Category Archives: Writings By Philip Hoffman

A Play of History 1987

by Philip Hoffman

What does it mean for me and my work to have been in this place, Toronto?

Looking back over my film work of the past ten years, I see few traces of the city I choose as home… I notice my journal entries laden with references of people and places of the past.

August 19, 1979 – left Kitchener-Waterloo for the Toronto airport but first, goodbye to Mom and Babji, lying side by side. Babji speaks to me in her Polish, “Nie rozumiem…,” then, “I was think you were from the other place.” The old country is still with her, in her morning dream… to our dreams she taught us to listen… Though my work in film always deals with place, I find it odd that the place where I live and work is near-absent in my films… I question to what degree the present place where I am affects the output of the work.

January 1977 – I’m on a great flat houseboat, like the one old Roy Girdler used to ride on Lake McCullough, picking up cottagers on trips around the lake… I sit on the flat deck amidst peo­ple’s frantic legs. I’m six—I write everything down in my black book.

When have I turned the camera on Toronto?

In Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984), a storefront, John’s Religious Painting, Bloor and Bathurst, a glimpse through the window, through the wall, an artist copies a painting of Christ, the paintbrush careful to match the lines of the original, the camera careful, superimposing the image of the artist, a reflection on glass… Again from the same street, the same film, a procession up Bathurst Street, the Feast of Fatima, a questioning angel amongst many leaves her procession to smile for the camera. Mary is lifted up high, mingling with second-floor and third-floor rental flats. It’s an unusual day in the streets of Toronto when the grinding streetcars of commerce are replaced.

Near the end of The Road Ended at the Beach (1983), the basement on Bathurst Street is shown for a few seconds, with me, slumped over a light table editing film. At the time it seemed necessary to put myself in frame, fingers on film, trying to put an order to and make some sense of the seven years of collected film images… I learned about time, cutting film in that damp brick basement.

January 8, 1978 – I drive away from Toronto, the 401 again, passing through frozen fields, the harsh light cuts through the windshield, stops time on the road. On my way to Kitchener-Waterloo and Grampa’s funeral… in my frozen hand, the weight of my grandfather and the family procession, orderly disciplined, a strange German march echoes from his gramophone—seems like a dream.

In ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) (1986), some camera report sheets filmed on the kitchen table in the Dovercourt Road apartment were made to look as if they were shot in Holland. The report sheets were carefully forged, made to look as if my shooting procedure is systematic, made to look like I’m in complete control, like Grandpa.

Toronto is a place to find work, to make and look at movies, to talk with people about movies. But I’m still not persuaded to shoot film in Toronto. I keep wanting to dig down into a past which is impossible to retrieve. Place is impor­tant to me but my work has little to do with concrete places like Toronto, Kitchener or even Lake McCullough. Place is where I am, what I think and feel, and for the time being I continue to find my place in Toronto.

(Originally published in A Play of History Catalogue (Toronto: Power Plant, February 1987)

Carte Blanche 1992

The Ontario Cinematheque is a wonderous screening facility in Toronto which ran, for many years, a program called Carte Blanche where invited filmmakers were asked to show their own work along with others who have influenced their practice. The following notes were published in the Fall 1992 guide of the Ontario Cinematheque. All notes by Philip Hoffman.


Philip Hoffman Carte Blanche

Films alone most often do not deeply touch me. But spending time with the maker(s), breathing their practice – this is the space in which I find real growth and sharing. In this light, I present a program that expresses an archaeology of vital meetings for me in film and life.

At the fiery 1984 Grierson Seminar, I met Peter Greenaway and his ‘anti-documentaries’  THE FALLS (1980) and its formal reverse, ACT OF GOD (1981). Where THE FALLS stages interviews, ACT OF GOD evolves through a series of `real’ interviews. Meeting Peter and seeing these two works swept away whatever realist tendencies I still had left in my work, the effect of far too many documentaries purporting objectivity, order, truth, in contemporary times of raging chaos. My response, following a sojourn to the set of Greenaway’s feature A ZED AND TWO NOUGHTS, was ?O,ZOO! (1986), a testament to making `the real’ disappear.

