocks, begins to place the stones over her body. The film is structured by a movement from the city into the country, but the simple opposition is undone by both the filmmaker’s body and film processes. The quick montage of black and white city images (Chinatown, bodies moving on the street, smoke, cars), accompanied on the soundtrack by a cement drill, is replaced by feet on rocks, strips of film blowing in the wind and beautifully tinted shots of yarrow blooms. There is no attempt here at a pristine nature, at representing a nature untouched by culture. Rather, the film is about the artist’s love of nature, her sensual desire to be in nature. Shots of her face over the city are replaced with images of nature over her body; yarrow casts detailed shadows on her thigh, a symphony of colors abound–orange, blue and fusia. Strands of film hang on a line and Hew plays them with her scissors as one would a musical instrument. The sounds of nature–crickets, bees, water–are strongly grounded in the sound of her own body, breathing and finally a heartbeat. There are no words in this film but everything is mediated through language and through the density of the filmmaker’s perception and imagination. The film is laid to rest on a beautiful rock as she scratches the emulsion with scissors, the relation between film and nature is dialectical. Nature here is both imagined (hand processed) and experienced. It is impossible to separate the two.

Deirdre Logue’s two short and deceptively simple films, Fall (1998) and Scratch (1998) also convey the filmmaker’s physical insertion into nature only this time the experience is not sensual release, rather it is a sadomasochistic and painful journey. In Fall, Logue falls (faints?) over and over again from different angles and in different natural locations to become one, in a humorous and bruised way, with the land. InScratch she is more explicit about the nature of her images as we read “My path is deliberately difficult”. Facing the camera, she puts thistles down her underpants, and pulls them out again. The sounds of breaking glass as well as the crackle of film splices are almost the only sounds heard in this mostly silent film. Intercut are found footage images from an instructional film, we see a bed being automatically made and unmade, glass breaking and plates smashed. This film is sharp and painful. Logue, beautifully butch in her appearance, is anything but ‘natural’; it is clear that the nature she is self-inflicting is the nature of sex. Her body is treated like a piece of emulsion–processed, manipulated, scratched, cut to fit. What is left ambiguous is whether the source of self-inflicted pain results from going against a socially prescribed nature or embracing a socially deviant one.

Sarah Abbott’s Froglight (1997) is even more ambiguous than either Swell or Scratch in terms of the nature of nature. The film opens with the artist’s voice over black leader, “I am walking down the road with my camera but I can’t see ,anything.” A tree comes into focus as she tells us “but I know I am walking ,straight towards something, we always are.” For Abbott there is ,something that exceeds the image, that exceeds her thinking about nature. She experiences a moment standing in a field, a moment that cannot be reduced to an image ,or words; ,she “experiences something that is not taught”, she does not want to ,doubt this experience because “life would be  smaller.” Abbott touches the earth, we hear the sound of her footsteps, we see a road, we hear frogs, and later we come upon a frog at night. In the narration which is accompanied by the sound of frogs, Abbott attempts to put into words the idea of an experience that is beyond language, the idea that the world is much more than film, than the artist’s own imaginings. Like the soundtrack, the film’s black and white images are sparse. A magnifying glass over grass makes the grass less clear and is the film’s central phenomenological drive: surfaces reveal nothing of what lies beneath. Towards the end of the film, a long held shot of wild flowers blowing in the wind is accompanied by Abbott’s voice-over: “a woman gave me a sunflower before I came to make this film, and someone asked if it was my husband as I held it in my arm.” The ambiguity of this statement foregrounds the randomness of signs (flower, husband) and language. Froglight affirms a nature that is mysterious and unknowable, a world of spiritual depth and creative possibility.

