Passing through

by Gary Popovich

It is from the Canadian tradition of intuitive gathering of sounds and images (partially indebted to the documentary and realist traditions)—their tireless re-working, and, ultimately, sublimation into an aesthetic experience—that Canada’s boldest works of film art have come. It is a process that is distinctly different from scripted, pre-conceived image structuring methods. One abandons literature and theatre and uses the microphone and camera to define the shape of experience. This legacy of Canadian cinema is situated between a European (most conspicuously, but by no means exclusively British and French) and American sensibility—the area ‘in-between’ the American technological imperative and a lament for what that suppresses. This is what Arthur Kroker calls the Canadian discourse on technology:

… it is our fate by virtue of historical circumstance and geographical accident to be forever marginal to the ‘present-mindedness’ of American culture (a society which, specializing as it does in the public ethic of ‘instrumental activism,’ does not enjoy the recriminations of historical remembrance); and to be incapable of being more than ambivalent on the cultural legacy of our European past. At work in the Canadian mind is, in fact, a great and dynamic polarity between technology and culture, between economy and landscape.

— Arthur Kroker, Technology and the Canadian Mind

It is in our films, predominantly from a group of filmmakers who are becoming known notoriously as the Escarpment School, that this discourse has been evolving its most fascinating and forceful arguments. I can think of few more powerful reflections on this discourse than Philip Hoffman’s seventh film passing through/torn formations. In it, he synthesizes a quasi-romantic European journey, home movie-like segments, enigmatic family stories, poetic narration, and some of the most beautiful and harrowing images he has recorded to date. Through a fragmentary landscape of familial ties that criss-cross the continent of memory, Hoffman orders the generation and re-generation of images passed down, passed through, a life’s becoming. And it is in the study of his own cultural legacy that this obsessive weaver of tales exposes the dark heirs which loom in camera.

passing through opens in darkness, while poet Christopher Dewdney recites a child’s archeology. A young boy, oblivious to the others playing around him, becomes enraptured by the image of a rock whose layers come apart easily, freeing moths that “flutter up like pieces of ash caught in a dust devil.” This transformation of darkness into the light of reflection, from darkness to speaking the image, from word to the mind-image evoked in a word, creates a spell where history is released, admitted, and set free. It is in this equivalence between layers of stone and human generation that passing through discovers its own logic of layering.

The image is formed of the words which dream it.

— Edmond Jabes

The next six minutes of the film comprises a silent colour sequence (one of only three in this otherwise black and white film) where the camera hesitates, draws, and re-draws a scene, in search of some way to record the filmmaker’s institutionalized grandmother (Babji) as she is being fed by her own daughter. Moving from mother to grandmother, Hoffman draws a painful trajectory before inserting an intertitle “To Babji” cut on the look of his grandmother to reaffirm, to us, that here the rock, the family, and the film are what holds and cares for generations before they too flutter up like ashes. This release is also about letting go—dying.

What these ashes wanted, I felt sure, was not containment but participation. Not an enclosure of memory, but the world.

— Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty

It is in these first two disjunctions, sound without image, then image without sound, that the film exposes the goals it sets for itself. It strives to return a fragmented history to a present-day unity and wholeness.

Hoffman travels to the old country, bringing with him tapes and photos of his family here in Canada; there he collects sounds and images of his Czech relatives that he brings back to Canada. Hoffman’s family has been severed, with one half remaining in the old world, and the other coming to Canada in an effort to escape Nazi persecution during WWII.


How often will I die, yet go on living?

this sequence unearths a host of images as if inspired to generate its own reproductive force. Representation becomes resurrection. Over her face, in a return to colour, we advance with the camera over lilting waters towards the face of a rock wall where we detect the outlines of Indian petroglyphs etched into this stone. As we draw near, the surface of the film itself emits scratches of colour which break into further superimpositions which appear to emerge from the stone. We see cascading layers of home-movie images, the filmmaker perhaps, his siblings, other family members, Babji in her hospital bed, pouring out of the cut stone/film in an epiphany that magically joins the film’s many threads in the eyes of its beholders.

Longing on a large scale is what makes history.

White Noise, Don DeLillo

From the fissured video image of his mother translating messages sent from Czechoslovakia: “We hope that God will somehow make us get together again and we can talk some more.” And then we hear the family cheering, as if they have survived a mortal test of their being. Hoffman’s journey ends on a train ride through Czech landscapes. There he recounts the tale of his Czech uncle, killed by his own son over a land dispute.

Life is lived forward but understood backward.

— Kierkegaard

The camera sweeps slowly past large rock fences which fragment the countryside, predominantly blue in colour—recalling the rocks of the epiphany sequence, the institutional blues of Babji’s hospital room and Babji’scraggy blue-veined hands peacefully folded into her lap. The blue blood that surges through her body finds its mirrored image in the rock formations of her homeland, where her grandson now makes his pilgrimage. Here in this dream landscape to which he awakes he finds the final pieces of his project, a dreamer’s reverie which draws together dispersed generations, recalled again in an image of the land.

Am I the sleep walker who does not tramp along the routes of life but who descends, always descends in quest of immemorial resting places?

— Gaston Bachelard

While technology’s path has so often been a horizontal movement, a progression, where chronology, history and narrativity unfold as if in unbroken chains, here the intrusion of the poetic unlinks this endless procession of zeros, opening a view to the vertical, where being falls in a slow suspension out of time and into a configuration closer to the spirit of experience. Hoffman conjures another ‘I’ whose being rests in the peace of imaginative reconstruction. Using the power of film he generates his incantations, and plunges us into meditations on our own generative powers. To make and unmake the past. To pass through.