Alberte Pagán interviews Philip Hoffman (2019)
May 1980 Mabou, Nova Scotia. Photo excerpts from Hoffman’s film THE ROAD ENDED AT THE BEACH (1983)
JM: Jim McMurray
RK: Richard Kerr
PH: Phil Hoffman
RF: Robert Frank JL: June Leaf
Jim McMurray: How did you happen to find a spot like this?
Robert Frank: Oh, it’s just an accident.
JM: You were just up here?
RF: Well it was on a bulletin board in Port Hood. Yeah, it’s pretty nice.
Richard Kerr: What are the winters like? Pretty severe.
RF: The wind is sometimes pretty rough but it’s not too bad. I like it in the winter.
JM: Where’s the coal mines from here?
RF: Past this house here. See that house? There’s a hole going down, that’s where it used to be. It fell down the tower.
RK: Are they going to use it again do you think?
RF: No, it’s all under the water so it’s too expensive.
JM: Too dangerous too, eh?
RF: …it’s too expensive to come in here and you know look after the track here. It takes a long way to get it out from here.
JM: Can anybody come around here dig themselves and use it in their fireplaces?
RF: People use to do it, use horses, get some chunks. Not anymore.
JM: I sometimes work with, you know like iron. Bending it in a furnace. I went down to the railway tracks and they were selling coal at places where an old railway car had tipped over. All free now.
RF: Where do you come from?
JM: Ann Arbour. I saw a picture in your book. I think The Americans, of someone laying in a park.
RF: Ann Arbour. Yeah that’s with all the cars. There’s a little lake outside Ann Arbour. Not far from…
JM: Do you get away from here very much anymore or do you stick around home?
RF: Well, when I have got to go, I got to go. When you got to go, you got to go. I like it here.
RK: I just saw they had a display of your pictures at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto in the spring. Were you up there at all?
RF: No. No I didn’t go.
RK: Just send the pictures and let them do the talking.
RK: I guess what you know were looking for and I guess it’s in the form of some sort of advice, is that, I imagine there’s no secret to it, but what frame of mind were you in when you did The Americans. And how conscious was it? The spontaneity, this sort of thing.
RK: Because you read so much stuff and a lot of it frankly is you know?
RF: I think spontaneity might be a way of not thinking you know. Maybe if I would define it. Spontaneity, I don’t think I thought a lot about it. It was more feeling than thinking.
RK: You just did it.
RK: What sort of line as far as equipment goes, were you outfitted with. The finest equipment of the time or were your tools just what you had?
RF: No, I had ordinary equipment. A couple of Leicas, one with a normal lens the other with a wide angle. It helps with good equipment but I think it’s more important to have good equipment when you do carpentry. It’s more exact. When you’re out there working alone I think that. Then thinking about carpentry it’s not that you’re working together with someone. But doing The Americans at the time, I think that it was wonderful to travel alone.
RK: That’s what we were talking about this morning. This is Phil’s project. I’m doing sound. Jim’s doing the driving and music. We were wondering, to do what he’s doing, to do it by himself, he’d be more mobile. He wouldn’t have to listen to our bitching and complaining you know.
RF: Well if it finally gels, what you do with the tape and what he does with picture. It’s an ongoing process.
RK: Have you ever tried much team work as far as film.
RF: Well with films I think you have to. It’s too hard to make films alone.
PH: How about Jack Kerouac and Pull My Daisy. Did you shoot the film and then Kerouac did the narration after?
RF: Right. He looked at the film and narrated as he looked at it.
PH: Was that a good way to work?
RF: That could be called spontaneity. I mean that certainly was a spontaneous piece of literature.
screen `Pull My Daisy’
PH: Was there editing involved? I mean did you go to a third person again? After you had shot it and he had done the narration, anyone cut things out? Like, Kerouac’s On The Road apparently has been butchered quite a bit for the publisher.
RF: There was very little taken out. We just had to fit it sometimes, it ran a little bit over or we wanted to put some music in, so some words were cut out, some sentences. But it didn’t happen very often. Of the thirty minutes that he narrated maybe two or three minutes were cut out and that’s about it.
RK: Earlier we were down talking to Allen Ginsberg in th elower east side, NYC, doing some research at Columbia, that he kept there, and I was wondering, is there… those people they seemed like such a close knit group at the time. Are they scattered now or do you have any contact with any of those people? Is it just a time and a place and now you’re in a different time and place.
RF: Well Kerouac is dead… he’s away. Sometimes I see Allen. I never kept that close in contact with them. So, I don’t know. Corso’s living mostly in Italy. I think it pretty much goes apart after… years.
RK: Yeah, that’s what I find with my friends. We just drift I’m out here now and they’re all out in Calgary in the real estate boom. At the time, were the conditions right to work? Were things as free as it looked. You know we were only two and three years old then but we had the image that it was free, that everything just went along… Did it have that feeling to it or is that something the media played upon. Grabbed.
RF: I don’t think that it gets freer. You know good people work. They work the same in 1980 as you would have worked in 1960. Maybe it was freer because you knew less and you were more innocent. Now I wouldn’t be that free simply because I know more about it. Much more.
RK: Are you familiar with the term zeitgeist?
RK: : Zeitgeist. It’s a German word for spirit of the times.
RF: Zeitgeist, zeitgeist. Yeah.
RK: I heard that word when I was in Switzerland about six years ago. That was the word all the people were using. I didn’t know what the hell it meant.
Frank: Well I’ll give you another one. How about Weltschmertz?
RK: Weltschmertz? ha ha…We come from a German town so we get all this. A town in Ontario, Kitchener. It’s a rural German community, so you get osmosis over the years.
RF: I think this dog makes a good soundtrack.
RK: Yeah. I just did a film called Dogs Have Tales, about my other dog. I don’t go anywhere without a dog.
RF: So who is in charge of editing the film?
PH: I am. It’s a project where we all work together. I think one of the things that’s happening in a way, is it’s just gone a week and things are kind of gelling… We all kind of got our separate jobs now, you know.
RK: A guy gave him a free truck. He went to California and couldn’t take it with him. It was fifteen years old ..I did him a favour once and he said take care of this for me it’s yours.
RF: It’s nice.
JM: It is nice.
RF: What kind of truck is it?
JM: It’s a Dodge. An old Dodge.
RF: Wonderful looking. Nice.
JM: Well we put new doors on it, but it was painted… covered with flowers and beautiful things like that. But nowadays I guess you can get away with things like that. Is there anything we can help you with, any heavy lifting?
RF: No I can’t think. No, I don’t think there’s anything.
RF: How long have you been here, five, six years sort of a thing?
RF: No we’ve been here ten years. Eleven years. We came here in 1969.
RF: We built this you know? Yeah, it’s satisfying to build something.
RK: You bet it is. That’s something I was never brought up to do but it’s something I want to do.
RF: It’s satisfying to look here, you know? See the water?
RF: Well I mean I thought it would be more like having to look into the camera…like a TV interview, you know.
RK: No. We left the make-up girl at home. Make-up person.
RF: I always liked it when films you know had freedom… when you could move sound and image around. When I was teaching in sometimes Super 8, I always liked that about Super 8 because I completely divorced the image from the sound, and there’s so many possibilities then.
PH: It’s exciting… there’s always something being born,
RF: You always stumble on something that makes sense that enhances the picture itself.
PH: I think of a saying… let the feeling find its own form.I have to remember it for this film. That’s what I’m trying to do … sometimes it’s really hard… travelling is hard enough… It’s two jobs in a way.
RF: I use to think… how is the wind doing?
RK: It’s kicking the hell out of this mic, but what can you do?
RF: Sometimes the wind sounds so beautiful. What kind of a machine is that?
RK: It’s a Sony. A Sony cassette deck. It’s got little toys on it you know …too many gadgets.
RF: You always work with one mic?
RK: This can work with two.
RF: Yeah, but you do everything with one?
RK: As much as possible. I’m not a technical person so I got to find a simple machine. Don’t need a Nagra.
PH: We’re just using this Bolex with 3 or 4 different lenses.
RF: Is that a combination lens? I mean that’s just one lens.
PH: It’s just one, yes. That’s one thing I wouldn’t mind for this trip is maybe not changing lenses so much.
RF: You just work with that one lens?
PH: one or two..wide and normal.
RF: You have other ones but then you have to take it off.
PH: Yeah, It’s the only one I could get a hold of for the trip, but it works well.
RF: What do you shoot? Colour?
PH: Yeah, negative. We’ve shot for three or four years now west and east trips. This is our second time out east. I shot super-8 and collected sound when I first started a while, and now what I’m going to do with the super-8 is blow it up to 16mm and use it sort of as a concrete form of memory. And so over the years we have been returning to places and people …. So hopefully the film will have some history to it.
RF: How long is it since you’ve done the super-8?
PH: 1976… about four years ago.
JM: We came out here last year and got some footage, but the car kept breaking down. It was a newer one then this. Do you still go down to the School of Design in Halifax.
RF: No I haven’t been there since at least three or four or five years.
RK: I was thinking about going there back to school for the fourth time. Think it’s an alright place?
RF: School? Well if you feel like you need to learn something and that’s the way you feel you can learn it. What would you take there.
RK: Art education or something like that. How about teaching I do some teaching now, but you don’t get paid well when you know the stuff but don’t have the letters behind you. They don’t pay you as well. But I don’t know, change my mind every day, that’s what I got one for I guess.
RF: Well if you can go to school that’s nice. It gives you place, not in the streets.
JM: Especially out here as opposed to Toronto. I just got out, been going for years. Got a Masters Degree in Fine Arts and I finally realized that it’s not doing me much good at all. I wish I had worked all that time. ….The dog likes it here. He likes those cliffs, feels like he’s climbing mountains.
RF: It’s your dog, eh?
JM: It’s Richard’s dog.
RF: Oh, yeah.
JM: It was his birthday two days ago, two years old. You getting pretty stuck to this place here? I mean hard to leave?
RF: Well I’m attached we put a lot of money into it. We’ve worked on this for a very long time.
JM: Nice to make something and have something there.
RF: It seems permanent. It doesn’t change. It’s nice to watch nature. Watch the water, the wind, the sea.
JM: That’s what I like. I didn’t really want to come on this trip. It was hard to break myself away. How are the people down here? Pretty nice?
RF: Very friendly, yeah. Well they’re very discreet. There’s a lot of room, nobody bugs you.
JM: This has got a lot of Scottish history … The highlanders or…
RF: Yeah, they’re mostly Scottish.