What first struck me about so many of the films coming out of the workshop is the tension between the female self/body and nature; each film is in some way an exploration of the filmmaker’s relation to the land as place  by cartwheeling, walking or falling on it, and in the last two films that I want to comment on, swimming and dreaming through it. Women’s bodies in Jenn Reeves We are Going Home and Cara Morton’s Across are not only placed in nature but in time. Temporality exists on two planes in all of the hand-processed films I have been discussing, not only in terms of the images of a nature that is always changing but also, in terms of film stocks and chemicals that continue to work on the film through time. Where workprints serve to protect the original negative from the processes of post-production, the films produced at the workshop use reversal stock and thus include the physical traces of processing and editing, an intense tactility that will comprise the final print of the film. This is what gives these films their temporal materiality and sensuality. In We are Going Home and Across this temporality is narrativized and it is perhaps fitting that both films experiment more extensively with advanced film techniques such as time-lapse cinematography, solarization, single-frame pixelation, split toning and tinting, superimpositions, optical printing and so on. Here is where these two filmmakers would part company with Wieland whose cinematic sensibility is, in the first instance, shaped by a non-narrative tradition. Both films are steeped in a narrativity that can be more easily situated in relation to the psychodramas of another founding mother of the avant-garde, Maya Deren.

In the films of Deren, nature and the search for self are always an erotic and deeply psychological enterprise. Dreams allow passage to a human nature and a mysterious self that cannot be accessed through conscious states. Her films have been characterized as ‘trance’ films for the way they foster this movement into the deepest recesses of the self, a movement that is less about social transgression as it was for the Surrealists, than about the journey through desire. We Are Going Home is a gorgeous surrealistic film that has all of the characteristics of the trance film and more. It is structured around a dream sequence that has no real beginning or end. The first image we see is of a vending machine dispensing ‘Live Bait’ in the form of a film canister.. A woman opens the canister to find fish roe (eggs). The equation of fish roe and film, no doubt a nod to the Surrealists, opens up those ontological quandaries around mediation and truth that Froglight refers us to. It is this promise of direct contact along with the return “Home” in the film’s title, that gives some sign that the highly processed landscapes belong to the unconscious.

The film is structured around a network of desire between three women. One woman dives into a lake and ends up feet first in the sand. Another woman happens by and sucks her toes erotically at which point everything turns upside-down and backwards. Characters move through natural spaces (the beach, fields, water) disconnected from the physical landscapes and from each other. Superimposed figures over the ground move like ghosts, affecting and affected by nothing. Storm clouds, trees in the wind, a thistle, cows are all processed and pixilated to look supernatural. Toe sucking complete, the second woman lies down under an apple tree and falls asleep, the wind gently blows her shirt open. A third woman, a dream figure, emerges from a barn; skipping through fields she happens upon the sleeping figure and cannot resist the exposed breast, she bends over and sucks the nipple. The film ends with a sunset and romantic accordion music that is eerily off key.

We Are Going Home is an erotic film whose sensuality derives both from the sublime image processing and from the disunity between all the elements in the film: the landscapes, the colors, the people. The sounds of birds cackling, water and wind that make up the soundtrack further intensify the film’s discordance. It is precisely this disunity that charges the sexual encounters which are themselves premised on an objectification. Home remains a mysterious place that exceeds logic and rationality; it is a puzzle whose pieces are connected in a seemingly linear manner but which will always remain mysterious.

In contrast, the psychic space in Morton’s Across is shaped through unity rather than disunity, the film is about crossing a bridge. The central tension in this lovely film, which accomplishes so much in a little over two minutes, is built upon a desire to connect with an image from the filmmaker’s past. The metaphoric journey forward to see the past is conveyed through a hand-held camera travelling at a great speed across a dirt road, through fields, along fences and through woods. Different color stocks combine with high contrast black and white images of the bridge while on the soundtrack we hear a river. As we travel with the filmmaker through these landscapes, we encounter a high angle solarized image of a woman sleeping in a field, a negative image of a woman swimming in the river below the bridge, a static shot of Morton staring into the camera, and home-movie images of Morton as a young girl running toward the camera. An intensity and anticipation is created in the movement and in the juxtaposition of the different elements. These are quietly resolved at the end of the film: the young girl smiles into the camera to mirror the close-up of Morton’s inquisitive gaze, the swimmer completes her stroke, stands up, brushes the water from her eyes and seems to take a deep breath.

The workshop films that I have written about reveal a renewal of avant-garde concerns and experimental techniques–they are unabashedly beautiful and filled with a frenetic immediacy. To some degree their aesthetic approach grows directly out of the workshop structure: location shooting and hand-processing. Participants (which now include equal numbers of men) are invited to shoot surrounding locations and to collect images randomly rather than to preconceive them through scripting. The aim of the workshop is not to leave with a finished product but rather to experiment with shooting immediate surroundings using a Bolex and with hand-processing techniques. Many of the films produced at the workshop are never completed as final works but stand as film experiments—the equivalent of a sketchbook. This is the workshop’s most important contribution to keeping film culture alive in Canada. The emphasis on process over product, on the artisinal over professional, on the small and the personal over the big and universal which has been so beneficial for a new generation of women filmmakers, also poses a resistance to an instrumental culture which bestows love, fame and fortune on the makers of big feature narratives.

