The films of Philip Hoffman have revived the travelogue, long the preserve of tourism officials anxious to convert geography into currency. Hoffman’s passages are too deeply felt, too troubled in their remembrance, and too radical in their rethinking of the Canadian documentary tradition to quicken the pulse of an audience given to starlight. He has moved from his first college-produced short, On the Pond — set between the filmmaker’s familial home and his newfound residence at college — to a trek across Canada (The Road Ended at the Beach); from Amsterdam, where he was invited to the set of Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts and made ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) to Mexico for his haiku-inspired short Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion; from passing through/torn formation’s pan-continental dialogue of madness and memory toKitchener-Berlin’s oceanic traversal; and finally, to river, a landscape meditation that leads inevitably home.
Denoting the family as source and stage of inspiration, Hoffman’s gracious archeology is haunted by death, the absent centre in much of his diary practice a meditation on mortality and its representation. His restless navigations are invariably followed by months of tortuous editing as history is strained through its own image, recalling Derrida’s dictum that everything 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.
MH: Any early experiences with pictures you can remember?
PH: The first one I can think of was my grandmother, who used to shoot from the hip, without looking through the viewfinder. These low angle shots always turned out and made us look as big as John Wayne. That was the perfect size when we were little. I didn’t think of it until years later when I realized I was shooting like that sometimes, using the body to find the picture. I had a box camera for years but didn’t get into photography until I met Richard Kerr. He was a couple of years older than me and was going out with my sister. We set up a darkroom in my basement and figured out how to work it ourselves. I was writing poetry, but never showed it to anyone. The photography was different. It was a language I could use to talk to people because I didn’t have words. I was shooting a lot of family stuff — moments of everyday life. I played hockey and tried the accordion unsuccessfully because there were always rules. I was made to play scales which gave me an ear for rhythm, but killed the play in it. Kitchener was a very business-oriented city; you had to look around to feed your interests. I managed to find small pockets where I could work, and those were private places, caves. That’s where I did the writing and the photography. I went into business in my first year of university which was just remote control — everyone in the Hoffman family went into business. But after one year, that was enough, and I took English literature and some film courses, still trying to decide what to do. To support myself I was working in a factory making boxes and figuring out all week what I’d do at the weekend farm house. I would go up with friends and get blasted and shoot these crazy skits on super-8. There’s a rift between what the poet desired and what I thought was desired of me: to be a good citizen of Kitchener-Waterloo. It’s just driven into you there.
MH: Were you expected to work at Hoffman’s Meats?
PH: My grandfather expected me to. I was Philip III, you know. [laughs] I was kind of the heir. My father always wanted to be something else, but he had to work in the factory. His father was one of those staunch Germans, so he never got a chance to do what he wanted. He was quite open to letting me go, giving me the chance he never had. When he was selling the business he asked if I wanted in, and I told him no. Then I decided to go to film school. I tried York and Queen’s, which dropped me because of my business marks. Then I called up the chairperson at Sheridan College, and I was so welcomed that it seemed like the place to go. Richard had been there a year already.
MH: That’s where you made On The Pond (9 min b/w 1978)?
PH: Yes. It was a personal documentary because it makes sense to begin with something you know. It wasn’t so different from the kinds of writing and photography I’d done up to that point, which dealt directly with people around me. On The Pond began with a slide show. I was fairly quiet in the family. I had three sisters who were a couple of years older than me — triplets. They garnered lots of attention. But this was my birthday, so I knew I had the full attention of the family. I miked the whole room and showed slides. I constructed another slide show for the film and cut the comments down from a couple of hours to a few minutes. The slides showed moments with the family. There’s one picture taken from behind my mother. My dad’s looking off in the distance as if he’s discovering some new world. We were out in the bush where we would go for walks. In the film you hear voices saying, “Oh do you remember when we went out on that walk?” And then to my mother, “Oh, that’s when you were feeling lousy.” Except it’s not “feeling lousy;” there’s an incredible amount of trauma which is being dismissed, and the photo shows the shadow of her sickness. You can hear the way her memory is being taken away, how her voice is being levelled. We were taking “good care” of her pain. And then someone says, “Oh look, there’s Phil and he’s smiling,” because I’m smiling in the corner of the picture. So, what’s taken up isn’t my mother’s problems, but the face I made for them. The smile has to do with pleasing her, hoping to make things better. So everything’s there in that photograph. It was shot from the hip, unposed, and it was exciting going through these photos for clues to a past I’d slept through. I think childhood is so traumatic we sleep through most of it.