JM: A lot of ***………*** (?)
RF: Some of them speak Gaelic.
JM: Yeah? Wow.
RF: It’s a good place to live. I don’t know about working. I have a hard time working here but June works a lot. She works on the building. Why don’t we stop for a while?
JM: How do you heat in the winter? Is it wood?
RF: Wood stove, coal.
JM: You just go down in your car or truck and pick it up?
RF: Yeah. When we just came here in 1969 coal was something like eleven, twelve dollars.
JM: A hundred weight?
RF: A ton. And now it’s forty and I guess that’s still cheap.
JM: Yeah. It’s a lot more down in the city..
June Leaf: It’s good huh?
RF: Can they have some tea?
JL: OK. You want some tea?
RK: Then we’ll let you get back to work.
RF: It’s a good day for working today.
RK: Yeah. Not too hot.
JL: Are you guys having tea?
JM: Phil you want some tea? (Phil filming on rocks). A lot of people paint their shingles. But I guess that once you’ve painted it once you’ve got to paint it over and over again.
JL: Most people paint them. They do, they like to paint them. It makes the house look fresh every couple of years.
RF: With just oil.. you know, seems to keep them pretty well.
JM: That’s a pretty colour that, silver.
JL: See these are old shingles, see we’re reusing them they’re very strong. I mean, they’re just like new shingles. Look at that. That was already cracked when we took it off. See we took it off with a shingle puller. That way where you see we’re putting it back it varies.
(The all go in the house for some tea).
Check out this interview about Racing Home, a project using Korsakow software and unfinished footage from Marian McMahon, produced through ARC (Adventures in Research-Creation) at Concordia University.
“Experimental filmmaker Phil Hoffman revisits the themes of loss, memory and identity in Racing Home, a film originally shot on 8mm and 16mm film in the early 1990’s by his partner Marian McMahon, who succumbed to cancer in 1996. After several iterations of the film, Hoffman was finally able to ‘complete’ it using the Korsakow system. The result is a nonlinear, poetic reflection on Marian’s original themes of identity through his own lens and personal sense of loss and memory of Marian. (Scholar and Korsakow filmmaker Monika Kin Gagnon coined the term ‘posthumous cinema’* to describe this approach to filmmaking.)”
See the full article here.
McMahon website here
by Lee Hill
LH: We’re here with Phil Hoffman. Talk about your work.
PH: My film work over the last eleven years has been busy purging the ghost of Grierson. Born and raised in Canada, the kind of films I saw in school and libraries was documentary film. I think in the United States a lot of independent experimental filmmakers have to purge the ghost ofHollywood. I see documentary as something I have to deal with as an artist. I don’t want to make films in the same way that documentarians but on the other hand, I can’t pretend that it’s not important to me. My work is a blend of documentary and experimental. I like to use a diary form, which again is a little bit different than documentary.
LH: You say you don’t use scripts? Explain.
PH: I like to deal with the experience of the camera and the subject first; rather than preconceiving something I might put myself in a situation. In this case it was the set of Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts, the feature film, and then try to react spontaneously to what’s going on.Greenaway sent me the script of his film, but in my work I’ve always tried to react to the moment. Then as the filmmaking goes on, I look at material that’s come back to the lab, I write about that. I collect sound as I’m going, and all this stuff gets woven into the film. So it’s like a big pot of soup with all kinds of things in it, that’s my working method.
LH: You said that the film deals with your father’s side of the family. How?
PH: Well actually in ?O Zoo! it’s a Grandfather that I’m dealing with, but it is my Father’s side of the family that I am using poetically. Some of it is fiction as the title explains, ?O Zoo! The Making of a Fiction Film. Some of it is fictionalized, some of it is… I guess that’s also for the audience to find out and discover. ?O Zoo! can be taken in many different ways, and I think once you put something onto film it becomes fiction anyway, it becomes something different than reality. I think passing through/torn formations is much closer to home, and lays more of my experience out on the line, family history and such things; whereas ?O Zoo! is kind of masks, the autobiographical part is masks. Since I began making work in 1978 with On the Pond, each of my eight films have been autobiographical, and also about the shaping of autobiography.
LH: Can you talk about your film influences?
PH: It’s a funny thing; my influences were not so much filmic as much as they were from literature, and painting. Especially literature, I was interested in Beat poets in my formative years, what they were doing in the fifties. I did a film that deals with that. But anyway, I went to film school and had two teachers, Rick Hancox who is an experimental filmmaker and Jeff Paull, who both emphasized the importance of doing something about your own life rather than mimicking the cop shows. That struck a chord in me, that was already happening through my interest in poetry and literature, and photography. When I was fourteen, fifteen, I had my own darkroom; so all these things came together in film.
There hasn’t been one thing but a multitude of things that have affected me. We talked about it a little at the beginning. Documentary did have a strong influence on me, and I still like good documentaries, innovative documentary, rather than the kind that tells you what you’re seeing. Things like David Holzman’s Diary which is a film about a guy in the sixties, I guess, he decides he’s going to make a film about his life, and he makes this diary, I guess I shouldn’t say what it’s about because people may get a chance to see it. But basically he’s dealing with questions about documentary realism, and truth, and how the medium makes things look as if… oh, it’s really happening… and he was one of the first to do that, that I know of. So there was that, but on the other hand there was the National Film Board, the lyrical documentaries of the fifties and sixties, which were sort of poetic, which was interesting for me too. And then also things like the New American Cinema which was Stan Brakhage, and JonasMekas, and Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland… and those filmmakers were dealing with form, or at least Michael Snow was dealing especially with form and duration, and Brakhage was doing poetic image making. All these different things come together in my work, because these have been influences and I think I get into that problem now, with some people that want to categorize you as purist, experimental, formalist. We’re using all these big terms but all I’m really trying to say is my work is a blend of many different things and I’m not afraid to mix them. It all doesn’t have to look exactly the same.
LH: What about experimental film influences?
PH: Both Michael Snow and Stan Brakhage make films dealing directly with perception, and I may be going more in that direction. In your work as an artist sometimes you need to explore a certain aspect of your making, but the mass audience doesn’t want you to. But you don’t want to stagnate either. I can see that problem, and how it happens, and I think it’s because, I’m sort of turning this round, but I think it’s because we don’t have very good visual education. It’s just not happening at schools, it happens at co-ops and art galleries and places like that where film orvideomakers come in. Artists should be moving this forward but that’s just not happening.
LH: Do you plan to do a feature. Something longer and bigger?
PH: It’s something that could happen, I don’t know. Right now I’m just finishing a series of films, so I’m not thinking about what’s going to happen next. I mean it’s always in the back of your mind, because it’s the features that get the air play… short films just don’t have as good a market but I don’t think it’s because people don’t want to see shorts. I think it’s the institutions that are trying to determine the market. But I’ve considered… I mean my films are getting longer. If I wanted to make the kind of feature film… I don’t know if I could do it in Canada. I know Peter Mettler tried to do it, and made a feature film called The Top of His Head which is fairly experimental. It’s still a lot more narrative than I would do, but it’s in that range. Canada is fairly closed minded regarding innovations in narrative.
LH: Atom Egoyan is doing quite well with his alternative narrative films.
PH: Yes he is, he found the approval of Europe, and that’s the only reason why he’s making films. What bothers me is that all these co-ops here in Canada are all striving for these Atom Egoyan type films, but Atom Egoyan is the only one they’re going to let that happen to. It’s only going to be some exceptional cases. So what you get is these people, one year out of film school wanting to make their big feature, failing miserably, making a load of crap, and not learning about film. Atom Egoyan made a lot of short films before he made feature films, he dealt with the medium. So it’s this whole thing, like “we’re going to make our feature,” I mean the whole Canadian film industry is based on that. And publications are the same, you just have to read Cinema Canada and you can see that them pulling for this kind of thing. So you don’t get people working in short film, and working out ideas, and working out their own story like Atom Egoyan did. That disturbs me, a lot.
LH: What about Greenaway?
PH: When Peter Greenaway made A Zed and Two Noughts, it was actually his first 35mm feature, because he did Draughtsman’s Contract on Super 16, and there’s a big difference between shooting on 16 and 35. I really saw him at the point where he was making the jump. PeterGreenaway was trained as an artist, a painter. He went to art school. That’s the reason why I wanted to see how he worked in feature films, and how he managed. Personally, I think on this shoot he wasn’t enjoying himself, and I would be walking around with my Bolex and shooting, which is a small 16mm camera, taking my time and making my own film, and he would come up to me and say Jesus, you know, I envy you. Because he had sixty people on the crew to satisfy and union rates, and things that he hadn’t really experienced much yet. But I think it’s the sheer will of putting his ideas on film that has made him successful. He’s very determined, and he found different places that would fund him and produce him. They have an interest in art not just in commercial film and I think that’s lacking in Canada.
LH: So how can good films get made?
MH: It’s a lot of things that we talked about already. I think that the co-ops are in a positive stage, but there’s so little money. If the National Film Board should put more of their relatively large budget towards supporting the independent filmmaking community. Everybody moves so cautiously in Canada, maybe that might be it.
LH: What about cable networks, video access and so on?
PH: Things like that help, but with our American media alliance we don’t have a chance. Free trade means the lines are wide open for the American mass media machine, and I can’t see that things are going to get better. I’m sorry, but I can’t. I guess that some people think that now it’s all freer, so the cream’s going to rise to the top. I don’t believe that, because I think there’s so much mediocrity out there on the airwaves. We’re just going to get more of it. You just have to walk into the supermarkets to see how that’s working and how that’s affecting people. Maybe that’s a bit negative but I think people have to stand up for things like this kind of stuff, and some are. We’ve got a big fight ahead of us.
by Mario Falsetto (1989) (unedited)
Mario Falsetto: Why don’t we start at the beginning then, tell me something about your background, and how you ended up in film. I understand you were in other disciplines before you went to film school.
Philip Hoffman: That’s right. Let me start off with my university education, and then I’ll go further back. Actually I started in business. The family is very business-oriented on my father’s side. I went into business for one year, and that was enough. I switched quickly into English, which I had liked a lot throughout high school. In high school I had a great interest in Romantic poetry, especially Wordsworth. At Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario I combined English literature courses, Modern fiction and poetry—Elliot, Robbe-Grillet, Joyce—with cinema studies, primarily Russian, German and American silent films.
MF: This would be the mid-seventies or so?