In 1978 the Art Gallery of Ontario hosted `Autobiography: Film/Video/ Photo’, another event that helped bring to light elements of a practice and vision which were beginning to shape my own. Jonas Mekas stood spot lit, Bolex in shopping bag beside him, DIARIES, NOTES AND SKETCHES on the screen – a passion for collecting images of the `everyday’,  every day, and a process for `living cinema.’ CASSIS (1966) by Mekas is a quiet cine-poem, a haiku of a small port in the south of France; all day and into the evening boats pass as light and color go through their changes.

Maya Deren’s work turns the program inward, her enchanted landscapes speak to the ineffable qualities of dream and trance. In AT LAND (1944), Deren finds new temporal structures through repetition, and an advanced narrative form using ‘dream-time-space’  as a beginning.

There isn’t time to have some films in this program, for example my favourite film, Chris Marker’s SANS SOLEIL, is a regular at the Cinematheque and is again this season in the Marker retrospective. Besides that there are many more works and makers that have touched me. Like MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, NUIT ET BROUILLARD, WAVELENGTH, THRILLER, THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION, NURSING HISTORY, HIGHWAY 61, Melies, Lefebvre, Jarman, Epp, Kerr, Sternberg, Watkins, Popovich, Chambers, INSIDE SILENCE, HAMMU, HART OF LONDON, STEPS TO THE HARBOUR, McMahon, Snow, Lipsett, Lock, Cook, CHRONIQUE DE LA VIE QUOTIDIENNE, Egoyan, Cartmell, Frenkel, McGowan, SIFTED EVIDENCE, 11 X 14, NIGHT MAIL, ELEGY, THE JOURNEY, FAMILY VIEWING, THIGH LINE LYRE TRIANGULAR, MATERNAL FILIGREE, RESONANCE, THE GARDEN, GHOSTS BEFORE BREAKFAST, 1857 (FOOLS GOLD), HAWKESVILLE TO WALLEN

STEIN, CITY OF GOLD, ART OF WORLDLY WISDOM, OL’ YELLER, Hoolboom, Thorne, Rimmer, Razutis, Brown, RE: ENTRY, YOU TAKE CARE NOW, Porter, Mettler, Gronau, Leduc, Lebeau, Sanguedolce, CANAL, WILD SYNC, THE BOYS, Soul, Brakhage, Godard, Camus, Kerouac, Stein, Basho, Cage, TECHNOLOGY OF TEARS, Frank, Dewdney,Shikatani, Glass, AT PRESENT, WORK BIKE AND EAST…”


Canada 1986  23 minutes
Director: Philip Hoffman

Great Britain 1981, 25 minutes
Director: Peter Greenaway

USA 1966, 4 minutes (NEW PRINT)
Director: Jonas Mekas

USA 1944, 14 minutes
Director: Maya Deren

Canadian Premiere!

Canada 1992 – ongoing, 10 minutes
Director: Philip Hoffman

Canada 1988,12 minutes
Director: Stephen Butson

Canada 1988, 5 minutes
Director: Stephanie Maxwell

Images Talk (April 2001)


Thirty years ago Richard Kerr and I set up a darkroom in my basement and I suppose it was there where I became drawn in to photographic processes… I have always been excited by that moment when the print is put into the developer and the image begins to appear. It’s a fleeting moment when change is most focused and visible and I suppose I’ve continued to dwell in that moment of transformation in my filmmaking…

Here’s an excerpt from passing through/torn formations, it’s Christopher Dewdney’s poem Out of Control: The Quarry:

“It is a warm grey afternoon in August. You are in the country, in a deserted quarry of light grey Devonian limestone in Southeren Ontario. A powderery luminescence oscillates between the rock and sky. You feel sure that you could recognize these clouds (with their limestone texture) out of random cloud photographs from all over the world. You then lean over and pick up a flat piece of layered stone. It is a rough triangle about one foot across. Prying at the stone you find the layers come apart easily in large flat pieces. Pale grey moths are pressed between the layers of stone. Freed, they flutter up like pieces of ash caught in a dust devil. You are splashed by the other children but move not.”