MH: Was the whole film going to be photographs?
PH: No, I wanted to make a kind of docudrama. I got my cousin to play me as a little boy, getting up early, skating out on the ice, stickhandling with the dog. Then the social space enters in the soundtrack, breaking his solitude — you hear the coach yelling and other voices while the boy does push-ups alone on the ice.
MH: The film moves between these two arenas — between hockey and the family — as if you have to choose one or the other, or that hockey was a way to leave home.
PH: That’s what happened in my life — the year I made On The Pond I quit hockey. I was playing for the college team, and we had an exhibition game at Kent State where there was a big demonstration. The university was trying to build a gym on the ground where the students had been gunned down. There were cops on horseback trying to gas the demonstrators, and I grabbed a camera and filmed it. That was the point where I left hockey. It was becoming apparent that hockey players weren’t the people I wanted to spend time with. The competition was so draining. So I simply transferred the energy I was putting toward sports into filmmaking.
I finished On the Pond in a very heavy Marxist time, and some people were taking a lot of knocks for making films about their own experiences. “Personal” filmmaking was considered self-indulgent. But now things have come round again. Now you can’t just run out and point a camera at someone. Personal work wasn’t thought of as political back then, but to my mind it’s the most political.
MH: How did The Road Ended at the Beach (33 min 1983) start?
PH: Before I went to Sheridan I used to go on trips through Canada. I’d work the first part of the summer then travel for the last month and go back to school. In those days, in my late teens, I carried a super-8 camera with me just to shoot stuff, not thinking or knowing anything about making films. While I was at Sheridan, I continued travelling and collecting footage and called it Road Journals — it was an ongoing sketch pad. After school ended, I planned a trip with some cameras and sound gear, and this became the central trip the others would weave in and out of. Jim McMurray and I started in Ann Arbor because that’s where the van was, then drove north to Kitchener to pick up Richard Kerr. Then we headed east and visited Robert Frank in Cape Breton. And Danny, a friend who’d gone to school with us, wanted to make films, but got dragged down with his life in Nova Scotia. You see this idyllic setting with the dogs playing in the water and then he says, “Well I have to work in the fish plant — you have to do that if you want to live out here.” The trip was staged — we’d travelled together in the past — and we were trying to remake what we’d already done, to recapture that feeling. But that didn’t work at all. I’d known Richard for ten years, it would have been different if we’d gone five years earlier, because then we were in the maturity of our relation. The same with Jim. All that comes through in the film. This isn’t Highway 61 or Roadkill because the romance is gone. We’re travelling through a cold Canadian summer and not meeting any “girls.” [laughs] It’s a different kind of journey. By the late seventies the road film was dead. And these three guys can’t really talk with each other. We’re all waiting on an experience that isn’t coming and no one’s sure why. It has a lot to do with how men relate to each other, dealing with outer realities, getting the job done. Filmmaker Mark Rappapport said that it’s a record of the time — when Kerouac travelled, things were opening up, but by 1980 everyone was hunkering down for Reagan, everything was closing up. Everyone on this trip is alone and isolated: Frank’s retreated to Mabou, the guys on the road are caught in dead-end jobs, and nobody’s relating to each other in the van.
MH: Road Ended pictures a series of imagined homes to which the film attempts to return. Some of these homes are from past trips, or past times spent with folks in the van, and these are presented against a backdrop of fifties Beat writing, especially Kerouac’s On The Road.
PH: Well, that’s the myth right there — it’s confronted by drawing these different decades together in the editing. The Beats were the fathers I took on the trip, but their roads are closed now. I was attracted to the possibility of spirituality that Kerouac held out through his Zen practice, even though he died an alcoholic far from the lotus tree. But it was one of the first expressions of Eastern culture I’d encountered. It wasn’t the drugs or parties, but those simple moments of description of what’s there in front of him.
MH: Kerouac’s trying to live in the moment, to conjure the present through his writing, and finally to make life that moment.
