Vulture Aesthetics by Hoffman here
*Cover photo by C.E. Brown
Janine Marchessault & Scott MacKenzie talk about their new book Process Cinema: Handmade Film in the Digital Age, and how they dreamed up the book at Film Farm! see video
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
Film Farm at Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival in Scotland
The film farm was represented at Alchemy Film Festival 2017 in Scotland in a program curated by Sarah Bliss. Details on the program can be found here.
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 …)
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.
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)
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.)
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.
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)
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)
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.
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.
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
By Ken Paul Rosenthal
I am flying on Air Canada to Phil Hoffman’s Independent Imaging/Filmmaking Retreat on a farm northwest of Toronto, where I will shoot and process motion pictures, learn tinting and toning, and view contemporary experimental films. It’s been 11 years since I was introduced to the tactile universe of hand processing movie film at the San Francisco Art Institute. Watching the beautiful mess of images emerge from a stainless steel womb for the first time entirely changed the way I make films.
Hand processing is a practice where serendipity is the rule rather than the exception; an antidote to conventional methods of filmmaking that emphasize image control. Whereas new technologies moved me away from the medium, I could use my own hands to embrace the film material more directly and intimately. Over the years I have hand-processed hundreds of rolls of film and shared my experiences in dozens of workshops. Now I’d have an opportunity to learn recipes and techniques from other passionate practitioners and work in 16mm for the first time.
The stewardess offers me headphones for the onboard movie, but I decline and turn my attention instead to the film unraveling outside the cabin window. The sifting contours of the clouds remind me how much hand-processing movie film is like playing in a celluloid sandbox. It can also be quite terrifying. You discover your heart isn’t as malleable as the medium, and you start scraping away at it until only the most precious cell is left. That frame, that naked grain, is your silver soul.
Mount Forest, Canada
I am standing alone in an open barn door. In front of me a tree traces the grass with tender brushstrokes. I turn and enter the barn, where pillars of light ring the space like a motionless zoetrope. It is the morning after the retreat has ended, and I’m still nursing my last shot of solitude.
Although the 11 other participants have departed, the after-effects of five days of nonstop filmmaking are evident everywhere. Glistening strips of hand-processed film drip-dry and flutter from a 15-foot clothesline inside the barn. My own footage wraps around the line in impossible tangles. Short, crazy-colored pieces of film swim in bowls of toning solution. Half-eaten bits are stuck to the fridge like a proud child’s schoolwork. Sheets of opaque plastic cordon off the darkrooms. Just yesterday those same plastic curtains barely dampened the giddiness of fellow processors, who emerged from the darkrooms like proud parents, shouting, “Oh my God, look at this!” as people scurried over to see their newborn images, launching into a chorus of “Oohs,” “Ahhs” and “Wowwws.”
The film retreat was a carnival of creativity, and the barn was the funhouse. At least it was for most of the participants. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder; what was I doing in the farmhouse cellar futzing with my Bolex’s rex-o-fader for two hours while the resident sparrows were pooping on my head? How did I expose an entire day’s shoot to a 100-watt light bulb before it hit the first developer? And why the hell did I go ahead and process it anyway?! Instead of producing images, I made a series of increasingly catastrophic mistakes. Why was it so difficult to practice what I’d long been preaching to my hand-processing students: dissolve prescribed ideas and embrace the process from which the most elegant visions arise?
When I arrived six days earlier, I was prepared to make a dance film. That ambition quickly dissolved when I took on a Bolex Rex-4 as my shooting partner. Having only shot with highly mobile Super-8 cameras for the past 15 years, I found the 16mm Bolex a beast to handle. Using a Sekonic meter to read the light, stopping down the aperture and then recompose before shooting didn’t feel spontaneous. Instead of embracing the Bolex’s noble weight and its economy of functions, I kept wrestling with it. The camera didn’t fight back, it just sort of went away, piece by piece.
Over the next two days I lost the backwind key, a 24-inch cable release, and the filter slide (thus fogging an entire day’s shoot). I also stripped the threading in the crankshaft. With each additional piece of equipment lost or broken, I was forced to peel back another layer of intention. I let go my idea of making a dance film, and I let go my desire to leave the farm with a finished film. After all, I was always reminding my students that film is less about making a film than it is about experiencing the making. And that the texture of the gesture becomes the film. Now I needed to take my own advice.