Originally published in Lux: A Decade of Artists Film and Video, 2000

 

 

 

 

 

 

Films and Fairy Dust

by Cara Morton

It started with this dream: I am surrounded by lowing cattle. The moon is preg­nant, promising, full. The air is sweet and warm and I am on my back, floating in the grass, while Maya Deren pulls a tiny key from her mouth again and again, while Maya Deren pulls a tiny key from her mouth again and again, while Maya Deren … Kazaam! Hang on a second … this isn’t a dream at all. This is real. I am on a filmmaking retreat taught by Phil Hoffman on his enchanted property just outside Mount Forest, two blessed hours from Toronto.

I’m fully awake and it’s the end of the first day. Nine of us, eight women and one guy (“the guy on the girl’s trip”) have just spent an amazing day playing with the camera. For some it was a time for rediscovery; for others, it was that first glo­rious encounter between magician and medium, otherwise known as the Bolex. Now it’s around midnight, and we are lolling in the grass like the cattle in the field next to us, (chewing our cuds and watching Meshes of the Afternoon flicker off the outdoor cinema (the side of the barn). For me, this is film at its best: fields, forest, cattle, countryside and total immersion in the process of creation.

I went on the workshop in the first place because I hate film. I mean some­times I have to wonder, what has gotten into me? Why am 1 putting myself through this agony? I’ve spent most of my grant money. I’m in the midst of editing and I find myself asking, what is this damn film about anyway? Why am 1 making it? What am I trying to say? At this point those of you who run screaming from process-oriented work can laugh at me. I don’t plan much (what do you mean, storyboard?). I like letting things happen, letting that creative, unconscious self reign. But sooner or later that insightful (not to mention delightful) self turns on me and I’m left stranded in a dark editing suite with the corpse of my film and that evil monster self who thinks analytically, worries about money and who just doesn’t get it! So, ’round about May, that’s where I found myself. But then, the cosmic wheel turned and I went on the workshop, hoping to exorcise this critical, anti-process, monster side of myself. And it actually worked. I opened up to my instincts, started trusting myself again. (So what if this sounds like a new-age self-­help tirade. Just go with it …)

`We Are Going Home’ by Jennifer Reeves (Film Farm Retreat 1997)
`We Are Going Home’ by Jennifer Reeves (Film Farm Retreat 1997)

 

One of the first censors to go was the money-obsessed self-the self that abruptly grabs the camera away when you’re trying to have fun. Now, in the main­stream film world, this may sound subversive, or certainly weird, but if you can shoot without analyzing every detail, without worrying about money, money, money … Imagine! You can experiment! You can try things, be free with the stock! How? Cheap film! At Phil’s we were shooting the incredible Kodak 7378, at 12 bucks/100 feet. It’s cheap because it isn’t actually picture stock, but optical print stock. It’s black and white and has a varying ASA somewhere between twelve and thirty depending on how you process it. And it’s gorgeous: very high contrast with a fabulous dense grain.’

OK, so we can shoot cheap! But there’s more! Remember Polaroids? At the workshop it became clear to me that I had been missing that sense of wonder about film-that sense of playing an important role in a magical process. Thanks to Phil’s workshop I got that feeling back. How? Hand processing. It’s better than Polaroids because you can control the process of development. You can develop your film as negative or reversal, you can solarize (a personal fave), you can underdevelop, overdevelop-anything you want-in minutes. Imagine, you wander around the countryside shooting to your heart’s (and wallet’s) content and then run back to the barn, where the darkroom’s set up, and process your film. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when you hang your film out to dry. It’s a mixture of wonder, accomplishment and connection to the medium. And all this for less than one quarter of what you usually pay.

At this point, you can tint or tone your film with other colours to get some far-out. moody effects. Most of us favoured the potassium permanganate, which eats away at the film emulsion.