PH: Kerouac was writing while he was on the move, but when you’re filming the camera gets in the way. Personal relations become performance when a camera is there. Have you ever seen that old Neil Cassady film when he’s on camera? It doesn’t work. The mythology isn’t there. The camera says, “I’m immortalizing you.” The present moment can’t be returned; the camera takes it apart. But you can go off alone with the camera and create energy — like the last scene where I’m dancing on the beach. That kind of thing expresses the Kerouac ideal of pure energy in movement. As far as Robert Frank goes, even though nobody was making photographs like him in the fifties, he was still taking the moment and stealing it from someone. I’ve always had trouble taking pictures of people I don’t know. He had a social reason — he was trying to show America’s spiritual bankruptcy. I was making a personal film. That’s why the photography in Road Ended is so careful, so unlike a road movie. There’s no barging into strange places and waving cameras around. That was done in cinéma vérité in the sixties, and I have problems with that.
MH: How did Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (6 min 1984) begin?
PH: There was a reunion of Beat poets in Boulder at “Jack Kerouac’s School of Disembodied Poets,” at least that’s what Ginsberg called it. I drove down with my sister and a friend. Robert Frank was there, and I wanted to ask him if I could use one of his photographs in Road Ended. But every time I tried to talk to him something would happen, some guy would walk up, “Are you really Robert Frank?” Finally, I bumped into him by accident, smashed right into him, and he was his normal humble self. He remembered our dog. So that was fine. I wanted to go to Boulder before going down to Mexico where I had this romantic notion of shooting very simple events — I had been reading haiku. The Bolex is a camera powered by a spring that you wind up and it runs for twenty-eight seconds. I wanted to use the length of its wind as my frame for these haiku shots. The Bolex was perfect because it’s light and doesn’t need batteries, and I’d worked with it so often I knew when the shot would end. I used its so-called limitation to my own advantage as a structuring principle. I went with ten minutes of film. I’d met Adriana Peña on one of my Road Ended trips and was going down to see her. She was taking me around, and I became involved with her family. It was a bit strange. She was showing her family the man she was maybe going to marry, and then I realized that this was perhaps not such a good idea. [laughs]
MH: Can you explain what a haiku is?
PH: Haiku is a three-line poem with a five-seven-five beat structure. It usually describes everyday events. The three images, or lines, go together to form a new expression — Eisenstein used haiku as an inspiration for his ideas about montage. So I shot things for twenty-eight seconds, each shot the same length, and in the midst of this shooting found myself on a bus between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion. The bus stopped, and a woman came screaming across a field. Her little boy had been run over. I watched from inside the bus with the camera in my hand, trying to decide whether to film or not. And that’s what the film becomes. When I got back to Toronto, I decided to try and make a film about that moment without the image.
MH: Why didn’t you film it?
PH: Gut reaction. I can intellectualize it now. I could say: I didn’t want the camera to get in the way of the experience, or I wasn’t ready, or it would have made a lot of people uncomfortable, or I didn’t want to be like some reporter “getting” the scene. In the editing I inserted intertitles which talk about the boy on the road in a bastardized kind of haiku. It has to do with my own working through death. I’ve been taught that death isn’t part of life — it happens on television, or in life as a theatrical event at the funeral parlour with make-up and masks. The title Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion suggests, for me, the passage from death to birth — the bardo state in Buddhist terms. Between these two places is the death of a boy. Jalostotitlan has, in its centre, an ornate graveyard that we passed by on our way to the death. Encarnacion suggests “incarnation,” an embodiment in flesh. Visually the film is bookended with shots in black-and-white. The death is rendered metaphorically in colour superimposition, before the film returns to black-and-white for the last shot, which shows the passing water of a river, the rebirth.
I was working on the film in my basement apartment when I heard a religious parade pass by. I went out and filmed it, not sure of how I’d use it or which film it was going into. I count on this kind of coincidence to make my work. I was experimenting with multiple layers of pictures — shooting a roll of blue brick wall, then winding the camera back and letting chance have its way. The work I’d done up to that point had been more representational and used static camerawork, even in my Mexico shooting. My ideas of documentary had been quite traditional, but what I’d learned in Road Ended was that there’s always something outside the frame, and that’s what Somewhere Between is about.
