Category Archives: Writings About Philip Hoffman

Kodak Cinematic Award FOR VULTURE at Ann Arbor, reviewed at Edinburgh’S BLACK BOX & at MDFF SELECTS


Kim Knowles on vulture, Edinburgh International Film Festival, Blackbox: “Hoffman’s vulture” a beautiful and contemplative study of interspecies co-existence, where farm animals roam freely and the camera patiently observes their various interactions. Shot on 16mm film and processed with plants and flowers, it’s also an exercise in eco-sensitivity on so many levels.

Jordan Cronk, Off the Grid  (on Hoffman’s vulture)  Cinemascope 2020, MDFF Selects, TIFF Bell Light Box: …Nature plays a different but equally ominous role in vulture, an unassuming yet sublime featurette by veteran Canadian filmmaker Philip Hoffman. Assembled by the director over a period of two years, the film comprises 16mm footage shot on Hoffman’s farm in Mount Forest, Ontario that the filmmaker then photochemically processed with natural plant and flower pigments, resulting in a roughhewn, multivalent display of richly tinted and textured celluloid. To hear Hoffman tell it, his analog approach to cinema is part and parcel of a universal cycle of survival and sustainability; like a vulture, his film feasts on the very elements of its production, finding aesthetic nutrients in its every ingredient.

Following a brief shot of Homer Watson’s turn-of-the-20th-century landscape painting The Flood Gate, the film commences with a procession of slow, Wavelength-esque zooms towards a variety of animal life (pigs, horses, cows, goats, chickens) before shifting focus to take in the larger ecosystem surrounding the farm fauna: overhead, birds of prey patiently circle, while in the distance, tractors plow the land and farmers work the fields. The film’s landscape imagery occasionally recalls Nicolas Rey’s autrement, la Molussie (2012) or the work of the late Peter Hutton, though the quietly swelling audio frequencies—the sound is credited to Luca Santilli and Clint Enns, with a mix by experimental filmmaker Isiah Medina (88:88)—portend something far less comforting. Like Wilcox, vulture forgoes direct sound; instead, the distant din of fluttering distortion echoes across the stereo field like helicopter blades on the horizon, with the occasional sample of a young boy’s voice emerging from the void as if summoned from another dimension. Before long, those unassuming establishing shots (which appear mostly untouched by any post-production techniques) give way to a series of colour montages that cut together heavily treated images of plant, animal, and human life from around the farm—an idyllic vision disrupted by the subliminal threat of violence and industrialization. Rather than let the threat loom, Hoffman reworks a selection of this same material for a bracing coda in which the previously placid imagery is subjected to a caustic combination of rapid edits and atonal musical flourishes. (Unsurprisingly, both the sound and edit for this section is credited to Medina.) “Vultures live together, and they don’t fight, they help each other,” the boy says at one point—a perfectly succinct bit of childlike wisdom for a world in which pleasure and peril often go hand in hand.

More on vulture..

Read Review by Andrew Robertson, Edinburgh International Film Festival

Read review by Mónica Delgado …

Video by Jenn Norton

Video by Jenn Norton

Waterloo Born Filmmaker Receives The Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts (Jeff Hicks, K-W Record)

York University Prof Receives Governor General Award

Philip Hoffman is one of the most influential experimental film artists working in Canada today. He has created a remarkable and sustained body of media art over nearly four decades in that has had an immense impact on several generations of Canadian experimental filmmakers and digital moving image artists.

His enduring impact is seen in the development of personal filmmaking, techniques of hand-processing and artisanal production, and the method of process cinema. His work combines sensitively observational documentary aesthetics, attentive to small gestures and humanist themes, with innovative forms of cinematic experimentation. Hoffman’s inquiry is tied to a deep sense of social responsibility and a profound commitment to pedagogy and to community.

– Michael Zryd, Associate Professor, Department of Cinema & Media Arts, York University

Read More…


Waterloo-born filmmaker receives Governor General’s Award

by Jeff Hicks
Kitchener Post
March 10, 2016

Philip Hoffman is a diary filmmaker, a scotch-tape scavenger of scattershot memories.

He finds them, crimped and creased, on the photographic scrap-heaps of life and time. He holds them in his disjointed card deck of disarray.

Then, maybe one inspired day, he sticks them to celluloid home between sprocket holes.

“That’s sort of the heart of my approach,” said the 60-year-old Waterloo native on Thursday morning before addressing his film class at York University in Toronto.

“I collect images over a long period of time. Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m going to do with them.”

But his running cinematic journal is constant and fluid. He fills its ethereal pages with audio, video, film and photographs. He is a pack rat of cinematic potential.

That’s why, after 38 years and as many as 30 projects, he has been honoured with a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts for career achievement.

He’ll receive a medallion at Rideau Hall on March 23. The cash prize is $25,000.

He found out in November. He kept quiet and kept busy, like when he was a teen working the kill line at the family meat plant on Maple Street in Kitchener.

The award was officially announced on Monday.

“I got a lot of congrats from my hockey pals,” said Hoffman, who still plays in a Yorkdale men’s league that often uses the ice at the remnants of old Maple Leaf Gardens.

Hockey and hybrid filmmaking. That’s become the faceoff forté for Hoffman, a long-ago junior puck-chaser for the Waterloo Siskins and Hespeler Shamrocks.

Meshing a digital present with an acetate past still carries aesthetic appeal.

“I see it in my classes,” he said. “People are nuts about still handling celluloid.”

Keeping film alive. Is that his hand-processed crusade? Is that why he runs a “film farm” retreat for experimental filmmakers each summer at his country home in Mount Forest?

“Film is from the past,” he said. “I want to see how it can live in the present.”

The past lives in Hoffman’s first film, “On the Pond.” How long ago? It was 1978.

He pulled his parents, Phil and Susan, and triplet older sisters — identical Colleen and Frannie, plus fraternal Philomene — into his room in their Bridgeport Road home.

He played a slide show of family memories he had chronicled and tape-recorded the audio of their reactions. There was a lot of artistic talent huddled in that room, providing the running commentary to his modest nine-minute epic on the boy’s birthday.

Colleen and Frannie, now living in Oakville and Florida, respectively, started a modelling agency in town. They appeared in TV commercials too, selling washers and dryers and Doublemint chewing gum. And Philomene, now a Toronto-based folksinger, went on to teach music.

Hoffman’s mom Susan was a painter, too. She also crafted beautiful driftwood sculptures at their cottage near Owen Sound. Hoffman used to boat his mom across the McCullough Lake waters so she could scoop up driftwood for her creations.

Hoffman combined his family’s ad-libbed soundtrack with film footage he shot of his cousin Bradley skating on a frozen lake by the cottage.

The 16-mm shortie was the developing story of Hoffman’s young Waterloo life, processed in the dark room he set up in the family basement.

“I kind of started doing it because photography was a way I could express myself,” he said. “I had three sisters. They sort of ran the show. They were pretty dominant as a trio. I’d just kind of do photography and go fishing and get out of the commotion.”

He studied literature at Wilfrid Laurier. He took visual arts at Sheridan College.

He liked beat poetry, too. The spontaneity spoke to his freestyle creative soul.

“Spontaneity is really my process,” he said. “It’s like collecting things spontaneously, and then carving those moments into films.”

Not all those moments are comforting. Intense grief has pierced his work, too.