 

 

The Film Farm Barn, Mount Forest
The Film Farm Barn, Mount Forest

  

Across by Cara Morton (Film Farm Retreat 1996)
Across by Cara Morton (Film Farm Retreat 1996)

    

This brings us to scratching. lmagine not only not worrying about scratches, but trying to make them! Nothing, I mean nothing, beats stomping on your film, rubbing it against trees, rolling around with it in the grass or even chewing on it like bubblegum (OK, no one actually tried that, but it would be fun, no?).

These experiences totally changed my relationship to film as a medium. I became equal to it; no, I became the master of it. No more God-like can of film handled with white kid gloves: I shot it and I can fuck with it, and if I don’t like it, well, I can re-shoot for the price of a new pack of crayons. Film can be a truly plastic medium.

Believe it or not, the mythical last day arrives. We have our final screening (most of us have actually finished a short piece) and then a discussion. Later that evening, as we are striking camp, the sun is miraculous, huge and orange, setting over the marsh. It’s so beautiful that we stare, but after five days of total immer­sion in beauty, we are saturated by it. It’s too much, all we can do is ridicule how goddamn perfect it all is.

On the way home I realize I’ve achieved more than I imagined possible. I’ve found the magic in film again. My next dream goes like this. I’m in Toronto, in a basement, surrounded by streaming ribbons of film I’ve shot and processed myself’. I start chewing on it. I chew and chew until my film turns into a tiny perfect key, until my film turns into a tiny perfect key, and I pull it from my mouth …

This article was first printed in the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers (LIFT) Newsletter. Summer 1996. 

From Landscape with Shipwreck (Toronto: Insomniac Press/Images Festival, 2001)

 

The Independent Imaging Retreat

by Chris Gehman

(Curated by Chris Gehman • Hanover Civic Centre, 341 10th Street, Hanover • Saturday, Sept. 20, 2003, 8:00 pm)

The Independent Imaging Retreat, now in its tenth year, was founded by Canadian filmmakers Philip Hoffman and Marian McMahon to encourage a direct, hands-on approach to filmmaking that is far removed from the costly, hierarchical and inaccessible industrial model, with its intensive division of labour into many specialized craft areas. Each summer it brings to Mount Forest, Ontario, a small group of interested filmmakers – some novices and some highly experienced – for an intensive week of shooting, processing, watching and editing, most of the action taking place in and around an old barn on Hoffman’s property.

The retreat is part of a little-recognized international movement towards what might be called an artisanal mode of filmmaking – one in which the artist works directly on every stage of a film, from shooting and editing to the processing and printing of the film stock itself. In the past, even the most solitary of avant-garde filmmakers have usually turned the processing, printing, and negative cutting of their films over to professional film laboratories whose primary products are commercial films, advertisements, television programs, etc. A new generation of filmmakers has emerged, willing to forego the predictability and standardization of industrial processes in favour of direct control of their materials, motivated by a combination of necessity and curiosity.

Economically, the existence of adventurous independent films has been dependent upon the existence of a larger commercial industry that creates a demand for products and services, and therefore keeps prices relatively low. As the commercial film industry, particularly its low-budget ranks, have shifted production away from 16mm film to digital media, the availability of 16mm film stocks and services such as processing and printing has declined, and will certainly continue to decline further.

There are several possible responses available to filmmakers who have been dependent upon this economy: follow the shifts in the larger industry and switch to video and digital media; transfer production to 35mm, with its higher attendant costs; or take control of those stages of the filmmaking process which are disappearing at the business level. (Of course, many artists will practice some combination of these basic strategies.) The Independent Imaging Retreat has played a crucial part in North America in developing and disseminating the basic skills and knowledge necessary for artists to begin taking control of those crucial elements of the filmmaking process that are becoming harder to find from commercial sources.

It would be a mistake, however, to look at the movement towards artisanal filmmaking as solely an economic response to outside factors. As is so often the case in art, internal aesthetic ideas and pressures produced effects that precede their putative economic causes: The movement was burgeoning well before the practical effects of the shifts in the commercial industry had begun to make themselves felt by independent filmmakers. The examples of individual filmmakers have been crucial in motivating new generations to take matters into their own hands: Internationally renowned artists such as Len Lye and Stan Brakhage offered inspiration in their lifelong commitments to individual, artisanal film practices. And in Canada, across a period from the mid-60s through the present, filmmakers such as Joyce Wieland, Al Razutis, Carl Brown, Gary Popovich, Barbara Sternberg, Philip Hoffman and Steven Woloshen have experimented in different ways with unconventional approaches to the film surface and image through processing, colour toning, optical printing, scratching and painting, etc.