Bart Testa was the first person to offer this work some public attention. He programmed the Grierson Documentary Seminar in 1984, calling it “Systems in Collapse.” The Seminar doesn’t happen anymore, but back then it was important in my theoretical development as a filmmaker. There were people making television documentaries and others making experimental work so there were very heated debates. Bart’s programming was critical, and he said he wouldn’t do the seminar unless he could show The Falls by Greenaway. He also invited Road Ended and Somewhere Between. There were people complaining they only had $100,000 to make a film while I was showing Somewhere Between which was shot on three rolls of film. So Bart was making a point by inviting me. At the seminar, my work was paired up with a guy named Don North, a news correspondent who’d made a number of films about Vietnam. There was one bloody massacre after another, and he said that was the stuff they didn’t cut. Then my program came on, which also dealt with death but never showed it. Because television and violent movies have conditioned us to see pictures of death in a certain way, when we see it for real it’s just the same. My film argued that you could deal with another side of death or that the possibility of mourning lies in the unseen.
MH: There’s something very Catholic in this refusal. Death is granted a power because of its secrecy; there’s an awe and mystery that its revelation could only trivialize.
PH: Not showing death wasn’t because of fear, but respect. I didn’t want to barge into its territory, to try to exploit it for my own work. It was a ceremony that didn’t belong to me. I was honoured to be in its presence, but, at the same time, it wasn’t mine. So after the seminar North approached me and said, “Phil, I really enjoyed the discussion, but you know when you were in the editing room, didn’t you just wish you had the footage?” Some things don’t change.
I think Peter Greenaway connected with the independent filmmaker in me — the idea of making work with what you have available. He was really moved by Road Ended. He talked about the poetry in the images. I asked if it might be possible to see one of his film shoots and he said sure and wrote me a reference letter. The only way I could arrange financing was through an apprentice program, but he’s not into “learning from the father.” He felt my work would develop on its own. In his letter he said I needed opportunities to make work and that I should get funding to make a film about anything I wanted and that I didn’t need to use a script. That was the other thing, I was working without a script, just collecting images over a long period of time and making sense of them in the editing. So in the summer of 1985, I got $3,500 to go to Rotterdam and spend two or three months gathering pictures. I had about forty minutes of film. I worked the same way as in the past, shooting about thirty seconds a day, whenever the light and my inclinations met. I shot on and off location while Greenaway was making A Zed and Two Noughts in the Rotterdam zoo.
?O,Zoo! begins with images the narrator says are made by his grandfather who was a newsreel cameraman — it’s a Greenaway-type ruse. Then it shifts into the making of the film around A Zed and Two Noughts. The diary starts with the trip to Holland and fairly mundane images — of animals, a huge wooden apple in the park, a headless statue — while the narrator speaks of what happens before and after the shot, with what’s outside the frame. Then the screen goes black and the narrator speaks:
“From a distance I heard the scream of a beast. Moving closer to the source of the sound, I saw that an elephant had fallen down and was struggling to get up. Outside the enclosure, I noticed that a group of people had gathered to watch and inside some elephants and zoo workers had surrounded the fallen animal, trying to give it encouragement as it rocked its huge body in the sand. As I watched, I tossed over and over in my mind whether to film the scene or not. I’ve come across this problem before. Like the crowd that had gathered, I was feeling helpless; I wanted to assist the beast and filming would make me feel that I was doing something constructive. Maybe the television network would buy the film and show people that tragedy is right at their doorstep.
I took out the tripod, set up the camera and looked through the viewfinder. The compressed image caused by the telephoto lens intensified the sounds coming from the huge rolling body. I pulled the trigger: listen to the spring slowly unwind, and watch the elephant’s painful rhythm. I wind the camera tight and press the trigger for another burst of twenty-eight seconds. Now the zoo keeper is shoving bales of hay under the elephant as the others surround it. This only gets the elephant more aroused. The heat is intense and in its excitement the elephant plunges back into the sand and with one last scream, stretches out its body… and then it stops moving. The attendant says that the elephant has had a heart attack. My throat is parched, and sweat pours off my body; I watch the dust settle. I go looking for a drink, pushing through the crowd, fixed on the image I’d filmed; as if my mind was the film and the permanent trace of the elephant’s death was projected brightly inside. Somehow it’s my responsibility now. I wonder why I took the film. There seems no reason to develop the negative; my idea of selling the film to the network seems just an embarrassing thought, an irresponsible plan. I decide to put the film in the freezer. I decide not to develop it.”