Twenty years ago, his partner Marian, a writer, died suddenly during a cancer biopsy operation. The 55-minute “What these Ashes Wanted,” an exploration of mortality, was his anguished artistic response to her loss.

“Working on the film was a place to go during that grieving period,” he said. “It was a comfortable place within the pain. I felt safe there.”

Two years after Marian’s death, Hoffman met Janine, a film teacher. They are now married and Hoffman has a 24-year-old stepdaughter in Jessie.

Janine co-wrote his 55-minute feature “All Fall Down” from 2009.

Hoffman’s latest film, a collaboration with Toronto-based filmmaker Eva Kolcze, explores the grounds of Montreal’s Expo 67. The scavenger was at work again. He found some cast-aside Super 8 film on the event in a library and etched it into their film.

“There’s a type of filmmaking within independent film called ‘found footage’ filmmaking,” he said. “You’re recycling images.”

But you’re framing them in fresh ways, combining old and new methods.

“I try to make films that deal with memory,” Hoffman said. “And how history is remembered.”

Originally published here.

Mike Hoolboom reviews Philip Hoffman’s Aged

“Who has not marveled at the triumph of slow motion? At the end of every sporting event the decisive moments of the past hours float past in a dreamy montage, everything slowed to a crawl, as if it had occurred days, even years ago, part of a past that seems already out of reach, filled with bygone charms. The pages of Vimeo and YouTube have delivered us to a global tidal wave of slow motion magics, where heroines of time are caught in the full thrall of their secret erotic life, their faces filled with hand grenade smiles and arms stretch beyond the horizon with an inflated heroism. In his too familiar essay, Walter Benjamin wrote about slow motion as a way to defeat capitalism. He imagined that hidden within our everyday gestures were a cornucopia of unseen resistances, that our bodies performed a micro-politics of nay saying that the camera would at last reveal. But the digital revolution appears to have unveiled these once hidden intervals as another area of over exposure, bent beneath the first law of digital culture: that everything should be visible, bright, clear, tagged, identifiable. The surveillance state insists: there is no outside.”

Read the full article here.

link to film and reviews

Café Ex: The Films of Philip Hoffman

On Thursday December 10, 2015, Philip Hoffman will attend a screening of some of his work as part of Café Ex:

Inaugurated in 1998, the eighteenth season of this ongoing visiting artist series presents artist-curated evenings of independent experimental film and video in the intimate atmosphere of Club SAW. Once again, the series features Canadian experimental cinema, with guest filmmakers presenting their work and engaging in extensive discussions with audience members for a “pay-what-you-can” admission.

More information can be found at the Canadian Film Institute’s website.

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


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

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

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

Program: riverpassing through/torn formationsKitchener-BerlinChimera

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

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

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

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

Impure Cinemas: Hoffman in Context

Landscape with Shipwreck: First Person Cinema and the Films of Philip Hoffman ed. Hoolboom and Sandlos Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2001

by Chris Gehman

At the beginning of cinema’s second century, it’s instructive to remember how recently proclamations of the “death of the avant-garde’* (or “experimental film,” or “fringe film”) were a staple for filmwatchers concerned with develop­ments outside the realms of commercial and art-house production (e.g., Chicago Reader critic Fred Camper, and Village Voice critic J. Hoberman). This imminent demise was seen as arising from an exhaustion of creative possibilities, and, for Camper in particular, the domestication of a formerly independent and vital movement. In a 1989 statement, Camper wrote that

What began as an anarchic movement with a singular mis­sion-that of changing the viewers’ sensibilities and thereby changing the world-is now a fragmented col­lection of “schools.” The phrases “avant-garde film” and “experimental film” no longer denote works that break new cinematic ground; rather, they name a style, almost a genre, which has its own set of defining characteristics. (32)

Towards the end of the 1980s this position seemed to solidify into a consen­sus, and filmmakers too joined the chorus. Australia’s Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, for example, toured with a film performance in which they called them­selves “the last filmmakers,” and Jean-Luc Godard’s television series Histoire(s) du cinema was markedly elegiac in tone. Among many artists who shifted their production mostly or entirely away from film (Jordan Belson, Malcolm Le Grice, AI Razutis), American independent Jon Jost “defected” to digital video-and to Europe. There he became an outspoken critic of what he sees as an irrational fetishization of the medium and a hypocritical institutional/critical environment surrounding experimental film.

During the late 80s and early 90s there were genuine signs that experimental film was in trouble. To begin with, many influential independent filmmakers have died over the past two decades. These include Andy Warhol, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Marjorie Keller, Harry Smith, Warren Sonhert, Joyce Wieland, Sidney Peterson, and Kurt Kren. From the mid-80s through the early 90s, most of the institutions that supported artists’ work in film, among them Anthology Film Archives and the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, the Canadian Film-makers Distribution Centre, the London Filmmakers Coop and Canyon Cinema, experi­enced crises caused by fractures and antagonism between different factions. Thesecrises were exacerbated by dwindling state support and often haphazard adminis­trative practices. In Toronto, the 1989 International Experimental Film Congress, which was organized partly to respond to the idea that experimental film was no longer a vital force, became the site and the subject of heated debates that broke down roughly along generational lines. A younger, more politically oriented group of artists, theorists and programmers attacked what they saw as an outmoded and elitist conception of the “avant-garde,” particularly a purist formalism, that had dominated experimental film production and deformed its discourse. Further, some major art galleries (such as the National Gallery of Canada and Art Gallery of Ontario) appear to have dropped film programming and acquisition from their regular activities, while others have cut them back to almost nothing. Acquisitions of film prints by libraries and educational institutions, once a small but important source of income for at least the better-known filmmakers, have all but ceased and a revival of the practice seems very unlikely. And it is probably true that an increasingly academic environment made for a less vital film culture, at least for a particular segment of the field, and for a particular period of time.

But experimental film did not die. Many of the key institutions mentioned above have recovered their stability over the past several years, and new venues for the exhibition of artists’ film have sprung up. Sonic of these have been short­lived, while others have settled in for a long life. Critical writing on film is almost completely absent from general-interest art journals and magazines, but there are specialized journals that publish serious writing on film. A heartening range of books has appeared over the past several years, including Scott MacDonald’s three-volume collection of interviews with filmmakers, A Critical Cinema. Ultimately, however, it can only be the healthy, prickly condition of filmmaking itself that proves these proclamations of death to have been premature. What threatens the form now is less a matter of creative exhaustion than the possibility that the basic tools, materials and services needed to complete a film may disap­pear as the commercial industry turns entirely towards digital media.

What has perhaps passed away is a certain image of the artist as romantic, visionary hero, and an allegiance to large-scale, often highly purist, abstract mod­els of making. Some very interesting film artists of the past two decades (e.g., Jennifer Reeves, Philip Hoffman) have moved between styles and genres in a way that might have seemed confusing or incoherent to an earlier generation.

The characteristic elements of these films are likely to be philosophical, thematic, and personal, unlike the formal “signature style” or clear progression of artistic devel­opment that made up the work of respectable artists in earlier decades.