What these filmmakers tend to share is a desire to complicate the reception of the image: In contrast to the ordinary commercial practice of creating seamless, transparent representations – illusions – through which stories are told, many independent filmmakers are committed to a more complex kind of image-making in which the projected image may be both representation and object simultaneously, or may reject representation altogether (as is the case in many of Stan Brakhage’s and Len Lye’s films). The filmmaker builds images, ideas, stories, atmospheres, while at the same time keeping the method of construction of the film, and the images which make it up, present in the viewer’sconsciousness. In this context, the nicks, scratches and inconsistencies in development which result when a roll of film is processed “spaghetti-style” in a plastic bucket are not seen as a problem – as they certainly would in making a commercial movie! – but become part of the film’s style and method.

Artists mining this cinematic vein tend also to embrace a process-oriented mode of production, in which the film’s form and subject are discovered in the course of the making, rather than following a preconceived script or plan – an art of discovery, then, not only of management and execution. This is what allows these artists to dispense with thepredictability of laboratory results, knowing that footage they hoped would be particularly good might not turn out as expected in the processing. It is a practice which embraces genuine experimentation and the discovery of a personal method of production.

Over the past ten years, more than 125 artists have attended the Independent Imaging Retreat. Its effect has been to share techniques and skills, but more importantly to encourage an approach to filmmaking which is as far removed as can be imagined from the conventional cinema whose products are so relentlessly promoted. A poetic, individual, exploratory filmmaking in which the artist is involved at every stage of the process. Perhaps for this reason, the Retreat has proved hospitable to people whose view of the world is poorly represented in the commercial media: women (there have been several weeks offered to women only), gay and lesbian people, people of colour and people from regions outside the recognized “cultural centres” of Canada and the US. This program provides a small sampling of the many films which have been made through, or under the immediate influence of, the Independent Imaging Retreat. Because the participants share basic materials and techniques during the week they are working together, there are often similarities in the surface appearances of the works; but each artist has gone on to apply these techniques and skills in a different way.

Chris Gehman is an independent filmmaker, film and video programmer and critic. He is currently the Artistic Director of the Images Festival in Toronto (www.imagesfestival.com).

 

PHIL’S FILM FARM
John Porter, Canada • 16mm b&w 10 min. 2002
Canada’s most prolific filmmaker, John Porter has made more than 300 short films, mostly in Super-8. He has also been documenting Toronto’s independent film scene in still photographs for about thirty years. This film brings these two practices together, creating a poetic document of the 2002 Retreat in which the filmmakers and the setting are laminated in gorgeous black-and-white in-camera multiple exposures. (The film may be shown either silent or with sound, depending upon the circumstances.)

MINUS
Chris Chong, Canada • 16mm b&w 3 min. 1999
Minus is a hand-processed, unedited stream of movements. After subtracting most of what took place before the camera, what isleft is remnants of light and rhythm, traces of a body in motion. This was Chong’s first 16mm film, and demonstrates the kinds of rich results that can be obtained from simple, highly restricted means and techniques.

HARDWOOD PROCESS
David Gatten, USA • 16mm colour silent 14 min. 1997
“A history of scarred surfaces, an inquiry, and an imagining: For the marks we see and the marks we make, for the languages we can read and for those we are trying to learn.Reproduced by hand on an old contact printer resulting in individual, unique release prints.” (David Gatten)

DANDELIONS
Dawn Wilkinson, Canada • 16mm b&w 9 min. 1997
“Lyrical and full of mirth, this filmmaker wonders out loud in her first film: How do I make myself at home in a landscape made foreign to me? Wilkinson looks at her self – black – and ponders in the white landscape called Canada how can she ‘enjoy the flowers’ as she cartwheels with great panache through fields of them. What kind of relationship to the land can she have in a place where she sees herself but where others constantly ask: Where are you from? Wilkinson’s existence vis-a-vis the land seems to lie somewhere in between the extreme long shots and the close ups that make up the film, giving at once the feelings of intimacy and estrangement.” (Marian McMahon)

SWELL
Carolynne Hew, Canada • 16mm b&w/colour 5 min. 1998
Carolynne Hew’s Swell extends the techniques used at the Retreat by reworking her film footage in the digital realm. The result is a layered, oceanic embodiment of physical energy and desire.