(From the script of ?O,Zoo! [The Making of a Fiction Film])
This is another example of the unconscious speaking. I wrote the story after the event happened, then realized it was directly connected to one of the first deaths I experienced. After my grandfather died, my uncle asked me to go to the funeral home and take pictures of him in the casket. I showed up and didn’t know what I was doing there. I’d been making photographs for years and didn’t want to document him in this fake place. But I took the pictures and put the film in the freezer for eight years. In a way, the film was a way to act this out, to return to my grandfather. It keeps coming back in my films so whether I’ve laid him to rest or not…
MH: How does passing through/torn formations (43 min 1988) relate to your previous work?
PH: In terms of my film work, On the Pond relates to my boyhood and family. Road Ended deals with travelling and friends and adolescence. Somewhere Between and ?O,Zoo!deal with fathers and a documentary tradition brought down by fathers from which I’m trying to make something of my own. passing through/torn formations is the first film to deal with my mother’s side of the family — it’s filled with passion and chaos. The previous work features a locked-down camera in confined spaces. But passing through begins with a camera floating through a nursing home, hovering over my mother as she feeds my grandmother Babji. I couldn’t show death in my previous work, but here I had a very close connection. I loved my grandmother very much; she was the first to tell me that dreams were important, so her decline had to be dealt with directly. The film unravels from her; she’s the matriarch. But it doesn’t begin there. It starts with a Chris Dewdney poem called “The Quarry.” A boy opens a rock which has a moth inside, destined for fossilization, and as he opens it, the moth flies out “like dust from a dust devil.” The moth that’s being freed is the uncovering of family history, making it an open, interactive, system. My purpose in making the film was to try to return my uncle to the family. He’s a street person who’s been cast out because his mental instability and violence caused a lot of grief. Idealistically, I felt that I would make a film with him and make an interjection into a family history that never moves, where things aren’t spoken.
MH: You remarked earlier that while making ?O,Zoo! you’d assumed some of the form of Greenaway’s work — that this was part of your diary approach. In passing through I felt you’d assumed or mimed your uncle’s demeanour — the film is rife with splits, multiple exposures, simultaneous address, broken subjects, departures, wars, and arguments.
PH: One of the stories my uncle told me was about his accordion. His father made him practise every day because he was going to be a great musician. But he felt that the actual instrument was out of balance. You play the melody with your right hand and the bass line with your left..its not a symmetrical instrument. He felt that is what lead to difficulties for him. I have a different take on it. I think he had a great capacity as an artist but wasn’t allowed to express it except through the accordion. His parents had come to Canada from Czechoslovakia — at that time, the Austro-Hungarian Empire — and were already in their mid-forties when he was born. There was a big age and culture gap between them. He wound up in the pool halls listening to Elvis Presley and playing jazz accordion, but they couldn’t accept that, and this rift grew and became a problem for him. So I tried to deal with this idea of non-linearity in the form of passing through/torn formations. Because there are several stories going on in the film, all at the same time the viewer has to choose how to move through it…they have to juggle. The form relates not only to his ideas about the accordion but to the way he thinks… as if I were him.
MH: The film also tries to heal some of these splits, and the central image of this integration is a corner mirror your uncle builds.
PH: He made it because he’d heard someone talk about left/right-brain differences. He felt that when you shave in front of a mirror you’re actually seeing yourself as a reflection — you don’t see yourself as others do. He felt he could solve this with the corner mirror: two mirror slabs which reflect into each other. He would practice by shaving in front of a full length corner mirror. He had to re-learn how to shave because the reflection was the reverse of what he’d grown used to. He felt that ritual would help to solve his issues. He did the same thing in prison when he rewired an electric organ so all the low notes started at the right and left ends of the keyboard and moved to a central high note in the middle of the keyboard. Of course, he was the only person who could play that organ. [laughs] He was trying to unlearn conventions of the past, the way he’d conditioned himself to live. That moment of creation and transformation is the moment of freeing the moth from the rock. It’s the moment where the image comes to the paper when you’re making a photograph. It’s magical because you’re totally in the present watching what’s becoming. That’s what I learned from him, the secret of the corner-mirror: “and then you look right into the center and you see yourself as you really are…it’s the real you”. (passing through/torn formations)
Like the elephant in ?O,Zoo!, or the boy killed on the road in Somewhere Between — his image couldn’t be seen. I tried to reflect his spirit in the film. So he’s hardly shown in the film.