PH: Yes, but before that I’d always had an interest in photography, and writing, sort of secret doodling and things like this. It was a way to deal with what was going on.
MF: Did the interest in photography have something to do with the film diary you were keeping?
PH: Yes. The photography goes further back to when I was thirteen or fourteen. That was the time I was first acquainted with Richard Kerr [Canadian experimental filmmaker]. He was more like an older brother to me then. We made a darkroom in the basement of my house and he showed me how to develop and print pictures. He got me interested in the magic that happens in the darkroom.
MF: So you were taking still photographs as well as film at this time?
PH: Mainly photography then. Just learning the process, and basically what you do with a camera. I was interested in having a record of things that happened in pictures and audio recordings.
MF: Was this a general thing in your family, or was it something unique to you?
PH: No, I think this was something unique to me. It wasn’t only family things I would photograph. I would go and photograph different places. In PASSING THROUGH/TORN FORMATIONS, a lot of the landscape sequences which were shot in Canada were places I used to go to in my youth. Those places, in a way, were the beginning. Fields, forests and streams. Christopher Dewdney, the writer, deals with these kinds of places in his work. He says that the land and its embodiment was his education. The remembering of that time of discovery is essential In my work. Only now I must deal with those moments of discovery using the camera.
MF: If your Initial Interests were In photography and poetry, how did you find yourself in the filmmaking program at Sheridan College [Oakville, Ontario]?
PH: When I realized that my interests in poetry and photography could be best served in filmmaking, I decided to look for a film course. Sheridan had a good atmosphere and they seemed to shy away from the “Hollywood” approach to film. Richard [Kerr] had already gone there for one year, and he brought back good reports!
MF: Did you have it In mind to work in something like a diary film format?
PH: That really didn’t come about until I began taking courses with Rick Hancox and Jeff Paull at Sheridan. We saw a lot of their work, which was very personal, autobiographical films, as well as New American Cinema, such as Brakhage, Snow and Mekas. These filmmakers got me thinking about the diary film. I had all this material ready to work with, and to look back at, which then became part of some of the films, such as ON THE POND and THE ROAD ENDED AT THE BEACH.
MF: Were you primarily doing still photography before you went to Sheridan?
PH: In my early teens, I worked exclusively with still photography. I started working in Super-8 when I was around 17 or 18, especially in my late teens when I’d go hitch-hiking and traveling through Canada. That was the starting point for THE ROAD ENDED AT THE BEACH (1983), which deals with experiences during seven or eight years of Interrupted travel through Canada. The film covers the time from before I went to film school at Sheridan to after that period. So the film deals not only with the traveling, but with the eruptive time of first learning about image-making. That was a unique time in my life so the film is important to me.
MF: I sense that the film was something of a rite of passage for you. Do you see it that way?
PH: During the making of that film I think I was shaking off some life long influences, for instance, the influence that documentary practice In Canada has had on me. I think thatmuch of my film practice in the last ten years has been concerned with, coming to terms with, the “realist” image in photography and filmmaking— purging the ghost of John Grierson. ?O,ZOO is the most obvious example of that, but THE ROAD ENDED AT THE BEACH represents the place where my initial struggles with the conventions of documentary began. So that was an Important time, a time when I was first grappling with expression in film, and that grappling is evident in the film as seen through the textural tensions that run through it. The wide variety of image strategies in the film represents the different ways I was looking at film over the seven years of Its making. This multiplicity of form, as opposed to a more purist model, is something I’ve further developed, especially In PASSING THROUGH/TORN FORMATIONS. So these films are like multi-texturedtapestries.
MF: The biggest Influences for you then at Sheridan were Rick Hancox, Jeff Paull and New American Cinema. You were there three years and made several student films?
PH: Yes. That’s where I made ON THE POND, in the second year.
MF: Which you consider your first “real” film? If I remember correctly, that film is pretty much centered around your family, and the lyrical form.
PH: It is a film that tries to tell a story, primarily without words, although It does contain the family’s voices describing pictures from the family photo album. It also deals with my Involvement with hockey. At the time of making the film, I had stopped playing competitive hockey, and so this reservoir of energy that I had, went towards filmmaking. The starting point for ON THE POND (1978) was looking at old photos of the family. They triggered memories, and I thought it was Important to try and deal with the photograph as a concrete form of memory. My teacher, Rick Hancox, talked about something the American filmmaker George Semsel told him which Is that you cannot make a film about anything or anyone else until you deal with yourself on film, and your own relationship with the camera. You have to get to know the way you uniquely deal with the camera, your eye, and the editing process, your mind. I also try to pass this on to students in the film classes that I now teach.
MF: When you say that, do you feel that making a film has to necessarily involve the Idea of trying to understand yourself, or know yourself better?
PH: Well, to some extent, I do. Even an artist like Michael Snow, whose films are not seen as autobiographical, has found a way to deal with his own being, his own way of seeing, as he works through his various film projects. I think that students have to confront themselves directly, in the creative process of filmmaking. When this does not happen, the result is a lot of docu-dramas or whatever Is the current rage, and these films only mimic the feature film industry or television, or even experimental film. The productions are empty because, in most cases, the student has only experienced the content of her or his film through other films they’ve seen. A personal film, as a first film, might end up being a bit self-conscious, sometimes even embarrassing since the maker is struggling with some pretty difficult issues, along with trying to come to terms with the technology. Yet, to me, Its still abetter first step then mimicry.
MF: But how does a 19 or 20 year-old student get to know themselves or understand themselves in a film class? Its not a psychology class or a therapy session. How do you get them to specifically think about who they are when they make a film?
PH: Well, at times, I think It is a psychology class or a therapy session. Only It Is the making of images which is used as a point of entry to looking deeper inside. This Is my way of teaching film and, of course, some students rebel against this approach. Yet, I think it is something every filmmaker, no matter what kind of filmmaking they do, has to come to terms with, on some level. I encourage students to deal with the materials of their craft In relation to their own life experiences.
MF: I guess its getting students to understand that when
they’re making a film, they’re making a film about themselves, on some level, and if they don’t understand themselves, the film is not going to be very revealing. This is kind of interesting to me because your work is so personal; it uses the diary format, even non-fiction material. It uses very personal material: Phil Hoffman’s friends, Phil Hoffman’s family. The question I could ask of you is what makes you think your family and friends will be interesting to me, or to someone else watching such personal films? Is that an issue when you make a film?
PH: I think I’ve found that It can be, but I try not to let that interfere with the making. In PASSING THROUGH, the characters are obviously not feature film stars. They are not put in the films because they are interesting characters. The film’s formal strategies de-emphasize personalities. So I do not feel it important that people know who the characters are outside of the film.
MF: How do you generalize the material, or how can you make the experience of confronting that material relevant to someone who has no conception of who you are?
PH: I try to make a form that allows and encourages ambiguity. In PASSING THROUGH, although there are many images of the family, and many family stories on the soundtrack, the layering of picture and sound makes it very difficult to follow a story-line, I think Its very self-oriented, Its self-centered. Its saying that these are the things I have done, and they’re important.
MF: But, I don’t think you’ve ever made “pure” diary films. Your films aren’t like those of Jonas Mekas or Howard Guttenplan. You seem to be playing with the form of the diary film, or somehow wanting it to be many things at once, to be less pure. In the process, the films may have diaristic elements, but they cease to be diary films, in the strict sense.
PH: I think that whole notion of the pure film form Is something that I’ve tried to stay away from In my work, though I’ve been influenced tremendously by it. It was important for me to have seen diary films and structural films. I’m not interested in repeating the work done by Mekas, following exactly his way of working with the diary film, for instance. I’m trying to evolve my own way of working with the diary concept, taking into account the work that has already been done In that area, what has been learned so far.
MF: You have difficulty with this concept of purity and the categorization of the experimental film. Your work always seems to be about other things as well, such as the relationship of fiction and non-fiction, or experimental documentary or experimental narrative. I’ve noticed this in Rick Hancox’s work too. I think Rick is dissatisfied with this notion of a pure experimental film.
PH: There are experimental film conventions, as well. What I’m trying to do is turn that inside out, to say “oh, well, why can’t I do that?” These things do relate, they all do. The world that we live In Isn’t so pure that you can look at It from only one perspective. I really feel strongly about looking at things from different angles, almost like light coming through a kaleidoscope or a crystal. You know Its the same light, but It turns into all these different configurations.
MF: I think most people who are concerned with the avant-garde know that the Idea of boundaries or limitations shouldn’t be a significant part of what the avant-garde Is about. Which Is not to say that films shouldn’t have shape and form. I mean limitations In the negative sense. The best work is always about striving for a new voice, or a different voice. Maybe asking some of the same old questions, but in a different way. When we get really lucky, and encounter a profoundly original artist, say someone like Brakhage, then we are exposed to a completely original way of looking at the world. But he is very rare. What are some of the other Issues In your work, apart from the diary, that you’ve thought about In the last while?
PH: I’ve lately realised that my early involvement with photography has very strongly colored my approach to process. Even though as a youngster my photo work was largely representational, I was always, and still am, excited in the darkroom when the Image starts to appear, that time right after the exposed print gets put Into the developer. I think my fascination for that fleeting moment, when change is most visible, carries through all of my work, but is most evident In PASSING THROUGH. The lyrical passages in my work, mostly in PASSING THROUGH and THE ROAD ENDED AT THE BEACH, are rooted In that special time in the darkroom, the moment of transformation. But the films are not “purely,” as you have said, lyrical. There are other things happening related to the questioning of the process, the questioning of my own methods, within the films. In an essay on ?O,ZOO!, Mike Zryd called this part of my work “tentative probings.” I work with the images that I make for a long period of time, and during that time, I probe the problems of representation. In ?O,ZOO! and in SOMEWHERE BETWEEN JALOSTOTITLAN AND ENCARNACION, amongst other questions about representation, the most central one is: whether or not the camera, my camera, should record a death? Earlier in THE ROAD ENDED AT THE BEACH, on trips through Canada, I question the way that the camera mediates experience or transforms experience. But this all leads back to the beginnings in the darkroom, making photographs of what I thought at the time was my reality, documents of friends and places and the inevitable question arose: How are the pictures different from the reality they claim to stand in for? Bruce Elder’s article “The Photographic Image” deals with this in the context of being Canadian, though I don’t think he means It’s exclusively a Canadianism. He suggests that we use the photograph to assure ourselves that we have control of our harsh surroundings. But I think you can get tricked if you use a photograph to experience the world.