There has, then, been a significant shift since the “heroic” period of the avant-garde that found its critical spokesman in P. Adams Sitney, and its bible in Visionary Film: The American Avant-garde 1943-1978 (second edition 1979). This book became a flash point for much of the debate over the canonization of exper­imental film. Jason Boughtonsummarizes the critical point of view:

[Sitney’s] book acts and continues to be used as a lexi­con of alternative filmmaking practice, not only for the years it claims, but more generally, forward and back­wards in history. Like all written history it is not just a locus of memory but also a kind of sleep capsule axis of active, official forgetting … The problem is the form history comes in [in] Visionary Film-the confusion of memory and forgetting, the thinly veiled claims of com­pleteness and simple reportage. When one speaks of the Avant-Garde, is it just one era, a single group of friends, great men, a unified field that is referred to? Is avant-garde anidea or an identity? Is it (lead, and if not, can we finally let it die, and take with it a back-breaking debt to every other logocentric, exclusionary Avant-Garde…? (7)

Boughton quarrels with Sitney’s tendency to categorize makers and their works according to major art-historical movements, and takes issue with the staunchly apolitical nature of Sitney’s analysis. He accuses Sitney, for example, of ignoring the radical socialism of Ken Jacobs in his discussion of Jacobs’s works. Boughton points out that Maya Deren is the only woman filmmaker given serious consideration in Visionary Film, while Marie Menken is treated primarily as an influence on male filmmakers, and as the wife of Willard Maas. Boughton con­cludes that “[t]he exclusion of politics in Visionary Film would almost be comfort­ing, an easy resting place, were its politics not so visibly exclusionary” (6).

The “death” that the critics of the 80s predicted, then, was perhaps not the death of the experimental film per se, but rather the death of Sitney’s particular “avant-garde:’ Since that time we have seen a general cultural shift, in which the coherent psychological, spiritual and sexual identity of the individual allegedly asserted by the Romantic tradition and examined by Sitney has been replaced by a conception of the individual as a collection of interrelated aspects under the influence of an array of social, cultural, and political forces. This shift manifests itself in film in several ways: through an explicit examination of personal and fam­ily histories: through an interest in the social construction of gender, race, and ethnic identities; through a desire to convey journalistic or documentary content without resorting to discredited concepts of neutrality or objectivity; through a renewed use of “staging,” that is. the performance of roles and scenarios, though without an attempt at the kind of realism that characterizes the mainstream dra­matic film; through the use of language as an integral communicative element; through the recombination of found/appropriated materials in films made using existing film footage, photographs, consumer objects, etc.; through the live “film performance;’ which challenges the idea of film as a mechanical medium of mass reproduction; and through a burgeoning interest in manipulating the chemical surface of the image.

In short, it is a certain purism of purpose and of form that has been given up by the new generations, but not necessarily a desire to see changes in the world. The development of self-financing, underground “microcinemas,” where a good deal of the material shown has both an activist and an experimental character. testifies to the continuing role of film as an art that aims to contest and to chal­lenge social, political, economic and aesthetic hierarchies, as well as conventions of vision and representation. If anything, it is the members of the avant-garde that Fred Camper so fondly remembers who have found their way into the security of academe, while their contemporary counterparts, practising a myriad of hybrid forms, continue to struggle in a social and artistic environment hostile to film art. Yet the degree to which experimental film has not been accepted into the art world as an equal and crucial form, despite its overwhelming cultural importance over the past century. suggests that there continues to be something “indigestible” about the work, something which resists commodification and academicization. As the very idea of a unifying, central identity disappears. the pathways taken by film­makers become ever more labyrinthine and far-flung, so that the job of the would-be taxonomist becomes difficult, perhaps even impossible. My aim below, then, is to account for some of the disparate elements of contemporary experi­mental film. creating loose categories that are subject to cross-pollination.


Critique is implicit in most contemporary found-footage films, and in films which appropriate images through related forms such as collage animation. Recently, we have seen the emergence of the experimental film “remake.” Jill Codmillow’s What Farocki Taught (I998), a remake of Harun Farocki’s Inextinguishable Fire (1969), and Elizabeth Subrin’sShuliea remake of a 60s documentary about the young feminist Shularnith Firestone, are the best known examples. Implicit it most contemporary found-footage films is a challenge to conventional codes of representation and the social, political and sexual norms that are seen to he sup­ported by those codes. This political intent distinguishes contemporary uses of found footage from the more poetic, symbolic, or formal uses by film artists who began their work in earlier decades (eg.. Joseph Cornell, Bruce Conner).

In tiny units of a few frames each, Austrian filmmaker Martin Arnold reworks scenes from Hollywood movies, which he has defined as “a cinema of repression and denial”(Address). Arnold’s work emphasizes the mechanical rhythm of the pro­jected image and hearkens hack to the idea of cinema as a machine for the analy­sis of motion. Arnold’s films may be the fulfillment of Ilugo Musterberg’s 1915 essay describing the possibilities of reordering photographed motion in small groups of frames in order to discover a new rhythm impossible in nature. For Arnold. however, the cinematic machine is primarily an ideological apparatus, and he retools this apparatus in order to draw out every drop of meaning latent in the original material. Arnold’s Passage (I EActe (1993) reworks a scene of several sec­onds’ length from 7o Kill a Mockingbird (1992), extending it to 12 minutes by repeating every few frames several times. Leaving the original synchronized sound intact, he slowly allows the scene to progress. The effect is vehement, even violent, and creates a portrait of patriarchal family life and racial division from a scene that would pass almost unnoticed in its original context. The actors arc trans­formed into twitching puppets in the throes of an ideological seizure.

Like Martin Arnold. American filmmaker jay Rosenblatt has a background in psychology, and mounts his critique as a sort of diagnosis of symptoms. Rosenblatt uses found footage for the creation of compact. personal essays on subjects rang­ing from the construction of masculine identity in childhood (The Smell of Burning Ants. 1994) to theidiosyncracies of the 20th century’s great dictators (Human Remains, 1998) and the historical conflicts between Christians and Jews (King of the Jews, 2000). While Rosenblatt’s deployment of found images may seem relatively straightforward, functioning as illustration to an argument given in voice-over or titles, he often inverts the images’ values, finding sadness, pain and longing in grandiose, aggressive or blustery gestures. In many instances, Rosenblatt isolates and extends brief moments through optical printing, finding in them a nexus of meaning. In The Smell of Burning Ants, for example, two boys bouncing up and down on a car seat suddenly look at one another, and this look is extended to emphasize the underlying homoerotic subtext of their shared activity.

Craig Baldwin also uses found footage as a way to mount a critical essay, though his tone is less sombre and his thinking more lateral than Rosenblatt’s. In his instant classicTribulation 99: Alien Anomolies Under America (1991), Baldwin orders the film using a system of substitution: a race of alien invaders called Quetzals stands in for Latin American democratic and communist movements, while historical figures are represented by characters from sundry Hollywood movies (e.g., Blacula as Maurice Bishop). The film’s text as a whole, which takes the form of a demented, paranoid, right-wing rant about an alien conspiracy stands in for its opposite: a factual critique of American intervention against leftist movements in Latin America. Filmmaker Craig Baldwin is replaced by his right­wing equivalent, “retired Air Force Colonel Craig Baldwin.” The diversity of Baldwin’s source material and his style of optical printing tend to emphasize the material differences from one shot to the next. Baldwin mixes black-and-white footage with colour and documentary, or educational sources with dramatic sources. Much of the footage is worn, scratched and colour-shifted, so that the seams are emphasized and the result continually reminds the viewer that the film has been “stitched” together, like a patchwork quilt, or Frankenstein’s monster.