My brother Philip died at birth. My uncle wasn’t much older than me, so he became the brother I never had. My unclewas born during the Second World War, while my grandmother was in great anguish over her brothers and sisters. While she was pregnant a huge boil grew on her neck, and I use this as a metaphor in the film — as a poison coming to the surface. My grandmother was hearing stories about her brother’s wife being raped by Russians and Nazis as they went through the country. After the war, my grandmother, mother, and uncle went back to visit. I guess he was about five. There were still blood-stained walls and ruins, and my uncle got sick. No one went again until I did in 1984. That’s the trip I show in the film where I asked my grandmother’s sister to tell me what happened with Uncle Janyk, who was shot by his brother. There was an argument over land. The son had built a house on land which had been promised to him but the father refused to sell it to him. He wanted to own his son. So the son killed the father. All these stories are strewn through the film, which has been deliberately made as a kind of polyphonic recitation, not like a normal documentary.
I should say something about Marian McMahon’s involvement with the film. With my life. We’ve been together 6 or 7 years now, and she’s changed the way I look at things, and I thought it was important to have her present in the film. The film ends with her voice making a very simple statement: “When I was eight years old, I skipped a flat stone six times across the smooth surface of Lake Kashagawigamog.” This recalls the Dewdney poem at the beginning of the film, which is also spoken in darkness. Her speaking returns the film to Canada, or to a pre-Canadian continent, because Kashagawigamog is a First Nations name. So even though all these ethnic migrations are going on, both ends of the film deal with a time before the Europeans came. Dewdney’s poem refers to geological time, and Marian’s to a time belonging to the First Peoples. The kind of relentless uncovering that the film attempts is something I learned from her. I had been working with “personal” film, so these interests attracted us to each other, but she showed me a way to go further. She’s a companion in this uncovering of our own histories. She taught me that our past is living in our present, in our bodies, and that it’s worth the dig. If you don’t uncover the past, you freeze up. There’s pain involved in both states but the continued uncovering is alive — it feeds a living cinema.
MH: How did river (15 min 1978-89) begin?
PH: It started off as a shooting exercise when I was studying film at Sheridan. The idea was simply to make a film that would be edited in-camera. So I went to the Saugeen River with a Bolex and a Rex Fader that allowed me to dissolve from one shot to the next. Richard Kerr steered the boat. The Saugeen goes through Lake McCullough, where my parents have a cottage, and we’d go up there in the summer. I would fish for trout or just drift down the river. I wanted to come back now that I’d decided to work with images instead of fishing poles. To see what was there. I shot parts of the boat, and the water and the light, looked at it and put it away. Three years later I got hold of a black-and-white video port-a-pack, an old Sony half-inch, open-reel deck. I wanted to drift down the river and let the camera run. The microphone was on the bottom of the boat, which amplified the sound in a weird way — it picked up anything the boat hit. This time I went down the river without anyone paddling; the boat just followed the current while I stood up holding the camera. What ensued was the chaos of the trip. The sound is important because every little nudge and scratch is very loud which contrasts with an idyllic floating-down-the-river scene. To my surprise, when I first showed it, people found this section quite humorous — the person’s struggle in the boat, a confrontation of “romance” with chaos. That became the second section. Then I duped the in-camera edit onto video with a looping soundtrack — instead of seeing the dissolves fade to black, you see the screen it’s being filmed off, which deconstructs the romance of the first scene. That was the third section, and each plays sequentially, one after another, moving on like the river. The last scene is shot underwater. I went with a couple of guys who were helping me because they had underwater housing for the Bolex. On the way up, I phoned my mother to tell her I was coming and she said, “Your uncle was found dead by a river, we think he shot himself.” Pretty gruesome. It really coloured my thinking about the river, deciding what to shoot in this last scene. It’s all filmed underwater with a high-contrast stock, and unlike the other sections, which flow smoothly, it’s fast, almost Brakhage-like. In the editing I worked on the death-rebirth motif. Three times the camera moves up into the light, and the film ends with light. Buddhists believe that the Bardo state is the moment where the spirit dissolves into the universe, and it’s commonly represented as light. I felt I needed to mark the death of my uncle because of the way it happened, the way it came to me. The only guide I’ve had in my filmmaking are these so-called coincidences.