MF: So your work is primarily centered around questions of representation. How did you arrive at these preoccupations?
PH: I didn’t understand these questions of representation on an intellectual level when I made my first three films. The questions confronted me through the experience of making, perhaps on a more Intuitive level. In 1984, I saw Greenaway’s THE FALLS (1980), and some of his other short films, at the Grierson Documentary Film Seminar. This led to my experience In 1985 of making a film around Greenaway’s A ZED AND TWO NOUGHTS (1985). Peter Greenaway’s films, and the whole experience of making a film around his film, was an Important step for me In dealing intellectually with the issues around photographic representation, and I needed to get passed that to do what I did in PASSING THROUGH.
MF: Hadn’t many of those issues been confronted by others, Frampton, for example, fifteen years earlier?
PH: Sure, but I had to deal with them in my way, and that was important for my development. In a way, PASSING THROUGH feels more like me … well, right now anyway.
MF: ?O,ZOO! is concerned with other Issues apart from the Issues of the photograph. It seems to me that the question of the reliability of the voices that we hear, and the manipulation of the filmic material…
PH: That’s still something Frampton dealt with.
MF: And others as well, but I think O?ZOO! Is a highly accomplished work, nevertheless, and it deals with those issues in interesting ways.
PH: Where ?O,ZOO! does break different ground in the eighties is
in its direct connection to mass media. The question of whether or not to film the death of the elephant in the zoo, expands to more questionss like what will I do with the footage after its developed? Would the TV networks want it? How would the TV producers change my story, minimizing this traumatic experience of seeing this enormous beast rolling in pain, close to death? Why do I even want to film this? How does mass media mediate my experience, just by its prominent existence in the landscape? and so on… and finally, the last question that comes back at the end of the film when the footage somewhat miraculously appears. These questions about the power of mass media are some of the most important questions of our time, and ?O,ZOO! was my contribution to confronting these issues. I think some experimental filmmakers sort of scoffed at me when I entered the film in the Canadian Genie Awards, and it was nominated in the Documentary category. It seemed bothersome to some people that the film wasn’t, and I’ll use the term again, a “pure”experimental film, or a “pure” documentary. But nobody saw the
irony of the nomination, in that the film exposes and pokes fun at the tiresome workings of conventional documentary practices, yet it still got a nomination. That tells me that the status quo itself Is having a hard time with the rigid definition of documentary that, for instance, the National Film Board is still basing their funding on. So I saw the entry as more of a political act, no matter how little an overall effect it had. An attempt to stir up some dust. It’s just too bad I didn’t get a chance to give an acceptance speech.
MF: I did have one question specifically about ?O,ZOO! before we delve further into PASSING THROUGH, and some other issues in your films. The film obviously has a lot of meaning for people who have seen Greenaway’s A ZED AND TWO NOUGHTS. It conjures up and brings back particular memories, and has certain resonances if you’ve seen Greenaway’s film. I’m wondering whether you felt, in some ways, that you were using Greenaway’s material? You were able to appropriate, in a certain sense, this very interestingand elaborate setting for your film.
PH: Yeah, it cost a lot of money for him to make his film, but it didn’t cost me a lot of money! $3200!
MF: But I mean, in some ways, your film is more interesting because of Greenaway’s film. I don’t know if there’s an issue there at all for you. I was just curious if you felt any kind of ethical question?
PH: Obviously, people are going to say that the filmmaker is taking advantage of the situation. I think those questions are always going to arise. I decided to put myself right in the middle of that. If I really wanted to cash in, I would have interviewed Greenaway, and made it more about him and his filmmaking. Yet, I think it deals with him and his work with integrity, and In a way that carries on my own work with the diary film, and questions of representation. That particular setting, a feature film set, was important in order to compare two methods of filmmaking: personal filmmaking practice and feature filmmaking practice. I have used the situation, but I hope the film Invites other kinds of analysis. I know It has so far. Some people heard about the film and were disappointed because it wasn’t a straight-ahead documentary on Greenaway. If the question is whether the film works as an integral piece on its own, without knowing or seeing A ZED AND TWO NOUGHTS, I’m not really that concerned. I know that ?O,ZOO! would not exist without the experience of being there when Peter was making his film, so for the two films to co-exist is kind of unique. Two people put a tremendous amount of work into two projects which were shot In many of the same locations. One, ZOO, was first imagined, written out in script form and shot using the script like following an architect’s plans; the other, ?O,ZOO!, is a kind of improvised reaction to the former, to the experience of the feature film shoot, and actually to the director’s whole body of work. The way I’ve chosen to work, as far as I know, is to put myself In a situation and deal with the situation at hand, and how that surrounding affects me. That’s why all the films look different. The form comes out of the interaction with the situation. In my films, I try to work in response to a situation, to move forward in my own way.
MF: ?O,ZOO! is a very effective and compelling film. I show it in my film course, and most students haven’t seen A ZED AND TWO NOUGHTS, and it makes them want to see it. I don’t know if they’re disappointed or not. So, It obviously works on different levels for different people. Since you brought up this question of process, Its probably a good idea to talk more about PASSING THROUGH, which is certainly your most complex film. I know there are issues in there which have to do with how the photograph, how the apparatus and the process of making the film helps us understand our experiences, both from the past and in the present. The film took you a long time to make. How much
structure and how specific were your ideas when you actually started making the film, and how much of it evolved for you In the process of making?
PH: All the films, and PASSING THROUGH Is a good example, begin without a structure. The Interaction of the camera and the subject, and what comes out of that, is the start of the process. I may have some ideas about the way, for instance, the sound might work, or the way images might go together in superimpositions. Though it Is still part of a process of what I’ve learned from the last film. Sometimes I make a couple of films at the same time. So that’s having an effect on the outcome. Anyway, I start collecting the images, and, as always in my work, I let the images tell me what the overall structure is going to be, or better yet, the structure evolves out of looking at the images, writing about the images, writing about the experience of shooting the images, which Is a totally different thing than the actual images shot. I may spend a whole evening with someone, and shoot only two minutes. But other experiences during that whole evening may find a place in the film. Anything goes. Not just what is filmed. All experience is treated as equal. Some may surface through the voice-over, or through the sound recording, or through conversations, for instance. Some things may surface after I show family members or others what I have shot. The direct interaction with the process may find a place in the film. The experience of working on the film is integrated into the content. Gradually the structure evolves.
MF: Could you talk about how the music for PASSING THROUGH was created, as an example of how you work?
PH: Tucker (Zimmerman) had done the music for ?O,ZOO! He’s American and has had classical training as a composer In the USA, and later in Italy during the 60’s. He lives In Belgium. I had a rough version of PASSING THROUGH worked out, and on a trip to Europe, I visited Tucker in Belgium. A great place, by the way. I had about five days to spend with him, and by the fourth, we had played a lot of baseball, listened to a lot of music and talked about my mother’s family and some of the things that had happened to the family. But we still hadn’t looked at the film. I was getting nervous because I thought Tucker had forgotten, or maybe I had miscommunicated the purpose of the visit to him. Now I understand that his way of working is that he really needs to get to know the person, and where they’re at, before he can compose music for them, which to me is a fine way of working. At the end of the fourth day, we went to the Liege TV station and managed to get on a rickety old flatbed editor. Tucker saw the film once, and that was enough. We mapped out the movements of the film, and the lengths, and six months later the sound was in my mailbox. I remember listening to the tape for the first time. The way he managed to hold onto the ethnic flavour, what I’ve experienced through my Grandfather’s (Driouloux’s) singing as a Polish lament, amidst the relentless repetition of the composition. It is a very powerful combination to me. I’ve grown up with Eastern European music, so to hear it in a fresh new way, with a more deterministic bent to it, moved me very much.
MF: Did PASSING THROUGH begin with the idea of making a film about Babci?
PH: Well, it was focused on, inspired by, certain people on my mother’s side of the family, especially my uncle. People who have a lot of passion, and have meant a lot to me. That was something I wanted to do even when I made ON THE POND ten years earlier.
MF: Had you been to Czechoslovakia?
PH: No. 1984 was the first time. I brought them the bad news of Babci’s sickness. Parkinson’s disease. I got to know Babci’s sister, Aunt Hanna, In Czechoslovakia. There are some shots of her In PASSING THROUGH. Sort of home movie style shooting, outside the family home in Jablunkov, and at the place where my mother was born in Yachini. There was this big pile of stones which was all that was left of the house where my mother was born. In the film my mother translates Aunt Hanna’s messages from Polish into English, near the start and at the end of the film. The story is told of the dispute over land, which resulted in the death of her brother. But this information is not forefronted in the film because of the way the picture superimposes, sometimes two or three different images at a time, and the way that two or three stories overlap on the soundtrack. For instance, as the translation of the dispute over land In Czechoslovakia is taking place, another story is starting up in Canada: the narrator/diarist (me) introduces his uncle, who’s a kind of pool and accordion-playing vagrant—another tragic story, but on this side of the Atlantic. These sorts of dualities run through the whole film. At the beginning there is a poem by Christopher Dewdney of a boy by water, opening up a piece of layered stone, and at the end of the film there is a poem by Marian McMahon of a girl who skips a flat stone across the surface of a lake. Both stories in Canada, both simple but magical, I think. And then there’s the duality of the corner-mirror, and the multiple meanings I’ve found in working with it.
MF: The film seems to be structured around various dualities, such as old world/new world, stillness (stasis)/movement, silence/sound, single voice/multiple voices, past/present, fiction/non-fiction, still photographs/moving images, darkness/image, and the progression from darkness to a single image through superimposed, layered Imagery and finally to fractured, abstracted imagery. Can you explain your use of the metaphor of the corner-mirror in PASSING THROUGH.
PH: The corner mirror was something that my uncle showed me. He said he used it to save himself. That story is on the soundtrack of the film. A corner mirror is made by placing two mirrors side by side, at right angles. When you look into the centre of this dual-mirrored configuration, “you see yourself as others see you,” as said in the film. The image you see of yourself is not reversed as it is when you look into a normal mirror. We just get used to seeing our own image reversed when we look at ourselves in the mirror, and take it for granted this is the way we look to others. In the film, the voice of the narrator, me, as a stand-in for my uncle , says that by looking into a corner-mirror you see “the real you.” The irony of it all is that, the corner-mirror, like photography and film, can only be a representation of someone, it can’t be “the real you.” On the other hand, and in the case of my uncle, the corner-mirror, like photography and film, can be used to work through life, to understand the way we see. It helped my uncle to look at himself differently. He would shave in front of his full length corner-mirror, which, as you might imagine Is a difficult task after years and years of shaving in a normal mirror. But it was a kind of visual exercise for him. He had all these exercises that questioned the status quo. Gradually, as he (I) says on the soundtrack “my mind started to connect up with my hands again.” So he transformed his everyday shaving routine into an exercise for his mind. The practice was an emblem for his philosophy of not taking anything for granted, and to review the way he had been taught to see. These are also main concerns regarding the way I work through film. I like to question conventions in fiction documentary and experimental film. I like to explore issues of representation in my films. I learned this way of being from my uncle.