The use of found footage can extend to the presentation of intact fragments with minimal alteration. For instance, Peggy Ahwesh’s The Color of Lore (1994) is presented almost in the same form it was found. Ahwesh has simply made an optical print of the found material and added music. Remarkably, this piece, a fragment of pornography beautifully decaying into organic clumps of colour, fits perfectly into the body of her work. The scene shows two women engaging in sex play over the dead, castrated body of a man, a violent conception of an anti-patri­archal lesbian order. Many of Ahwesh’s other films deal with women’s relation­ships in the absence of men, and particularly with moments in which acting can­not be distinguished from “authentic” or unstaged behaviour. Ken Jacobs’ Perfect Movie (1986) is another noteworthy example of the use of unaltered found images. The film consists entirely of unused 196.5 news footage on the assassination of Malcolm X, with its original sync sound intact.

In contrast, animators and collage artists such as .lanie Geiser, Lewis Klahr and Martha Colburn work frame by frame with manufactured objects and images cut from magazines and books, using these as “puppets”” of autobiographical or ideological reconstruction in a sense analogous to Martin Arnold’s refashioning of Hollywood actors into puppets of the cinematic apparatus. Where Geiser and Klahr tend to conjure lambent dream worlds that evoke the thoughts of a child confronted with a world it cannot understand, or the reveries of an addled adult in the grip of a fever or hallucination of nostalgia, Colburn’s animated collages proceed at a manic pace, wringing out perverse combinations of animal, vegetable and sexual images from her source material. Colburn uses pictures from slick magazines, especially pornographic and animal images, in brief and briskly paced films with a distinctly “pop” rhythm and distinctly “anti-pop” production values and morals.


One of the fundamental tenets of high modernism was that a work of art be a self­ contained object, independent of real-world referents. This idea has arisen in many guises. but for experimental film there are two main forms: the Structuralist/Materialist, and the Formalist. The Structuralist/Materialist argument (distinctly different from Sitney’s concept of “Structural” film) turns primarily on the issue of presentation vs. representation. The argument attacks as reactionary any film that relies on illusion for its process of meaning formation. Peter Gidal, probably the most insistent proponent of this position, wrote in 1974:

Structural/Materialist film attempts to be anti-illusionist. The process of the film’s making deals with devices that result in demystification or attempted demystification of the film process … An avant-garde film defined by its develop­ment towards increased materialism and materialist func­tion does not represent, or document, anything … The dialectic of the film is established in that space of tension between materialist flatness, grain, light, movement, and the supposed reality that is represented. Consequently a continual attempt to destroy the illusion is necessary. (1)

In Gidal’s conception, documentation and narrative content presume a passive viewer, and most experimental films, including many abstract works, are under­stood to include some undesirable form of representation. Of the films that make up Sitney’s “Structural film” canon (those by Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Ernie Gehr, et al.), Gidal writes of how “the discovery of shape (fetishizing shape or system) may become the theme, in fact, the narrative of the film” (1). For all the revolutionary intentions of filmmakers and theorists like Gidal these ideas, and the extremely circumscribed possibilities available to filmmakers working within their boundaries, quickly begin to seem like a form of Marxistpuritanism: no dancing, music, or representation allowed.

The Formalist stream of filmmaking has tended to be less hound by strict rules and formulae, but it shares a generally anti-representational bent with Structuralist/Materialist cinema. In Formalist discourse on film, analogies with music abound. The idea is that film, like music, can engage the audience most intensely when it does not refer to anything outside its own formal system, when it does not rely on representation for its meaning or effect. The conception of film as a kind of “visual music” arose early in the century, and remains an active model for filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, whose non-representational films attempt to embody a type of “pre-linguistic” vision.

If a disavowal of representation was a defining feature of a great deal of experimental filmmaking up to about the mid-70s. a major shift in the postmod­ern period has been the emergence of a generation of artists whose work engages with a specific “extra-filmic” content. However, these artists are not naive about questions of representation, nor do they subscribe to any particular school (e.g., cinema verité/direct cinema) that asserts the possibility of a “neutral” or “objec­tive” representation. Rather, there is a general awareness that every work is a con­struction, an argument, whose formal elements and representational content together constitute the substance of the argument. In a sense, these artists haveexpanded the interest of many structural filmmakers from strictly visual or aural perception to include questions of social, sexual, and political perception. This process demands that the artist foreground the mechanisms by which meaning in a film is constructed, so that traditional documentary techniques (the sync-sound interview or “talking head,” for example) are generally avoided in favour of a clearly constructivist approach that may combine voice-over, titles, original and found footage.

In keeping with this awareness, many artists choose to focus their documen­tary explorations on those subjects closest to them: for instance, their family histo­ries or their sexual, racial, ethnic or religious identities. Su Friedrich maintains a rigorous intellectual distance in excavating her childhood memories in Sink or Swim (1O’H)). ordering the material according to an arbitrary system akin to those often employed by structural filmmakers-the alphabet in reverse (beginning with z for zygote). Elida Schogt, in Zyklon Portraituses a similar distancing tech­nique for her elegiac account of the death of her grandparents during the Holocaust, arranging archival footage, home movies and hand-painted film into two parallel narrative strands. The first recounts Schogt’s Jewish grandparents’ lives in the words of Schogt’s mother; the second describes the development of Zyklon B gas, first as an insecticide, then as the means by which concentration camp prisoners were murdered in vast numbers by the Nazis, the description pre­sented in a neutral tone reminiscent of the conventional documentary. The history of a chemical and the history of Schogt’s ancestors inexorably converge in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Other artists use the documentary form to question the “truth value” of the image. Jesse Lerner’s Ruins (1998) uses the strategy of deliberate and announced falsification to call into question Anglo-European interpretations of pre­Columbian societies such as the Mayan, Aztec and Toltec. Combining found footage with (presumably) scripted interviews, footage shot to look like found footage, etc., Lerner explicitly addresses the difficulty of distinguishing between the “authentic” and the fake, including a brief quote from OrsonWelles’ F 1 ,or hake (1973). The film also deals with the problem of authenticating pre-Columbian artifacts when the museums are full of fakes and replicas that stand in for “real” artifacts. William Jones’ Massillon (19)1) combines social landscape photography similar to that of James Benning with personal history (his experiences as a gay youth in a homophobic Midwestern environment) and social history (tracing the development of legal constraints on homosexual behaviour). In the film’s final section, these elements are drawn together in a visual and verbal portrait of a new California suburb. Jones’ method emphasizes the condition of the unseen, and the need to go beyond pure vision, by slowly “filling” his images with verbal informa­tion, so that the film’s blank and undistinguished locations become inextricably linked to the history and attitudes of the (unseen) people who inhabit them.

At no other time in cinematic history have so many artists been working directly with the chemical surface of the image, using a multiplicity of techniques: hand processing, colourtoning and arcane chemical treatments; homemade emulsions; application of paints, inks and dyes; scratching, abrading, and applying various materials to the film surface;collaging of cut-up pieces of film; and organic decay processes. A direct approach to the film surface is not new, having many prece­dents in avant-garde practice (e.g., Man Ray’s inclusion of strips of “rayograph” film in his 1923 Retour a la Raison, or Stan Brakhage’s 1955 Reflections on Black, in which the protagonist’s eye-images have been scratched away). Beginning as early as the 1930s-40s there are also examples from experimental animation in the cameraless films of Len Lye, Norman McLaren and Harry Smith. However.partly for economic reasons, but largely because of the enthusiastic interest of a new generation of makers, the sheer amount of this kind of work has vastly increased over the past decade.