MH: I remember when you started working on Kitchener-Berlin (34 min 1990) you said that you’d spent so long working on your mother’s side of the family that you wanted to turn to your father — to tell his story.
PH: I related my visual nature to my father’s side, the silence and image-oriented expression that were a part of my earliest experiments with photography. I used home movies that my uncle shot (my father’s brother). There’s no story, just home movie moments mixed with photographs of Kitchener back when it used to be called Berlin. These are joined with newsreels from the other Berlin during wartime. Then the film re-visits both sites in the present, using a Steadicam camera. It floats over surfaces, looking as if it can move without gravity, gliding in space.
MH: Why the Steadicam?
PH: There’s an obvious kind of spiritual feel to it, because you’re floating in a world where the sky and ground are equivalent. It’s something we can’t do with our bodies, except through technology. So it’s a metaphor for the spirit released. I wanted to contrast that with the low technologies — the home movies which take a familiar form and subject. The Steadicam provides a solitary and other-worldly stance, an emptiness and separation from anything it shows. There’s something that separates the people sitting in front of these old buildings, that separates the remnants of German history from the present, and the camera signals this. This relates to masculinity. The Steadicam is part of the technology that can take us to far-away places or destroy the world. I wanted to show different aspects of technology through the century, using the Steadicam to create a feeling of introspective space where one can look back and account for what’s happened.
MH: Juxtaposed with images of the past, the Steadicam is filled with a sense of returning. Because its movement isn’t attached to a body or person, and its movement is so uniform, it’s as if the ghost of technology had ventured back to visit what it had occasioned, to look over all that’s been constructed in its wake.
PH: Yes, that’s the journey. The Steadicam floats over continents, adding layers until there are three, four, five images over top each other. They show an old Austrian churches,Berlin’s bombing, an orange crane that looks like some technological beast, the Pope shaking hands with Native peoples, and machineries of the city. It builds to a point where the camera moves toward the sky, and then it breaks, overloaded, and the film dips into another strata. I went to the National Film Archives in Ottawa, looking for images of Kitchenerduring the war. An archivist named Trap Stevens said, “You should look at this old film — it’s quirky.” He pulled it out, and I was really moved by it. It touched something in me. The film was made by Dent Harrison, a British immigrant who came to Canada in the early part of the century. He arrived penniless and went into the bakery business, where he figured out how to cook a lot of bread at once by using rotating ovens. He made enough money to travel and own a movie camera. He made what I think is the first Canadian surrealist film. It pictured a dirigible flight from England to Canada, which I saw as technology coming to North America. I’d already related Kitchener to its German roots in Berlin and suggested how the philosophical bent of these new technologies related to the rise of fascism — how humans tried to become machines.
At first, I couldn’t legitimize using Harrison’s footage since it didn’t have to do with Germany, but I realized I was neither German nor English, and that the English presence had been very strong in Kitchener. Harrison crosses the Atlantic in a dirigible and on a boat, and speaks of himself and a double making this travel. He’s split himself in two in order to shoot the trip from two different perspectives. Later, he begins to edit his film and he uses a superimposition of himself, so you see him and his double in the same space. After that, when he’s asleep his double moves out of his body. Then a subtitle reads: “Have you people seen all that I have in my dreams?” Then my film breaks into another section, which is more meditative, where the technology digs up the earth, using National Film Board footage of miners, interspersed with stuff I shot of a more ethereal nature. There are more home movies and wheat fields and footage I shot in a cave, all defying meaning. The way the images arrive is a surprise — they don’t seem to connect and, formally, they’re hard to follow.