MF: Can we get back to the film’s music, for a moment. I think its quite important to the film’s rhythm, and how you get swept along as the film progresses. What other kinds of material went Into Its construction?
PH: I had also recorded some accordion music played by my uncle, as he watched the footage that I shot in Czechoslovakia. Some of It gets pretty wild, some strange repetitions of folk songs mixed in with jazz. Then Bruce Johnson, who has worked on some of my films in the area of sound, took some of my uncle’s accordion music and made some tape loops. This all got Integrated into the rough version which Tucker saw. Come to think of it, I left Tucker a copy of that version of the soundtrack so he could use It while he was composing the score. So there’s a mix in the film of this kind of documentary music, stuff I recorded with my uncle, and Tucker’s composition.
MF: PASSING THROUGH has an interesting movement and progression. It basically starts with a fairly lengthy sequence of silence after the brief, opening voice-over, but as the film moves along It adds on all these layers of image and sound, layers of complexity. What someone might call polyphonic voices and layers of image. I was curious how you felt this form allows you to investigate a subject in ways that a different form might not?
PH: The film works as a kind of metaphor for the way memory or thought processes may work. Since film Is an art that deals with time, and the brain’s memory function can only work through time, it seems that film can best deal with thought processes such as memory. So even though there are subjects, people, in the film, the real focus of the formal investigation In PASSING THROUGH is time and memory. The people exist In that time and are used to carry out this investigation. At the same time, I’m also working through personal family Issues. I think the music and the relentless pace of the Interweaving stories and images, is what pulls the film along. This movement, as you put it, is an upward movement through about two-thirds of the film.
MF: What do you mean upward movement?
PH: Well, the music rises to a peak, the pitch actually gets
higher and the pacing becomes more rapid. As well, the images start off in the film, as if from beneath the earth, a slow upward movement of the camera through the sedimentary deposits of rock. This rock serves as the backdrop on top of which are laid home movies, the trip to Czechoslovakia, the pool hall sequences, and other “concrete forms of memory,” sort of fossilized in this film.
MF: So, as you’re climbing this peak, the film Is taking on more complexity.
PH: Yes. The film progresses upward until the images break through the surface of the lake, staring at a rock face at Bon Echo, which Is near Peterborough, Ontario. A series of movements, I would call upward spinning, reveal themselves: the Indian pictograph, which is named “fighting monsters,” the scratching on the film, the home movies, a child’s frozen scream, which brings about a return to the nursing home and Babci. Again, there is a kind of breaking through the surface as the troubled image of the young woman reappears, looking Into the corner mirror, as the mirror folds into itself the now single eye of the young woman matches the tunnel-like passages embodied in the olive trees. This sort of camera dance with nature releases the young girl who’s asleep in the field, she rises and runs through the field until she is confronted by the charging cow—which suggests a nightmarish return to the story of my mother looking for the cow. After this, the movement is downward.
MF: So there’s a point in the film where you reach the peak, and then you start coming down the other side?
PH: Yes. Its sort of like awakening after an Inward journey. The camera now moves down, but not back down into the rock from where It came at the start of the film, down the walls of the nursing home. Shots that I took when I left Babci, after one of our visits. The whole film is constructed like a corner mirror, with this upward and downward movement, and with these repetitions occurring, reflecting what had taken place in the first part of the film. But it’s never exactly the same when It’s repeated. Gertrude Stein made use of repetition in this way. She showed how when a phrase or idea is repeated, the meaning is changed because of what came before it. So repetition, in a sense, is not repetitive. And Stan Brakhage uses repetition of images in a similar way. Every time an image repeats, it’s a bit different from the previous image, and you start to see details of those differences, even though the Images are all very similar. You are invited to look closer at the unique qualities in each repetition. During the making of PASSING THROUGH, I became very interested in the Canadian writer Robert Kroetsch. When I read his book, The Stud Horseman, I noticed that I was always getting the feeling that an event that was unfolding in the narrative had already happened before in the book. It seemed illusory. I couldn’t tell whether the flavours in the book that were familiar to me, were coming from outside the book, sort of like deja vu. When I went back and studied Kroetsch’s writing, I discovered many of the same phrases repeated throughout the narrative. So when he described one character, a woman for example, he might describe a shoe she is wearing. That brief description of the woman’s shoe was first introduced eighty pages earlier, but described as a shoe belonging to the narrator’s mother. These minuscule, somewhat abstract details, which should seemingly have little to do with the content of the story, are the very details which connect one character to another and transfer meanings, flavours through the book. And this transference of meaning happens continuously with the Images conjured up by the narrator of the story creating a labyrinth of connections and meanings. Actually, there is a book of Kroetsch’s Interviews called Labyrinths of Voice.
MF: This recalls Maya Deren’s film RITUAL IN TRANSFIGURED TIME (1946), do you know it? You know the party sequence where things get repeated but they’re repeated with variations, and only parts of them are repeated, and they end in different spots or they begin at different spots. She talks about that peculiar sense of recognition when you think you know something, but you don’t really know it in the way you thought you knew it.
PH: And the photograph is interesting because It’s the other side of it in a way. A photograph purports to say that now you’ve got it, but of course you don’t have it because Its something that happened before, and it was very different back then. The only way you can get it is to make It new, and make it relate to what’s happening right now. Within PASSING THROUGH there are quite a few uses of the still photo that keep coming back. There’s a still photo, supposedly of my mother as a child with a cow, which was later revealed to be just a re-enactment, but it keeps coming back In different forms, different film stocks, even, displaying It, different ways of looking at that cow story of my mother going through the fields looking and calling for her cow. As if its the same cow story. Superficially it is. In each telling and showing there Is a change, like the changes with each telling in the tradition of oral history as these stories get passed down from generation to generation. There’s an analogy in the film in that the story’s form is changed, from a still photo to a lyrical, almost mid-century, Eastern European sequence of my mother looking for the cow.
MF: But you filmed it being re-enacted by a little girl…
PH: Yes, of course, her great-niece. Then it comes back again to the photographs that reveal the filming. My mother’s great-niece describes on the soundtrack the day we went and filmed the story of my mom looking for the cow. I find it Interesting that the story that was passed on to me will be passed on to the next generation, not as my mother’s cow story, but as the day we went and filmed my mother’s cow story. The meaning gets changed from generation to generation.
MF: What is it about memory that makes you want to explore it so much In your work?
PH: Well, memory can only work through time, and film is the best medium, of course, to deal with time. For instance, I think Chris Marker’s films, which are all about time and memory, are very important for our time.
MF: What do we discover about memory through films such as Marker’s, apart from it being unreliable, and distorted in some ways. We know memory colours our experience of the world, and helps shape who we are….
PH: I think memory is an important area to be working in right now because the threat mass media poses to memory—to a continued freedom of having our own unique memories of the past. We all see the world differently, but mass media, for Instance, In the form of news is packaging reality for us, a reality which quickly becomes the official history. And advertising, for instance, sets up models for the way to live if one wants “success.” Its not as if there’s a conspiracy, its much more dangerous than that. It seems that this new electronic landscape that we find ourselves in, in the late 20th century, is a kind of organism onto itself and in the west, capitalism is perpetrating its rapid growth. It’s all market-driven, out of control.
MF: So because we live in an apocalyptic, late-capitalist era, we need to understand our past better, and we need to understand how memory works.
PH: Yes. This reminds me of Marian McMahon’s memory work and autobiographical research, which is informed primarily by feminist writers. It has been important to me. In her film, NURSING HISTORY, Marian re-works the family’s home movies, images her father made in her youth, so they can be meaningful to her in the present. The home movies change from a barrage of weddings, parades and family outings, to a lyrical lament of remembering ones past, and finally re-shaping it. The way that so much broadcast television fixes our history into a homogeneous package, omitting different lifestyles and unique ways to look at the world, it seems essential that films like this get made and get shown. I see it as the most important contribution one can make as a filmmaker at this time. Where at one time the so called avant-garde needed to be further outside of the mainstream, I think now its time to circle back around. To close the gap somewhat. That’s a tough thing to do because the mass media is spewing out all this life style propaganda, and the work that artists do seems to have little effect. I probably sound incredibly idealistic, but I see no other goal to work towards that makes more sense. The effect that mass media is having on people is tremendously powerful. I was down south, in Florida, and they had all this crazy stuff about Bundy’s execution on the airwaves, and this very violent public, and one small station that I was listening to on the radio was [talking] in the midst of all this about the eighties being the age where mass communication really did take over in a frightening way.
MF: Yes, I found the reaction to the Bundy execution very frightening myself.
PH: It’s a pretty scary place there, and I don’t think Canadian society Is very different. This is discouraging many artists. For instance, I was talking to Stan Brakhage, and he said he was saddened to come to the realization that, the way things are, he has little hope of having any substantial influence on the culture in which he lives. And this is someone who has contributed so much to the understanding of the inherent qualities of film, and its relationship to perception.
MF: How has your relationship to the process of making art been altered or changed in the ten or twelve years you have been making films? Do you feel that the issues and the questions that concern you now are pretty much the same ones you were preoccupied with when you started making films?
PH: I think its more important for me now to move into a new way of living with film, and living with filmmaking. It’s something I’ve been working out since finishing PASSING THROUGH. PASSING THROUGH was a little like struggling in the birth-tunnel. And coming through that, I’ve developed as expanded and different way of looking at family…
MF: Do you mean that the concept of family will no longer be subject matter for your work?
PH: I’m not sure, because I’m still in the midst of the change. I feel that now I can step outside of it. In my own working out of this, it’s been a kind of realization that there’s a new life ahead or a new world ahead, and I’m in the midst of working that out in my present project, KITCHENER-BERLIN, which was started a couple of years back.
MF: You always seem to have different films overlapping, In different stages of production?