Unlike Brakhage, whose cameraless hand-painted and etched films are intended to express an inner reality, a spiritual energy (he could be considered the most prolific abstract expressionist ever), many of these artists emphasize the material of the image in order not only to defeat its illusory qualities. but to draw attention to the physical presence of the film strip in the actual immediate space of the screening room, a concern that derives in part from the earlier Materialist discourse discussed above. This critical intention is confirmed by the frequent use of found footage as a source material for assorted physical alterations. The attack on the chemical surface of the film is implicitly an attack on the intended mean­in(, of the original source images and on the “transparency” of conventional pho­tographic reproduction.

In Germany, in films such as Jurgen Reble’s Zillertal (1989), and the Schmelzdahin collective’s Stadt Im Flamen (1984), artists subject films to organic decay processes and chemical treatments that create swarming masses of colour, often rendering the original images printed on the film barely legible. The sensory appeal of these films is considerable, given their highly textured and often bril­liantly coloured surfaces, but the idea is as much to criticize the meaning of their source material as to provide visual pleasure. Stadt im Flamen (City in Flames), for example, humorously exaggerates the source “text” to the breaking point. Here, the filmmakers work from a super-8 print of a disaster film about an uncon­trolled urban fire along the lines of The Towering Inferno. By burying the film underground for an extended period, colonies of mould and bacteria developed. drawing the pigments in the emulsion into new forms, often intensifying the colours. Under the influence of these processes, the system of representation breaks down, falls into disaster like the crashing buildings and fleeing citizens in the original film’s story.

The Armenian-Canadian filmmaker Gariné Torossian also works directly with the film surface, but in a manner more closely related to Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (19e4-hH) than to the chemical approaches described above. Torossian chops her films up, dyes them, scratches and tattoos them, and tapes them hack together in new configurations, mixing super-8 and 16mm footage at will. Often this footage is already refilmed from a video image of an artwork or photograph, so that the number of generations of remove from any real-world referent is multi­plied irretrievably. This becomes especially poignant in Girl From Moush (1993), a brief, haunting poem in which Torossian’s longed-for homeland ofArmenia is seen only in borrowed images that have inhabited and fermented in the artist’s mind.



Some artists working in film reject its status as an impersonal, mass-reproducible object, mounting live film performances. These works partake of the film projec­tion not as “text,” but as event. In these performances it is not enough to run industrially reproduced materials through a projector. The presence of the living artist is required, as in the performance of a piece of music, with the film and the projector as instruments to be played. Prolific Toronto super-8 filmmaker John Porter, in his ongoing Scanning series, uses the entire theatre as a screen, moving the projector by hand to create magical illusionist effects which simultaneously make the spectator acutely aware of the theatre space. San Francisco artist Luis Recoder creates cinematic paradoxes and time loops using found footage by the simple expedient of looping a piece of film so that it runs through the projector twice, allowing images from one section of the film strip to overlap with those from a later section. His Moebius Strip (1900) uses documentation of sports events: we see a racing car tearing down a track from left to right, the camera panning with it, and simultaneously, the same car racing from right to left. The result is one of frenzied motion that cancels itself out. Recoder’s Magenta (1997) uses a badly colour-shifted medical film demonstrating the proper methods for bandag­ing. Again, by running the same film through the. projectortwice, a visual echo is developed in which each action overlaps upon and repeats itself’. The sensation is created of a continuous caress in the context of medical damage, a feeling both soothing and disturbing.



Philip Hoffman’s highly diverse body of work in film, beginning with On The Pond (1978), shares many interests and approaches with the work discussed here, but is distinct in its relation to the documentary tradition (which is of particular importance in the Canadian context) 1, and in its concern with personal and family history. From On The Pond toDestroying Angel (1998), Hoffman has balanced an awareness of film as a constructed object with a desire to explore specific extra­filmic themes. This has led him to a complex, first-person cinema very different from the formal approach of an earlier generation. When Stan Brakhage films his family in his famous Window Water Baby Moving (1959), or inScenes From Under Childhood (1967-70), the viewer does not learn the names of the people shown, does not hear their voices and discovers nothing of their past. The effect is two-fold: on the one hand, unencumbered by language, the film is able to hold in its form the very specific moments and energy of a particular time with particular people. On the other hand, everything is universalized: the children become all children and represent a state of “childness”; a birth becomes every birth, a symbol for all gen­erations.

In Hoffman’s work the drive is very different and this leads to the inclusion of names and places, and the tracing of specific relationships. However, Hoffman’s acute awareness that the medium is never a neutral carrier of information leads to a variety of representational approaches, which often contain contradictory cues about the “truth value” of the material (see for example ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film (1986)). Alternatively, in a manner analogous to Craig Baldwin’s indi­rect treatment of his subject in Tribulation 99,Hoffman’s “absent presences” refuse explicit visual representation of their subjects. For example, both ?O,Zooand Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984) have at their centres the story of a death, and in neither case is the dead person or animal represented visually. In varying proportions, Hoffman’s films play documentary content against fiction within a complex and shifting formal treatment.

Hoffman engages in an intense process of self-examination that is also an exploration of the capacities of his medium. In finding an appropriate form for his themes and ideas, Hoffman has developed a multiplicity of styles. But these are not arbitrary exercises; in each case, Hoffman demands of a film that it communi­cate certain crucial ideas to the viewer while promoting an intense awareness of the film’s means of construction. It is ultimately this foregrounding of the means of construction and Hoffman’s casual hybridity of genre, balancing the concerns of documentary, fiction and formal experimentation, that mark Hoffman as a film­maker allied with the impurities of contemporary practice and engaged in a criti­cal dialogue with the “straight” documentary tradition that has been so important in the Canadian context.

Hoffman’s influence as a teacher at Sheridan College and York University has been as important as his artistic influence. For example, although Hoffman’s films evidence a relatively gentle engagement with the chemically altered image, the summer film retreat he founded with his late partner Marian at their rural Mount Forest home has been inspirational to scores of young makers by teaching the basics of first-person hand processing and other chemical treatments of the film surface. This workshop has been a key catalyst in the explosion of first-person, hand-processed, cameraless and chemically-worked films in North America over the past several years.

The balance of interests in Hoffman’s work has shifted markedly from film to film. Much of his work enters into the relationship between documentary, fiction, and formal experimentation described here, while some of his films favour more generally formal visual and aural approaches (e.g., Chimera, 1992-3), and still others venture into aleatoricconstruction (Technilogic Ordering and Opening Series, 1992 ongoing project). In Opening Series, Hoffman gathers together sever­al separate rolls of film, packaging each in its own box with an unrelated image or text on the outside. Audience members are asked to change the order of the boxes as they enter the theatre prior to the screening. Hoffman splices the film together in the order arrived at by the collective choices of the audience members; the film will therefore be projected in a different edit at every screening, moving his work into the realm of “film performance.”