In the first section, you expect certain patterns to recur, while the second section tries to deal with images in a way that’s less filled with “meanings”; it moves into a flow of dreams. After screenings of the film some people have spoken about unremembered images from their past. That’s an area I’m working with in my new films. Among the images of the underground, the last picture shows a red dress — the little girl slips into the emulsion — which says to me, “Stay tuned. We’ll see what comes out.” The whole film is a rendering of what I see as my male Germanic side. The first section is a walk through physical realities connected to the effects of technology, the male hand, so it includes the war and the Pope and the co-opting of Native cultures, all glimpsed through an ethereal camera. The second section is an inward journey. It’s that simple. This shift is signalled by Harrison’s old home movie, which begins in a very analytical and documentary fashion and then slides into a dream reality of doubles. The voyage over the Atlantic is linear, but once he’s home, things begin to unravel. That’s the inward journey.
MH: After finishing Kitchener-Berlin, you gathered up all of your work and named it as a cycle. This series of films progresses through the familial and the formal, through a number of documentary styles that seem finally bent on shaking off narrative or any traditionally understood sequencing of events.
PH: It has to do with transformation. When I named this work as a finished cycle, I had to start again, and was as lost as I’d been at the beginning of my making. That’s where I am now. Rick Hancox said the last films I’ve done all look very different. I feel that recently I’ve gone through a lot of changes very fast, and that’s not always easy. You do it with your work, and then there’s your life. So to imagine work in a cycle is useful. Finishing closed a way of working with the past, of dealing with the uncovering of family history. I’ll always be able to return to that, but now it’s time to make something else.
I went back to shooting super-8 without a plan or film in mind. This started in Banff where the first films I ever shot — some of the super-8 footage in Road Ended — had been made. I returned in 1989 and new ideas came up. Two ways of shooting developed. One came out of the haikus of Somewhere Between, shooting events of everyday life in a static frame, but this time in super-8. The other way was a single-frame zoom. Maybe I’m contriving this new cycle, but it’s a path to follow in the midst of all this chaos. The single frame shooting will find its way into Chimera (15 min 1996), while the haiku project is called Opening Series. The idea is to make twelve short films, using three shots for every film. They’ll all be silent and wordless except for the title Opening Series, which is a reference to Olsen’s “open form” and free association. It can’t be pinned down as a static work of art or exhibited as my new film because it’s always changing. These twelve films range from a few seconds to three minutes, and each has a picture on the cover of its box. I’ve been making paintings and xeroxing them and putting them on the covers; these serve as the titles. To decide on the order of the films, you look at the pictures and choose. So the film has many possibilities of flow. Every screening is different because it’s connected to the person who picks the drawings, or sometimes the audience decides the order collectively. I was working on the paintings at the same time I was editing the films, so there’s an organic connection between the two. I keep track of the different screenings and what I get out of them, the relationships between the films. They’re images shot around the world. One begins with a wave cutting the screen diagonally and cuts to a bird sitting in remnants of old Egypt. The bird flies off and then there’s a half-second shot of the falcon god. Images in other films have more formal connections. And then there are more “personal” pictures, images of home…
MH: Will you put this film in distribution?
PH: Maybe after a while, but I want to stay with it at this point just to see how it’s working, because it all happens in connection with the people who make the choices. I need to see whether that works. I have a lot of fear in pinning down the films. I don’t have a drive to repeat what I’ve already learned.
Philip Hoffman Filmography
- On The Pond 9 min b/w 1978
- The Road Ended At The Beach 33 min 1983
- Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion 6 min 1984
- ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) 23 min 1986
- passing through/torn formations 43 min 1988
- river 15 min 1978-89
- Kitchener-Berlin 34 min 1990
- Opening Series 1 10 min silent 1992
- Opening Series 2 7 min silent 1993
- Opening Series 3 by Philip Hoffman and Gerry Shikatani 5 min b/w 1994
- Technilogic Ordering 33 min 1994
- Sweep by Philip Hoffman and Sammi van Ingen 32 min 1995
- Chimera 15 min 1996
Originally published in Inside the Pleasure Dome: Fringe Film in Canada by Mike Hoolboom (First Edition: Gutter Press, 1997, Revised and Expanded Second Edition: Coach House, 2001)