PH: Yes, they overlap, so I’m pushing ahead slowly, like Gertrude Stein’s writing, where she moves forward in a sentence and then repeats the last part of a sentence and then moves a little bit more forward with these continual repetitions and one sentence is affected by the other and Is part of the other but then there Is gradually a movement.
MF: So your relation to the film that you’re working on now, and which you started a couple of years ago, has changed because of PASSING THROUGH?
PH: Yes. KITCHENER-BERLIN is still about family, but not directly dealing with members of my family. The film deals with my father’s German heritage, or rather the German Influence that is In me. Kitchener-Waterloo [Ontario] Is where I was born, and where my grandparents settled once they came to Canada before WWII. Kitchener was called Berlin just before World War One—they changed the name.
MF: And do you think this film will look different than your previous films?
PH: Yes, but there’s still a lot of superimposition. It’s more the outlook of it which is different. It will not be specifically about certain family members. The making of this film seems less pressured. It feels like the last few pages in a chapter. I suppose it’s the end of an 11-12 year cycle of films. It started with ON THE POND(1978), which was essentially about family, next I started RIVER (1978-89), which is an ongoing project now coming to an end, in which I return to the same river, the Saugeen. Each time the river is dealt with in a way that I am thinking about film at that specific time in my life. Last summer the underwater sequence was filmed, the last section of the river for now. The next group of films THE ROAD ENDED AT THE BEACH (1983), SOMEWHERE BETWEEN JALOSTOTITLAN AND ENCARNACION (1984) & ?O,ZOO! (THE MAKING OF A FICTION FILM) (1986), are essentially diaristic films of travel, and coming to ,terms with the apparatus. With the last two films of the cycle,PASSING THROUGH/TORN FORMATIONS (1988) and KITCHENER/BERLIN (1989), I return to the family, and deal with my mother’s and father’s heritage.
MF: And you feel that the films you’re going to make after this one will not rely on the idea of family, at least so extensively?
PH: Well, I just have the sense that my dealing with autobiography is changing. The autobiographical project that I started In 1978 with ON THE POND feels very much complete. I’ve always known exactly what project I’d be working on in advance, but not this time. There’s sort of a hollow space in the near future which feels a bit unclear. A time to work a bit looser with film. Maybe not think of projects as being so specific, as I have in the past.
MF: Let me just move this into another area that I want to talk to you about, which has to do with the current practice of experimental filmmaking. Are we in a good or a bad time?
PH: I think right now in Toronto, from my own experience, there’s a good strong group of people working together. I wasn’t around in the 60’s to see it but I know that, because of the availability of super-8 and the cheapness of film, and because of the attitude towards the arts, that time was much stronger than what we have now. But now, in the community to which I belong, there are quite a few people who seem to have decided to dedicate their lives to experimental film. That feels good. It’s essential to have a community right now In the arts, not so much for the reason of people getting inspired by each other, more for the reason to maintain the arts in light of its current erosion. If you have a group of artists that are continually fighting with each other, it will be difficult to maintain the little we have.
MF: That’s always been the fate of the avant-garde.
PH: It always has, but It is time we realize that this or that person makes films differently, and we’re In the same business, so let’s stay together on some level. There are much bigger forces to fight.
MF: Let me just ask you something. Some people have argued that the avant-garde film In the eighties reached something of a dead end. I’m thinking of Fred Camper’s article inMillennium a couple of years back. I was talking to Brakhage last year and he was saying there are only about ten or twelve American filmmakers who were really active In the Sixties who are active now. You start thinking about it, and in some sense its true that in the last ten years many formerly active filmmakers have been fairly inactive. I’m thinking of people like Kenneth Anger, Bruce Baillie, Peter Kubelka, Bruce Connor, Ken Jacobs; the list goes on. I’m not sure that I entirely agree with him, but it’s certainly true that some of the players don’t seem to be very active. Some people would say that may be true but there are many more people making films now, thousands of people making films. You could argue that having all these people making films does not mean that there is a lot of good work around. So having many more filmmakers around does not necessarily mean that the movement is healthy. I think that there was a fair amount of mediocre work produced in the last ten or fifteen years. And in thinking about tremendous difficulties in being an experimental filmmaker, the fact that the audiences are still quite small for experimental films, and that people would rather watch television and videos than a challenging experimental film, it’s easy to get discouraged.
Iguess I was referring to a more direct interaction with a people in the smaller community I belong to. I tend to a place for possible development of work. I don’t think a lot of people making experimental films, but I think a number of people who are very dedicated, and who are deal with the history of the New American Cinema, for and try to make it new, but not ignore this history.
I’m looking at it from that point of view. I think all the things that you’ve said, and that we’ve already talked about, really have to do with mass communication and how that has heavily conditioned audiences, that’s quite a sad state. So my answer qualified. I know what Brakhage is saying because I’ve heard that, and I feel somewhat the same. Other people who have made films in the past ten years are saying we didn’t live through the 60’s, so we don’t care about this “death of film” threat. Whether the films are liked or not, there are still a number of people dedicating a lot of time and energy to it. They are committed to it.
MF: But why is it when you look at work from the Canadian co-ops— there are all these co-ops around—and you look at this work, and try to find really strong, genuine avant-garde work, it’s very difficult to find? A lot of it is not very good work, at least to my way of thinking it’s pretty weak stuff.
PH: Well too many people in the co-ops are getting ‘star-struck’! They make one or two films and they think they’re ready for feature length narrative. Young filmmakers hear about a few success stories, people who have made it internationally with their low budget features, and they figure that is the route to go. There is so much press and support for feature films compared to short, Independent films that, again, young filmmakers strive for the big project. A number of years back, process and development was the tone of the time. Especially with regard to the development of young filmmakers. Seems to me product is what people are striving for now, and I feel this to be an unhealthysituation. But I think there are some places where process and development are emphasized.
MF: Where there’s a tight community of people who are dedicated and care about the avant-garde?
PH: Yes, and that’s very small but energetic. I’m going to be going out west, Vancouver and hopefully Calgary, Winnipeg and Regina, to visit some co-ops and see what’s going on out there. I know that In Toronto a number of people are working hard in the area. I think in the mid-seventies and eighties there was some good work… It happened in a different way. Camper said that the institutionalization of experimental film killed it. Certainly it has changed it into another animal and it’s not going to be the same animal as we had in the sixties, and who wants it to be, it’s a different time. I see some experimental filmmakers that have come out of Sheridan, some that have come out of Ryerson, Simon Fraser or Concordia. These people were influenced by the teachers who were there at the time, by the many theories floating around at the time. It’s different than being effected by what’s happening on the street, as in the 60’s. Now, all that’s happening out there is rock video.
MF: But will those people that you’re thinking of be making experimental films ten years from now?
PH: I hope so. I don’t know. I think so. I mean, I don’t think there’s going to be any kind of huge movement. Some people will continue to work in the area of experimental film as long as it is physically and economically possible.
MF: I guess what I’m getting at is there are so many obstacles in terms of funding, in terms of audiences, in terms of distribution, in terms of the threat of video… I mean people don’t even want to sit, they will not sit for anything that’s very challenging, that’s very long, even people that should care about the avant-garde don’t want to do that. That’s what I’m talking about. I’m talking about those things beating people down to the point where they just say forget it, it’s too hard to make experimental films, I’ll do something else.
PH: What’s happening is that people get their jobs and on the weekends they work on their films. People have to work long hours at jobs they don’t like just to get by. I don’t think this is happening only In film. It’s happening in all the arts. It’s a time we’re heading into as far as I’m concerned, but I don’t want to spend the time complaining about it …
MF: But you feel that there’s enough good work around, or people who are capable of good work. You feel that people in this community will support each other and keep making films? You’re not discouraged?
PH: No. For me its been ok. Lately I’ve been teaching at Sheridan’s Media Arts department, and even though some of the people in the department do not understand, or care to put the time into trying to understand new forms of innovative film, experimental film students are still seeing and making this kind of work. Some good filmmakers have come out of that department. So even though the times are not so good for experimental film, I think that vital work can come out of a period of oppression, as this one. Work that could be very Important to the creation of the next visual medium, as well as contributing meaningfully to the culture.
MF: But you don’t feel that you’re working in a dying form, being an avant-garde filmmaker?
PH: When photography was invented, painting changed. I expect a change In the uses of film, as video becomes more prominent. If film gets too expensive, I’ll process my own. People like Carl Brown and Gary Popovich are doing that now, not only because it’s cheaper, but because of the great control they have in the developing steps. I know how to process and print film on my own now. If it comes to that, I’ll adjust. I’m not going to spend my time worrying about it. You can’t pretend that everything is rosy, but you can’t sit in your room and sulk that film is dying either. I don’t see the community I’m involved with doing that. I find they’re making work. This is the time I want to be working in.
MF: I get a sense that the avant-garde film movement may be at a crucial juncture. Do you agree?
PH: Let me make an analogy, a kind of far out analogy, which will bring us back to PASSING THROUGH. My grandmother, Babci, was on her deathbed, but none of the family would go up to see her. Well that’s not true. My mother did, and a number of people, but some of the relations said “no, I don’t want to go up to see her because I want to remember her as she was.” To me, her life was the reason for going up and filming. Her life, at that time, was as vibrant and real to her and important as any moment in life is. It was a sad thing, and there wasn’t much communication, but she had her life. This sounds optimistic, but we go through processes; things change, things rust, things become something else. If avant-garde film is dying, then let’s celebrate its death and make it into something else.
MF: So you think that certain people are unwilling to deal with the fact that avant-garde film is different now, and there are different players and different kinds of films that need to be made, and one can’t keep expecting the same kinds of work to be made?
PH: Yes, the whole social order is different than it was in the Sixties. Maybe that period will be looked on as a golden moment. It was a great period, no question. But, it’s as important a time now in experimental films as it was in the 1960’s. Some people just can’t see it. Lots of people feel passionately about experimental films, and those dedicated to making them will always find a way to make their films.
An interview by Mike Hoolboom (2001)
Philip Hoffman: After finishing the autobiographical film cycle I wanted to play again. I brought a super-8 camera along with me to Banff in order to do some sketching. I began exposing a frame at a time while zooming, or moving the camera. The result was a Cubist kind of taking apart of the world. It splays the frame, making the image move. Because of its extreme speed, it is necessary to slow the image down afterwards, controlling the speed via re-photography on the optical printer. The lightness of the camera allowed me to play along with my subject in a musical way. This kind of shooting, or being in the world, marked the end of one kind of working, which was much more personal and traditionally ‘documentary.’