However, abandoning the images and ideas I had developed in my mind filled me with despair. Without a script or a preconceived vision to guide me, I felt crippled and blind. I did not know which side of the camera to place my attention on, and collapsed to the ground. It was at that moment that an image came to me—my hand reaching through the lens and fondling the sun. I thought about my little focus-free 35mm still camera (which had slipped out of my pocket into a bucket of water that morning) and how liberating it felt to point it and just shoot whatever I found beautiful.
I stood up and immediately began filming in the same way I had made still pictures, without any camera movement, simply framing my subjects for their texture and the way they embodied the light. I shot burlap riding the wind. I shot barbed wire choking wild straw. I shot a newborn calf’s placenta until an irate bull chased me headlong through the electric sting of a charged fence. As the Bolex and I moved arm in crank through pastures and forests, I realized I was making a dance film after all. Only the dance wasn’t taking place in front of the lens, but in the space between the camera body and my own. And I realized that my struggles had not been about making mistakes or knowing what to shoot, but about how to compose my self. I had taken a shot of my solitude, and it was a good fix.
Everyone’s activity reached a fever pitch on the fifth and final day in preparation for our evening screening. Filmmakers darted from pasture to darkroom to flatbed in frenetic circles, with pit stops at the tinting table, optical printer or homemade animation stand. The resident Steenbeck had a wonderful malfunction, which caused the plates to clang like a locomotive pulling into a station, or dinner bell calling everyone to our celluloid feast.
An hour before showtime I chose my selects, drew up a paper edit and assembled a rough-cut. As I hastily sifted through reel after reel of misfortune, a few silver jewels began to emerge. After my piece screened, a warm shivering welled up in my chest as I shared the details of my innumerable mishaps. Although everyone applauded my work’s photography, the images of my solemn, distended shadow hugging an endless road, of rotting barn shingles and a lonely leaf framed against a setting ball of sun were documents of my solitude.
Now it’s the morning after the retreat has ended, and I am standing alone in the barn wondering what to do with my film, with myself. Should I return to the fields and re-shoot all my mistakes? Should I bury my film in front of the barn, where exhausted chemistry had spilled? Or should I just chuck the whole mess into a vat of blue toner? The answer gently materializes when I stop asking questions: continue filming what I find beautiful—the film material and the process of making film. I shoot film images rising out of a chemical bath, film stock spilling into a discarded porcelain sink, film strewn across a long row of bushes and negative film reversing to positive under a light bulb.
With only two hours before my departure, I find the courage to pull off my fantasy shot with the help of Christine Harrison, one of the retreat assistants. We leave the farm and head toward an enormous field of daisies, where I plan to have Christine film me prancing naked in slow motion with an armload of film. We arrive and knock on the door of a private residence neighboring the field to ask permission, but no one answers, so we get right to it. I strip down, then leap and roll about, trampling daisies with blissful abandon. Each time a car approaches on the road, I duck down into my robe of blossoms. As a comic counterpoint, I decide to stand center-frame with a ball of film covering my genitals while I peer about timidly. We are setting up the shot when Christine alerts me to an approaching truck. I figure an 18-wheeler will consider my daisy cheeks worth no more than a toot of his horn. Instead he slams on the brakes and screams bloody murder. This draws out the woman from the nearby residence, whom we thought wasn’t at home. She begins to scream about there being children in the house and threatens to call the police. (Could it be they don’t appreciate dance?)
We gather up clothing and equipment in such haste that my eyeglasses are left behind. So we dash back to retrieve them, but find nothing among the yards of smashed blossoms. Christine seems particularly unnerved. I’m not sure if it’s because the authorities might confiscate our equipment, or because the reputation of the film camp would be irreparably damaged. Regardless, she promises to return that night to search some more, and I drive off to Toronto with the entire world looking like a four-laned fishbowl.
So went my experience on the film farm. I danced with my dark side, my light side and all the other gradations of my silver soul. I lost my eyesight in one sense and gained insight in another, as corny as that sounds. I know deeply and intimately that film is (for me) fundamentally not about recording a picture. It is a process even broader than the developing of images. It is about dancing with stillness and manipulating a novel posture for my heart. Phil Hoffman, the compassionate angel who manages the farm, says that film is about the moment of transformation, and that making love for your self is a reason to make film. Words to shoot by indeed.
I have yet to process the film I shot on my last day at the farm, but that’s OK. I only exposed it as a means to a beginning.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ken Paul Rosenthal is an independent filmmaker, teacher and activist. His films weave personal and political narratives into natural and urban landscapes. Rosenthal is the recipient of a SAMSHA Voice Award for his media work in mental health advocacy, and a Kodak Award for Cinematography He holds an MA in Creative & Interdisciplinary Arts, and an MFA in Cinema Production.