THE SHAPE OF THE GAZE
Ma’ia Cybelle Carpenter, USA 16mm colour 7 min. 2000
Chicago-based filmmaker Ma’ia Carpenter acknowledges the pioneering lesbian filmmaker Barbara Hammer as a great inspiration. The Shape of the Gaze is a sort of manifesto of radical queer filmmaking in which Carpenter implicates the viewer in the exchange of looks between the filmmaker and her “butch” subjects, disrupting the usual filmmaker­subject-viewer triad through interventions in colour and film surface.

PASSING THROUGH
Karyn Sandlos, Canada • video 12 min. 1998
Since participating in the Retreat in 1998, Sandlos has been one of its main organizers most years, and has also co-edited a book, Landscape With Shipwreck, about the films of Philip Hoffman. Passing Through develops a more explicit narrative line than most of these films, creating a lovely journal of a short stay in a small, Ontario town during which nothing seems to fit properly.

GLINT
Eve Heller, USA • 16mm b&w silent 5 min. 2003
Shot in the Saugeen River using a special underwater housing, Glint is a film-poem of the utmost subtlety and finesse, in which images emerge from black only to vanish again…

Related programming: Be sure to see Deirdre Logue’s installation Enlightened Nonsense: 10 Short Performance Films About Repetition and Repetition, a film series shot over the course of several years at the Independent Imaging Retreat. This work is installed at the Durham Art Gallery from Aug. 21 to Sept. 28. Address: 251 George St., DurhamTelephone: 519.369.3692 • Web: www.durhamart.on.ca

Hours: Tuesday-Friday, 12-5; Saturday-Sunday, 1-4

 

PHILIP HOFFMAN: Canadian Independent Filmmaker Comes to Perth For Solo Screening!

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Toronto based filmmaker Philip Hoffman has been making independent films for twenty years and his celebrated works have been seen by festival audiences around the world. Philip is coming to Australia to screen his latest work at the Sydney Film Festival in June and on the way he is stopping off in Perth to present a selection of his short films at the Film and Television Institute.

The films of Philip Hoffman cannot be situated within any specific genre of film making, instead we see a remarkable shift between styles that incorporate the home movie, the idiosyncratic documentary, and the formalist exploration of the permutations of sound and image. Hoffman’s cinema is an intensely subjective one, often employing an emotional voice-over to colour the residual traces of the lost and found seen in faded family snapshots, grainy archival 16mm and standard 8 memories. Other works share a lyrical thread in the mode of Stan Brakhage with their graphic and rhythmic effects that engage a viewers perception in a complex dialectical relationship between the techniques of cinema and the physiology and psychology of vision. The poetic intention running through many of Hoffman’s images, from the shadowy black and white portrait of a dying grandmother in passing through / torn formations to the ephemeral floating rhythm of a fragmentedcityscape in Chimera can be understood in part as a desire to reconstitute impressions of memory – (the filmmaker enters) “the work of making ghosts of the past for the future.” (SamLandels)

Denoting the family as source and stage of inspiration, Hoffman’s gracious archaeology is haunted by death, the absent centre in much of his diary practice a meditation on mortality and its representation. His restless navigation’s are invariably followed by months of tortuous editing as history is strained through its own image, recalling Derrida’s dictum thateverything begins with reproduction. Hoffman’s delicately enacted shaping of his own past is at once poetry, pastiche, and proclamation, a resounding affirmation of all that is well with independent cinema today. (Mike Hoolboom, Inside the Pleasure Dome: Fringe Film In Canada, 1997).

Program: riverpassing through/torn formationsKitchener-BerlinChimera

Special Matinee Screening attended by film maker Phillip Hoffman on Sunday May 31st, 1998, 5.30 pm at the Film and Television Institute, 92 Adelaide St. Fremantle.

Tickets $7 full or $5 conc/members. Please note change of date!

For all enquiries please contact Sam Landels on 9328 2808 or the FTI on 9335 1055.

This event is proudly sponsored by Imago Multimedia Centre and The Film and Television Institute.