MH: Why was it important to break the space up?
PH: It was in the air. The Berlin Wall had fallen, film had become media, computers were everywhere and fragmentation ruled. The cycle of personal film work I’d finished allowed me to travel and show the work, and Chimera (15 minutes 1996) was the result. It was photographed in Banff, Finland, Russia, Egypt, England and Australia.
MH: Despite lensing for years all over the globe, your shooting style is very consistent.
PH: I felt electric. Like I was touching eternity. These camera gestures create rhythms at the speed of light following an inner-outer sympathy. I was doing a fair bit of inner work at that time—trancing, meditation, yoga—so what was coming to me in image was symbolically meaningful. I had my own narrative, no matter how abstract it might appear to others, but instead of people and places which are a part of a social world, it became another kind of journey. Chimera began in 1989 during the Banff residency and took seven years to shoot and edit.
MH: The shooting blends one place into another.
PH: It shows a world breaking down, and the images express the energy of change. The film doesn’t insist that market people in Cairo’s Khan Khalili and London’s Portabello are the same, but that they share an energy related to colour, shape and form. That’s why some of the film is abstract, to evoke these pleasures of sharing.
In Technilogic Ordering (1994), by contrast, the fragmentation is political, re-working media images of the Gulf War. The collisions mean more because lives are being lost, along with their representation. This sketch of Chimera is simply one way to experience the world. As a viewer you’re only moving forward, like the stream of images that come to us through TV, or the Web. Chimera is a representation of that way of being in the world. Gathering speed. But in the third and concluding part of Chimera I finally go back, and this return offers a critique of the first two sections where each image replaces and erases what’s gone before. In the final section a man plays electric piano in a Russian square, and this is intercut with scenes from a Finnish rave, and the great rock Uluru. Uluru is a sacred aboriginal site which I photographed from a distance. It stands boldly through it all. This movement finally brings us back to making pancakes in the kitchen, because despite virtual velocities and cyberspace, at the end of the day you have to go home and make supper.
I had a lot of trouble finishing the film, in finding the shape for these sketches. I finally returned to its original idea, which is contained in the title. Chimera is an animal in Greek mythology which combines the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a serpent. For the first time in my making, I didn’t have a narrative to hang the structure on, so I was guided by myth, and the beast’s embodiment of diversity and fragmentation. The first section begins with a roar on the soundtrack and proceeds with an accelerated drumbeat and a scream, which I associate with the roar of a lion. The second section has a very ethereal soundtrack, which is the goat on the mountain, ‘up in the clouds,’ where he finds his place. The final section is the serpent. It is filled with sibilant chanting which brings on transformation.
There were many things in my life that I pinned to these scenes. They are returning now in my making because I couldn’t deal with them at the time. I encountered three deaths while shooting this way. The deaths are not shown or even alluded to in these films, but they lie underneath each of them. Waiting.
Chimera‘s original super-8 footage was being blown up to 16mm by Carrick Saunders in Montreal. I gave him a call to see how it was going and his wife answered. There was some commotion—she left the phone and didn’t return. I phoned later that night and discovered he’d had a heart attack and passed away.
MH: He died while you were on the phone?
PH: Yes. And you don’t know why you’re part of it. Of course this is an awful tragedy for Carrick’s family, but I didn’t know him. As a witness to his death, I felt I was being given a gift, and that I had to do something with it. I just wrote it all down in my journal, but couldn’t figure on how it would become part of Chimera.
In the second instance, I was crossing a bridge over the Thames, just coming out of the Moving Image Museum where I’d shot their history of cinema exhibit. I was blurry eyed. I stepped out on the bridge where a stranger looked me in the face, got up on the bridge and jumped. I spied him through the cracks, already going underwater without a struggle. Dazed, I wondered if I should film him. And didn’t. A man came by and asked if he’d jumped. A woman arrived from the other side of the bridge and said she’d call the police. That’s when I came round. I’d been stuck in that existential moment where you see someone who wants to die. Do you let him? Should you do something? Can you? I ran to the other side of the bridge and met up with a policewoman who didn’t have a walkie talkie. I kept running until I found another cop who said they’d got him. A pleasure boat had come by and picked him up. What a coincidence, this man wants to die but a boat chances along. I asked the cop if he could let me know what happened, and that night I got a note: “The bloke who jumped in the creek is alright.” Both these events made me think about death, and how little control we finally have.
MH: Tell me about Technilogic Ordering (30 minutes 1994).
PH: The Persian Gulf War was a made-for-TV affair which filled me with anxiety. I watched the war with some of my students at Sheridan College where I was teaching. A couple of them—Heather Cook and Stephen Butson—began to collect images as a way of thinking about the broadcasts. It’s like when you have a lot of nervous energy you go for a skate. You have so much anxiety watching this stuff and you have no control over it.
During our gathering I found a VCR with a computer chip that fragmented the image into Muybridge-like box-frames. This machine allowed you to play the image, changing the size and number of the boxes onscreen—do you want 9, 400 or 1600?—and scroll them from left to right, like reading or media literacy.
We collaged some of the different footage we’d collected, inserting commercials, movie fragments and sports into news broadcasts of the war. Among other things, we wanted to show the difference between Canadian and American coverage. While many Canadian commentators questioned the necessity of the war, the Americans were blindly patriotic. As we discovered later, all the war footage had been cleared by the Pentagon, so it appeared bloodless and techno-centric. It was mayhem at a distance. The boxes were a visual way of commenting on the reports, making patterns out of this destruction, and allowing the pictures to critique themselves.
The montage featured many heavy-handed collisions. Kitchen cleaners were juxtaposed with images of the Iraqi army being ‘cleaned up.’ Airplanes from the Wizard of Oz smoked messages across the sky: “Surrender Dorothy.” There was a nationally televised football championship going on at the same time which blurred the line between sports and war. Both featured the same mass hysteria. Once the editing was done, the video footage was transferred to film because in order to really see television you have to look at it somewhere else, in a movie theatre for instance.
MH: Like much of your work in the nineties, this film began as a collaboration.
PH: After my personal work in the eighties it was time for the author to die. I wanted to relinquish control, explore ways of making that would expand the palette. In the early nineties I started three projects that had in common sketching, collaboration, and smaller format technologies (other than 16mm). With the help of Vesa Lehko and other friends in FinlandChimera was turned into an installation. Technilogic Ordering was made with Stephen Butson, Heather Cook and Marian McMahon, who naturally helped with all of them.
In Opening Series I collaborate with the audience by offering a film in parts, each in its own painted box. I ask them the audience to arrange the boxes in the order they would like to see them on screen. The film not only runs differently each time, but provides a picture of its audience. Opening Series arose out of questions of inter-activity, which too often means people watching computer screens instead of relating to one another.
Following Opening Series are three collaborations: Kokoro is for Heart with Gerry Shikatani, Sweep with Sammi van Ingen and Destroying Angel with Wayne Salazar. By the mid-90s, I’d committed to hard-core collaboration.
MH: Kokoro is for Heart (7 minutes 1999) has a feel of daily ritual and naming.
PH: I met Gerry Shikatani at Sheridan College where he worked in the writing department. Gerry’s a poet, a Nichols protegé. He writes sound poetry, novels, and food reviews for the dailies. One morning Gerry came up to the farm and we went for a drive, not thinking about making a film at all. We wound up at a gravel pit, and I pulled my camera out of the truck while Gerry interacted with the space of the pit, moving rocks and branches around. I shot two rolls of 16mm reversal. When I got the footage back I noticed the registration pin was slipping, so there were periodic stutters in the image. Trained as a cinematographer, I saw these as flaws, though Marian said they were like Gerry’s voiced poetry. He works with the structure and gestures of language, and the flipping frame reveals the structures of vision strained through the machine.
I optically printed the whole film one to one and two to one. So each picture had a double, one for each of its makers. Then I cut the film into twelve parts, and put them into twelve separate boxes for Opening Series 3 (7 minutes 1995). The audience would choose the order they’d be screened in. I made the paintings for the box covers by using natural materials like seeds and sunflowers, along with family photographs and paint. Then I put a blank canvas on top of the painted ones, laid them on the ground and drove over them with my truck, so every picture is doubled as well.
As an interactive work, the film began its life as part of the Opening Series experiment where the audience effected the order of the film by arranging the boxes. We also ran it as a performance at Cinecycle where Gerry sat in front of the projected image rapping out his sound poetry. Later, we fixed the order of the film, made a final print and renamed it Kokorois for Heart. The performances served to find a satisfying, fixed order. But it can still run as an open ended work in the performance setting.
‘Kokoro’ is the Japanese word for heart, or life force. Here, it’s the heart of the land, speech or breath. Gerry is shown as part of the landscape but separate from it, and his words on the soundtrack (a blend of Japanese, French and English), are a way of knowing or naming the land. They’re the language of the land or a landscape of language.
MH: Tell me about Sweep (30 minutes 1995).
PH: One of my interests in making the film was to go to Kapaskasing because that’s where my mother settled when she first came to Canada. My grandfather, Driououx, came toCanada to work as a lumberjack, eventually ran a poolhall and pushed moonshine on the side. The area they lived in was actually called Moonshine Creek. My grandmother, Babji, ran a rooming house. I asked my mother to recollect Babji’s stories for the film, which she does while looking at family photos. One of these shows the family gathered for Christmas dinner. Mom says this picture makes her feel happy, because at Christmas everything would go well. But I knew from my own growing up that visits to Babji and Driououx’s would always start in fun but often end with a plate of food hitting the kitchen wall. I pose these questions to my mother through narration, and her answer is evident in the grain of her voice. The violence and abuse in the household remains in her trembling speech. This is where our forgetting, and the things we care not to tell, come to reside.
This makes me think of Marian’s work, how the past lives in the present. The fears we don’t get over become part of our everyday life.
My mother’s image returns at the end of the film when I zoom in on her, followed by a zoom on me, as a reminder of that repressive pain, which flashes forward from the beginning of the film to its end, as suddenly and ferociously as the past takes over the present.
MH: Your collaborator is Sami van Ingen and his journey is also a personal one.
PH: Sami’s great grandfather was the American documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty. He’d made ethnographic ‘classics’ like Nanook of the North, which was shot in Canada. While it is considered one of the first verité documentaries, most of the scenes were staged and rehearsed. And it offered a particularly white view on native practices, made in a time when white meant ‘objective.’ Sami wanted to return to some of the places that his grandfather had been in order to deal with this part of his family’s history.