The richness and complexity of Hoffman’s greatest works, which include passing through/torn formations, Kitchener-Berlin and ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film),have made him one of the important experimental filmmakers of the past twenty years. The insistent hybridity of Hoffman’s practice also marks him as distinctly postmodern, and his particular relation to the documentary tradi­tion as distinctly Canadian. To assert that experimental film is no longer a living force is to ignore the challenge offered by Hoffman’s films and those of many other active filmmakers. If an earlier generation found its identity through a puri­ty of form and identity, the strength of today’s experimental filmmakers may lie in a canny “impurism” that allows them to traverse the boundaries that separate doc­umentary from fiction, abstraction from representation, and political from personal.



Arnold, Martin.
address. Pleasure Dome screening. Toronto, 18 Feb. 2000.Boughton. Jason. “Laid to Rest: Where the Forward Guard, and Their Regrettable Victory, Are Finally Dismissed.” Pinhole Cinema Project. n.p. 911 Media Arts Centre, 1993.5-7. Camper, Fred. International Experimental Film Congress. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1989.

Gidal, Peter. “Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film’ Structural Film Anthology. Ed. Peter Gidal. London: British Film Institute. 1978.

1-2 Originally published in Landscape with Shipwreck: First Person Cinema and the Films of Philip Hoffman ed. Hoolboom and Sandlos Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2001.

Passing Through: The film cycle of Philip Hoffman

by Mike Hoolboom

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 (1978) — set between the filmmaker’s familial home and his newfound residence at college — to a trek across Canada in The Road Ended at the Beach (1983). In Mexico he made the haiku-inspired short Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984). The next year he was invited toAmsterdam to observe the set of Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts, and made ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) (1986). Trips to Europe to unearth the roots of his family formed the basis for passing through/torn formation’s (1988) pan-continental dialogue of madness and memory. Kitchener-Berlin (1990) takes up this immigrant connection from his father’s side of the family. And the last work, in what was only named afterwards as a cycle, a revolving peer of understanding, is river (1978-89), which is both a return home, and an acknowledgement of the restless flux which lies at the heart of this project. For all of their circumnavigations, this cycle is primarily concerned with pictures of home and family, gathered with a keen diarist’s eye which has revamped its vision at every turn, shifting styles with every work, as if in answer to its subject. Denoting the family as source and stage of inspiration, Hoffman’s gracious archeology mines a concession of tragic encounters, powerfully refashioning his intersection with the limits of 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.

On the Pond (9 min b/w 1978) is an elaboration of the family slide show, its intimate portraits greeted with squeals of recognition and a generational shudder of light and shadow. The slides show the filmmaker as a child, his unguarded expression an ensign for innocence. In winter he is dwarfed by the furry excess of his parka, summertime finds him casting flies on the Saugeen River (subject of the final film in this cycle), trekking through forest, or lounging by the family cottage. Reviewing the photographs with family, the filmmaker asks, “What do I look like?” in a gesture that underlines the reliance of identity on the family’s complex of role play, fantasy, and projection, on its investment in shared secrets, and its dramatic restagings of generational loss and symmetrical neglects. As the author of the film, Hoffman assumes a distinctly paternal guise, but within its confines he is very much the son, waiting on his elders for the signs of assent that will take shape as his own desire. Hoffman offers up these photographs as evidence, insistently returning to moments whose nostalgic impress provides a blank for the interchange of codes and riddles. These are hieroglyphs from the dead world, resurrected in order to reconstruct the memory of a time alien even to its inhabitants, because the measure of this familial solidarity must rely on a willful disavowal of experience, casting aside the ghosts of illness and psychosis, turning away from all that fails to conform to the familial ideal. What lies unspoken here, though hinted at in Hoffman’s careful editing, are stories of a darker nature, his mother’s illness, the death of relatives and the traumas of dislocation.

These photographs are drawn in a dialectic with dramatic re-enactments of Hoffman’s boyhood. These centre on a boy of seven skating “on the pond,” his only company a German shepherd. As he diligently hones his puck handling skills, his easy skate over the big ice is interrupted by intrusive voice-overs — the exhortations of a coach and the scream of hockey parents. As Hoffman pans over a well stocked trophy case and the young boy falls to the ice in a paroxysm of push-ups, the public stakes of this private practice become clear. He is leaving the family. His play has already become a kind of work, the means by which he will move from the pond to the city, though the cost is the incessant clamour for achievement. Everywhere the superego beckons.


No soon has the dream has been conjured then it ends. In a long pan over a projector run out of film and a record player at the end of its disk, the filmmaker rises from his bedside vigil over the past to close the apparatus of memory. Confronted with the escalating tensions of his trade, and a growing distance from his cherished solitude on the pond, Hoffman quits hockey, turning instead to a diaristic filmmaking which will stage the self in its various incarnations. All this is suggested in the film’s closing shot, which shows Hoffman join his young double, confidently calling for the puck before slipping on the icy sheen, no longer the player he once was. Brilliantly photographed in black-and-white, with a spare piano score and a sure use of accompanying sound, On the Pond marked an auspicious debut from Canada’s premier diarist.

The Road Ended at the Beach (33 min 1983) is a shaggy road flick whose waystations of memory allow past adventures to meld into present ones, though its true aim is neither adventure nor destination, but an examination of male myth. Setting off for Canada’s east coast, Hoffman joins two friends, fellow filmmaker Richard Kerr, enlisted as soundrecordist, and Jim McMurry, driver of the van. Road’s opening sequence finds them bent over the van, painting over its psychedelic glyphs with a fluorescent orange. Each of the “characters” is introduced through flashback — McMurry as the manic, fast-talking, blues-singing driver of past trips, Kerr as a fishing pal and filmmaking companion. In Ottawa they meet up with Mark, a friend who used to play jazz trumpet but now blows in a military band. “There’s things you do for love and there’s things you do for money,” he flatly intones as the travelers move on, meeting Conrad Dubé, a cyclist since 1953, who has crossed the globe eight times, barely able to speak due to infantile paralysis. In Sable River they find Dan, a friend from film school now working in the east coast fisheries, trapped in a dead-end job in order to support his family. They push on to Cape Breton where they find Robert Frank, avatar of Beat romance and adventure, the irascible photographer whose book The Americans undraped a mythic travelogue of naked encounters. But he appears before them on a distinctly human scale, and they stand together as four strangers feebly attempting to speak, their visit inspired by nostalgia over a time they never had. Frank’s visit marks the end of Road‘s first movement, an eastwards passage whose outlook rested squarely in the rearview mirror, as if the burden of memory lay so heavy on the roadside that this was a journey of time instead of topography, the van’s speed unable to outrace the velocity of the past.

Road’s second movement opens with the remark, “Now I look inside the van.” Once again each of the three characters is introduced — the filmmaker lost in a reverie of Kerouac adventures, McMurry obsessed with the wretched condition of the van, and Kerr feeling imprisoned. Hoffman notes, “I expected adventure, but somehow the road had died since the first trip west,” a summary assessment of old ties which have vanished even before the trip’s begun. Today their cross-country dash serves only as a reminder of their differences, the passing of youth, and the end of an exclusively male fraternity. The third movement, entitled The Road Ended at the Beach, features a reprise of the film’s encounters and Frank’s weary responses to questions about his Beat relations of two decades before. “Maybe it was freer because you know less. I never kept in close contact with them. Sometimes I see Allen…” These offerings mark an eerie prophecy for the three travelers, whose time of abandoned locomotion is past. The din of the road can no longer disguise the fact that they never learned to speak with one another. The film ends with the promise of its title: children and dogs moving back and forth across the beach as a massive rocky outcropping peers out of the waters in the distance. These planes of play, passage, and foreboding are a metaphor for the film’s journey. Road is a passage from innocence to experience, cast beneath the paternal backdrop of a Beat mythos, its romantic notions of flight decomposed here in the cold frame of the van.

Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (6 min 1984) is a hand-held travelogue of North America, presented in the unbroken twenty-eight-second shots of a spring-wind camera and the intertitles of a Mexican journey. Hoffman’s pictures show moments of the everyday, drawn from public circumstances and viewed from a discrete distance. It opens with a pair of dirt roads marking an intersection, and beyond them a massive rouged advert for Coca-Cola. As diesel trucks storm past, we wait with the burro, tethered to an adjacent telephone post, as if waiting for the passing dream of technology to dissolve again into the Mexican roadside. Two shots frame street musicians while, on the track, a horn squalls plaintively, the lone aural counterpart to this requisition of the everyday. These pictures form part of an alternating passage of image and text that occupies the body of the film. Homely, hand-lettered haikus relate the story of a Mexican boy lying dead, his passage of mourning and reclamation charged in Hoffman’s blank verse. The filmmaker pointedly refuses to make an image of this stranger, and this refusal is the real subject of this travelogue. Each of his images are suffused with this death, as the words struggle to suggest all that lies beyond representation.

?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) (23 min 1986) was occasioned by an invitation from British filmmaker Peter Greenaway to observe the shoot of A Zed and Two Noughts. Hoffman’s diary excerpts are rife with a Greenaway-esque fiction which pits two English fathers as competing heirs to the originary mantle of Canadian documentary practice. The first is Greenaway himself, linchpin of the structuralist mockumentary. His employment of BBC baritone Colin Canticle and serial musician Michael Nyman lent his early work an authentic documentary feel, although his voice-over texts are patently fabricated — speculative fictions which often catalogue an inexorable progression towards death. This willful play of documentary forms is set against the second father in Zoo’s lineage — John Grierson. Grierson was the British cultural czar who founded the National Film Board (NFB), a federal institution whose documentary praxis was designed “to show Canada to Canadians.” His sternly realist conventions undermined Canadian dramatic aspirations; the NFB’scolonialist perspectives would remain the most public expression of Canadian film for decades. For many years a documentary seminar bearing Grierson’s name gathered makers from around the world, and it was there that Hoffman and Greenaway met, and where the invitation to observe Greenaway’s shoot was extended, as Hoffman explains in his film.

Hoffman’s rendering of the Greenaway production focuses on its apparatus of shaping, on the efforts of an elephantine crew to produce light where there is none, hang invisible cords, lay track, and gather some of the dissembling flocks that crowd Greenaway’s zoo allegory. Interposed with fables of construction are a number of diary interludes which are captioned in a hilariously understated voice-over read by an actor. Alongside an image of a large wooden apple overlooking an empty park, Hoffman spins a tale of lovers who look to its girth for privacy, the approach of a voyeuristic teenager who is eventually joined by his romantically troubled companion, and finally a group of boys who arrive, pitching sticks for their dog in an effort to disturb the couple. The narrator recites, “I crossed the river and this is what I filmed after they all left.” This narrative construct of extra-filmic events, of all that lies outside the frame, points to the meek rectangle of the apparatus, its soft enclosures pregnant with syntax. By framing his diaristic intentions within a tradition of Canadian documentary practice, Hoffman underlines the radical contingency of the image — its status as truth and guarantor of experience lost in the runes of a text that may shape it to any end whatsoever. The truth of an image lies outside its frame, in the restless constellation of discourse and ideology that surrounds any image and its reception. This observation is especially pointed in a Canadian setting, where the bulk of early Film Board productions was comprised entirely of newsreel footage culled from abroad. The act of documentary lay in their ordering, and in composing the inevitable voice-over text that would grant these pictures coherence. Adopting the Greenaway strategy of fictional ruses applied to documentary settings, Hoffman decomposes the Grierson legacy, unmasking its alliance with state control, class hierarchies, and mythologies of the noble poor. He insists that documentary practice is a fiction after all, a construction of fragments aligned to the ends of its maker.

Nowhere is the reliance of cinema on a meta-narrative more pronounced than in the film’s mid-section. The narrator recounts a visit to the zoo where one of the elephants suffers a heart attack. He agonizes over whether to film the scene, and finally does, but after the animal’s death he exits ashamed, leaving the footage in the freezer, untouched and unprocessed. This is all declaimed over black — the blank passage representing the footage never developed. But after the credits seal the film, a final image appears — it shows the elephant falling and flailing, and then being helped to its feet by an attendant. So the filmmaker has processed the film, after all. And the elephant did not die, but merely fell. By displacing the film’s centre and leaving it to protrude past the film’s close, Hoffman invites the viewer to fold it back into the film, to join the blank recital of the heart attack with the silent pictures of its recovery, and so to retake the film’s journey, and skeptically overturn its assertions and statements of fact. At once an essay on the Canadian documentary tradition and a long fraternal riddle, ?O,Zooscans a flock of red herrings with a luminous photography and rare, reflexive wit.

Hoffman’s sixth film in ten years, passing through/torn formations   (43 min 1987), is a generational saga, laid over three picture rolls, that rejoins in its symphonic montage the broken remnants of a family separated by war, disease, and migration. An extract from Christopher Dewdney’s Predators of the Adoration begins the film in darkness. The poet narrates the story of “you” — a child who explores an abandoned limestone quarry. Oblivious to the children who play around him, it is the dead that fascinate, pressed together to form limestones that part slowly between prying fingers before lifting into a lost horizon. After this textual prelude in darkness, the following scene is painfully silent. It shows a woman feeding her enfeebled mother in a quiet reversal of her own infancy. The older woman is clearly nearing death here, and Hoffman’s portrayal of his mother and grandmother is tender and intimate, the camera caressing the two of them slowly, in a communion of touch.

Each figure in the film has a European double, as if the entry into the New World carried with it not only the inevitable burdens of translation, but also the burden of all that could not be said or carried, all that needed to be left behind. There are two grandmothers in the film — Babji, dying in a Canadian old age home and Hanna, whose Czech tales are translated by the filmmaker’s mother. There are likewise two grandfathers — Driououx, married to the dying Babji in Canada and Jancyk, shot by his own son after refusing to cede him land rights. This son is returned to the scene of the shooting by Czech authorities and asked to recreate the event for a police film three months later. Unable to comply he breaks down instead, poised between death and its representation. The murderer’s Canadian double is the uncle,  outcast whose wanderings are at the heart of the film. It is the uncle who builds the film’s central image — “the corner mirror”— two mirrored rectangles stacked at right angles. This looking glass offers a “true reflection,” not the reversed image of the usual mirror, but the objectified stare of the Other. His accordion playing provides inspiration for the accordion heard on the track, and produces another image of unity within division, the left and right hands operating independently.