While we were making the film, a feature-length drama was released about Robert Flaherty, which reveals a love affair he had with a native woman. Everything was suddenly out in the open. Sami and his family already knew this, but no one dared to speak about it. They were keepers of the legend, the great genius, the family name. Our film begins with a suggestion that we will hear details of family history, but Sami didn’t want to go further in that direction, so the film arrives at more general conclusions. We used archival home movies showing white men’s journeys to appropriate the north. Sami’s great-grandfather, Robert Flaherty, was just the most famous person who went up there. So while we couldn’t speak of the family legacy, we could show white men hanging around the native camps, and the effects they had. These scenes are intercut with shots of Sami and I dozing around a pool on our way home amidst spring blooms, implicating us as part of another wave of white explorers. The film has a strong visual thesis, but parts are missing. It’s like the deaths I encountered while making Chimera, real life overwhelmed its representation.
MH: The film shows the two of you traveling north by car, meeting people along the way, and entering a Cree reservation. This journey ends when one of the native guides takes you across the water to Fort George.
PH: Fort George was one of a series of British forts built in the North, and Flaherty would have traveled through there. The Fort is gone, but we found an old Hudson Bay Company trading post still standing which we filmed. I say in voice-over, “You’re not going to find your grandfather here. It’s gone now. It’s over.” Around the building we discovered a lot of beautiful driftwood. Earlier in the film we showed the dam, and talked about how the need for hydro-electric power overwhelmed Native protests, and how their burial grounds were flooded because the dam raised the water level. This driftwood is also a result of the dam. These are the bones of the forest, the ruined culture. The driftwood was shot in high contrast stock, with the haunting call of Canada geese in the distance. Then we have a lunch of canned fish and tomatoes which we film, because all we can do now is film ourselves. We’ve come all this way to shoot the making of a sandwich.
During the trip all of the native people we met asked us to film them. During the dam protests so many white journalists had been up to visit they were used to it. They’d even built a motel just for visiting politicians, and had a huge teepee as the local supermarket! We always refused, saying we don’t want to tell your story, this is up to you, and it always has been. So the film’s critique of ethnographic filmmaking shows the failure of white culture to integrate, proposing a movement alongside instead of the usual pictures of control.
At the end of the film, during dinner, I showed our native host Christopher Herodier how to use the camera, and he shoots us eating. I left him with the camera, saying, “Give me a surprise.” When we got back to the city and processed the roll we discovered that Christopher had filmed a teepee against a backdrop of new housing, and then the two of us against a sunset, slightly out of focus.
When the film was finished, Petra Chevrier invited Sweep to screen at the YYZ Gallery. I called Christopher and asked if we could show our work together. He had made a videotape called Chiwaanaatihtaau Chitischiinuu (Let’s go back to our land). It shows a Cree protest against the building of another dam, the canoe voyage from Fort George to Great Whale, the singing and the outrage. The two pieces played together for a month and it was very satisfying. It reflects our approach of living cinema.
MH: Can you tell me about the title Sweep.
PH: To shoot the drive northwards we rented a motor that ran the camera very fast, giving us super-slow motion. At the head of the shot the motor’s still gaining speed, so you get a fast motion which is overexposed, which then turns into slow motion at a regular exposure. This gives a sweeping motion to the image, a sweeping of landscape and driving. ‘Sweep’ is also sweeping the road clean, trying to start over again, sweeping away Flaherty.
MH: Destroying Angel (32 minutes 1998) features another collaboration, how did that begin?
PH: I met Wayne Salazar in Australia in 1991 at the Sydney Festival. The curator Paul Byrnes had invited me show all my work. In Sydney, Paul would take you to supper every night, with a small group of filmmakers and curators, and Wayne was party to that. It was a marvelous time. Soon after the festival I visited Wayne in New York, and a while later he called to tell me he’d contracted AIDS and was very sick. He was going to tell his mother who lived in New York State, so I invited him to come up to the farm and relax and meet Marian. That’s when we started shooting. I don’t know how these things start. Maybe it’s just that you’re always shooting film, and when people come you keep shooting and then films start.
The farm reminded Wayne of his rural youth, the day trips he used to take with his father who worked as an insurance salesman. Wayne’s bad health made him wonder how long he was going to be around, and he felt compelled to deal with his father who had abused him as a child. They hadn’t seen each other for years, but Wayne decided to go see his father and tell him he had AIDS. This all became part of the film. The first weekend he came he got along well with Marian, and they spoke about personal histories, and her themes of remembering and forgetting. He was very sick then, and taking a lot of pills. The drug cocktail hadn’t been introduced yet, so he was tired and depressed. It was Wayne’s idea to make the film and I felt my role was to assist. He’d made a short video about Cuban artists, had seen a lot of films as a curator and had been painting since art school, but really had no experience making personal film work. Which is fucking hard. During the making, I felt I was back working on Road Ended because the struggles were the same. Road Ended took seven years to make, trying to give shape to these concrete bits of memory, working without a script, and letting the camera respond to experience as it’s happening. I stayed patient, trying to help give Wayne an outlet. I learned more about his struggles of growing up gay, dealing with his macho father’s disappointments, and how he and his lover Mickey were finding a way to live.
It began as a film about our fathers, but it quickly became clear that mine was no match for his. The stories of Wayne’s abuse created too much of a contrast to my father’s sympathetic parenting. I shot sequences and told stories which were part of an early cut, which might one day join another film. But there was so much anger and need on Wayne’s part that I had to withdraw. The decision was made when my partner of twelve years, Marian McMahon, was diagnosed with cancer, and a week later, during a biopsy, she died. We stopped making the film, and when I climbed up out of the hole, that’s when I moved my voice out of the film. I needed to make my own film about Marian, her life and the grieving. Marian was already part of Destroying Angel, asking Wayne questions on video about his meds, and AIDS, and everyday life. Wayne felt close to her and asked if her story could be developed more in the film, if we could show this passing, and I felt that would be right.
MH: You show Wayne and Mickey getting married.
PH: Back in San Francisco, Wayne got healthier, which was partly the drugs, diet and exercise. But the film had a lot to do with it as well. Wayne and his partner Mickey decided to get married. Mickey is Austrian, so an Austrian TV crew arrived to shoot them for a news program on San Francisco gay life and marriage. And I thought, yes, we have to have this in the film. Their reportage was typically television. It opens with a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, then moves into the gay bars, and sexual activity and dancing and high pitched screaming, but in our film, we inserted a shot of Wayne and Mickey walking down the street buying flowers. Very everyday. It’s a nice moment because it shows how television creates stereotypes.
MH: Why did they want to get married?
PH: They were in love of course. But I think it was a political decision as well. In a culture that doesn’t accept their sexuality, it was a step towards gaining the same rights as heterosexual couples.
MH: Wayne speaks to his father surrounded in darkness, directly to the camera, outlining a history of ignorance and abuse. But when we meet his father at the wedding he looks so benign.
PH: The film reveals how the monsters of our past live in us. He’s become an old man, no longer shouting abuse at Wayne. But it doesn’t change what he did. He hurt Wayne, and neither of them could deal with it. They held onto this pain for years. At the ceremony, Wayne says it hasn’t always been easy with his father, who then breaks in and proposes a toast to Wayne and Mickey. He says that he’s from Guatemala, a culture where gay people exist only in the closet. And then he wishes Wayne and Mickey happiness in their life together. But it took the making of our film to release this fear. It’s Wayne that’s done the work to recover his past, and the evidence of this work is Destroying Angel. While the early passages of the film are drawn from Wayne’s point of view, the ceremony at the end is shot in a verité style by the Austrian video crew. Finally, we’re seeing something outside ofWayne’s frame. He’s no longer telling his story using voice-over. We enter another side of him, and this adds in a profound way to the information we get about his relationships.
Wayne called me last week, a year after his father died. He said, ‘I don’t recognize that guy in the film.’ He was referring to himself. People use different tools to create change in their lives. Some use work, or alcohol, or art. Wayne doesn’t need to talk about his father that way anymore. This is a familiar feeling for me. passing through, for instance, was a grieving for my grandmother Babji. You hope these rituals of filmmaking resonate for others.
Marian’s death is revealed in Destroying Angel and people say, ‘you must find that hard to watch,’ but I don’t. I love her images, her voice and her writing. After Marian’s death, while looking up references to bring her Ph.D. thesis to completion, I dwelt for hours on the small hand-scribbled writings she left on the texts she was reading. No matter how esoteric or academic the text, her response would always tune in the personal, the everyday. She came back to life for me through her writing. The film I’m working on now attempts to deal with the traces she’s left behind, so that I might better understand our time together and learn something about death and life. The dead carry on longer than the living, and it seems that the force of a life lived is stronger once it ceases to exert itself… its silence and mystery.
MH: The title Destroying Angel suggests an angel that returns to wreak vengeance, a once purity that’s now armed.
PH: It’s also a mushroom, one of the most deadly and poisonous. The poison is the virus, which brings pain and suffering, but also transformation and change and growth. There’s an eating sequence in the film shot up at the farm where Wayne is making us dinner. In the early nineties there was still such a fear of casual infection, you know, he could cut himself and infect us, but instead there’s only celebration. We’re living right now, the camera’s floating around the food and we’re having a ball in the face of it all.
MH: Much of your work in the 90s is more hermetic and difficult than your autobiographical cycle. What would you say to those who feel your work, along with others in this small field, is willfully self enclosed, unnecessarily obscure, interested in formal issues in a medium which itself is coming to an end, and on the other hand suffers from solipsism andnarcissism.
PH: Yes and? It lives with me and that’s what is important. Often circumstances collect around you and you have to make the film as well as you can without knowing why until later. Sometimes you get a song out of it, sometimes a mumble.
MH: Is it important to finish work or is it just the process that’s important?
PH: I need to bring everything to some kind of completion. I learned from my dad how to start and finish things in the factory when I used to make boxes every day. Screening your work and receiving feedback is an important part of the process. We experimentalists may not get the TV audience but that’s alright. Our work has a different purpose. We’re the people behind the stage sweeping up the old act and getting it ready for the new show.
People who try and push boundaries are part of a lineage that’s a much thinner thread than CNN or Cineplex, but it’s continuous, it’s a living history. We’re carrying this on, and maybe I’ll make just one film that’s important, that will have an effect on people. I hope I haven’t made it already. If I’ve always held on to the personal it’s because I believe that what I’ve lived has a shape, an organic world that can be shared, through film, with others.
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)