The darkroom, a ceremony of mixing potions, gathering up the shimmering images, the silvery magic beneath dream’s surface. In the morning Babji would tell us what our dreams meant, and then stories of the ‘old country’ would surface, stories I can’t remember… now that she’s quiet, we can’t hear about where it all came from, so it’s my turn to go back, knowing at the start the failure of this indulgence, but only to play out these experiments already in motion.     (from passing through/torn formations by Philip Hoffman)

This connection between things made in the dark — doesn’t it lie at the heart of every motion picture? We can say for certain that this darkness has occupied the centre of Hoffman’s film work since Somewhere Between Jalostotitlian and Encarnacion. While Somewhere Between moves around his real life encounter with a boy lying dead on the Mexican roadside, the boy is nowhere to be seen;  Hoffman relates the death in a series of printed intertitles that punctuate the film. Similarly, midway through ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film), an elephant’s heart attack is related in voice-over while the screen remains dark, and the voice explains, somewhat abashed, that showing the animal’s death could only exploit the subject.


In each instance the missing centre turns around death, and this trope of absence is further complicated by the “missing” centre of passing through. While the film performs a series of balletic turns around the filmmaker’s uncle — showing as many as three images simultaneously, in a counterpoint usually reserved for music — he is usually present only in Hoffman’s narration. Because he is the family’s outsider…. lensing him would show only his infirmities…So Hoffman makes a radical move and both absents his image, while at the same time figuring him as the central character in this familial drama. He represents, for this family…. the dark heart at the centre of this migration to the new world. The cost of traveling, and of forgetting. In a series of fragmented anecdotes, recollections, images and voice-over, we learn of his life…. his affinity for pool and the accordion, his building of the corner mirror…Hoffman searches out the reasons for his uncle’s wandering in the Czechoslovakia they left behind, the place of his conception ravaged by plague and occupation. That he should bear the stamp of this history, this sickness, without a glimpse of the death camps which would claim his ancestors, recalls for us the movement of the film around a figure hardly seen. The filmmaker moves in his place, drawing his camera over the places “he” could never go, looking for reasons “he” could never guess in his restless quest  for the perfect pool game, and the delirium of the accordion.

He stares out. Fingers pound the keyboard. Magically. Melodies repeat. Again and again. Fingers dissolve into fingers. He was past the point of practise. The music was a vacant place to return to. Over and Over. His playing gave him passage.  (from passing through/torn formations  by Philip Hoffman)

Kitchener-Berlin (33 min 1990) is a tale of two cities divided by history, language and geography. Their alliance stems in part from a German migration that would settle on the small Canadian town of Kitchener as the locus for dreams of a new world. Before its re-naming after the catastrophes of WWI, Kitchener was called Berlin, so the film’s title re-asserts this historical relation, in an uncovering typical of Hoffman’s oeuvre.


Kitchener-Berlin is a movement into the city’s Germanic traditions, and its rituals of memory, bereavement, and technology. It is a voyage at once personal and political, begun with movies of home, of children unwrapping war toys with unbridled delight as rockets flare over Germany, reducing its domestic interiors to a shatter of rubble and blood. Hoffman introduces archival photographs of old Kitchener, showing men on the hunt and the building of the main street, while inside the cathedral, candle-lit processions prepare a child for baptism. The only accompanying sound is a church bell inexorably tolling. It is a call to witness, a plaintive demand for gathering, asking that we stand once more before the wounds of the past.

Hoffman enters present-day Germany armed with a Steadicam — a gyroscopic device that permits the camera to float smoothly through space. He guides its disembodied presence over the cobblestones of Berlin, their mortared rectangles forming the foundation of centuries. It floats past tourists lying in wait, cameras at the ready, caught in a slow-motion stare of anticipation in locales previewed in travel guides and brochures. They wait before a massive church front as if for history to materialize, all the better to turn it into souvenirs, proofs of travel, and of identity. As these sites have been photographed so often, these pictures serve only to identify their makers. They state: I was there. Or more simply: I exist. Hoffman’s meta-tourism collects these moments in multiphonic exchange, two and three images appearing simultaneously, as the camera floats past, ghost-like, through those remains of the past we call the present.

Kitchener-Berlin is interrupted midway by a Canadian film made in the twenties entitled The Highway of Tomorrow or How One Makes Two. It shows a dirigible leaving England forCanada, its airborne phallus promising the technological fruits of empire. After landing, the filmmaker/pilot steps into the editing room with his double — a twin manufactured through trick photography — and together they pore over images of the trip. They thread a projector and turn its historical spotlamp into the waiting lens of the camera, marking the beginning of Kitchener-Berlin’s second movement, entitled A Veiled Flight. This movement is marked by discontinuity and an apparent random succession of events. It is begun by miners working underground, who unearth bridesmaids and horses, family rituals of touch, an Imax film-shoot staging native rituals, and the filmmaker himself, crouched over his desk in contemplation. It closes with a cave ceremony lit by candles; the furtive rock etchings a reminder of private manufactures where the division of signs and the events they depict seem less inevitable than today. A Veiled Flight is also comprised of marks like these, expressionistic outpourings that represent an unconscious flow. It is an expiration of memories redolent with mythology and association, a rite of purification that looks to begin again beneath the earth’s surface, in the shadowy enclosures of histories that may be shared without being understood. This film asks that its two halves be brought together like the two names of its title — the haunting historical stalk of its opening movement joined with the unconscious lure of the second, both combining to frame a portrait of ruin and restoration.

river (15 min b/w 1992) is a geographical portrait. Photographed over the course of a decade in three distinct styles, it is a meditation on the way technology mediates encounters with the natural. It marks, above all, a return to a childhood pastoral retreat; its slow moving rhythms bear its observer in a contemplative embrace of overhanging wood and summery intentions. river’s first movement reveals a fishing excursion, the lush hues of a sun-inspired afternoon drifting easily in the glassy mirror of the river’s flow, its restful solitude untroubled by the ravages of an industrialized south. Humanity is glimpsed in edges and peripheries; a paddle drips concentric rows along the water’s surface, a hand lowers anchor; a fly is cast against a soaring treeline. These passages are silent, meditative, and idyllic — a chained series of lap dissolves easing the passage of an afternoon’s watchful rest. The second scene is markedly different. Photographed in black-and-white video, it continually treks downstream, its overexposure granting an unearthly quality to the surroundings. But because the boat is rudderless, left to follow the river’s current while Hoffman stands filming on the prow, it soon encounters a variety of natural obstacles — trunks and rocks arise from the river’s surface to impede passage. The microphone rests on the boat’s bottom, so each obstacle occasions a loud and often hilarious track of scraping and bumping. This sound contrasts with the sublime pictorial record of the scene. Together, image and sound produce a kind of pastoral slapstick, the journey’s romantic inclinations betrayed by the physical evidence of the voyage itself. river’s third movement draws its opening sections together, refilming the lyric impressions of the opening off a rear screen, employing the same crude black-and-white video camera used to photograph the flotational trek of the second movement. The final movement runs inside the river itself, diving below water to glimpse the sunstroked grounds of its descent, aqueous fronds waving in the light of afternoon. Sharp movements abound here, in contrast to the stoic solidity of the first passage or the slow-moving drift of the second. The camera darts beneath the waves in a gestural cadence finally extinguished by a blinding white light, then seeks its source of illumination in a blank passage that signifies beginning and end, the addition of colour, the simultaneous occurrence of all experience, the filmic equivalent of the sublime.

Taken together these seven films constitute a remarkable journey of first person cinema. This cycle marks a life from its beginnings to middle age, from photographs used to hide as much to declare, towards a showdown with imaging technologies. Throughout, Hoffman’s impulse is to unearth and lay bare, to share secrets, so long buried, which separate past and present. To re-animate the dead world in order to mourn it more perfectly. To re-member.