(from Preditors of the Adoration, Out of Control: The Quarry by Christopher Dewdney)

In passing through/torn formations I tried to create a form that wasn’t frozen or fossilized (as film tends to do)… and this was accomplished through the layering of dialogue and collected sound, the layering of story, the repetition of story, superimposition (sometimes three separate image systems on the screen at the same time)… It is my hope that this polyphonic form allows for participation from the audience, and at the same time suggests that all family stories have several perspectives,  there is no such thing as one objective fact/truth, or way of looking at things…

I suppose this open form is taken up further in Opening Series where the audience orders twelve boxes like this and determines an order (there is an interrelated film in each box)… each time the film gets played there is a new order, and I track the various orders as the film screens… What I learn through Opening Series often finds itself in other films. For example, some sections in  Opening Series 2 and 4 find themselves in What these ashes wanted, a somewhat more narrative driven film, so it’s a kind of testing ground for images as well.

I have taken up a method borrowed from Adrienne Rich’s feminist dictum: Collect Reflect Revise. The method of collecting is spontaneous and non-scripted, in which I try to dwell in that fleeting moment, watching time through the lens…



In the early 1980’s,  Allen Ginsburg gave a talk and led a meditation at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and recently I found the tape I had recorded and played it for Janine and she bounced it into Public’s recent Lexicon issue. Here it is.

“It is possible through mindfulness practice, to bring about some kind of orderly observation of the phenomenology of the mind and to produce a poetics. From that instant by instant recognition of thought forms comes a notion of spontaneous poetry which Jack Kerouac and Gertrude Stein practiced. And that form of poetry is a form of Oriental form that is composed on the tongue rather than on paper. It is also a Western form, a very American form. Blues and Calypso poetics were always made up on the spot. There always was a formulaic structure as in all Bardic poetics but it was dependent on the Back blues singer to get it on and make up on the spot all the rhymes and all the personal comments, all the moaning, empty bed samsara lamentations of the moment while singing. So that Tibetan poetics and American poetics are based on the spontaneous. The key to this is that you have to accept that the first thought is the best thought, you have to recognize that the mind is shapely. Because the mind has  shape, what passes through the mind is the mind’s own, so that is all in one mind, it is all linked connectedness and consequence. Observe your mind rather than force it, you will always come up with something that links to previous thought force. It is a question of trusting your own mind finally and trusting your tongue to express the mind’s fast puppet… spitting forth intelligence without embarrassment.”

 Ginsberg’s method may sound familiar to people who follow the work of Brakhage for instance, where his muse directs him through his work… I appreciate this link with the Muse but my background has directed me towards seeing it in a less individualised state. Through the 1990’s I have come to appreciate the way other people can contribute to my projects… that there is an energy around the making of a work that can create a more participatory model during the making… in other words, I get a lot of help from my loved ones, friends and assistants and I see them as part-makers of the film. Chance elements come into play when this kind of energy is set up around a project, and through people, these chance elements often help direct the film. The film is a tuning fork, resonating through people and events.



Whereas the spontaneous is most connected to the shooting of films and is quite light and free the editing process has been tortuous, these collected concrete forms of memory do not always go together, and it can take a long time before I sculpt them into shape, blending story and form. Maybe this is why some of my films take five to seven years to complete.



This process-oriented approach to making was used when I and my late partner Marian McMahon set up a Filmmaking Retreat in 1994, in Mount Forest. Participants are urged to shoot without scripts, letting the camera’s confrontation with the world be the first place to start, rather than the written word …the camera meets the world. Since hand processing facilities are available, participants can shoot and re shoot, experiment with various photo-chemical processes and gradually films surface. My motto is, if you can write a poem in a day, you can make a film in a week. Participants do not need to necessarily come to the film farm with an idea… my sense is that there is a film in everyone which can be drawn out anywhere… The atmosphere created at the film farm by the  assitants/teachers who help out every year, make it conducive to creative expression.



I am more interested in passing on a way of working than a medium(for example celluloid), in the so called digital age….

What these ashes wanted was finished on film but it makes use of high-8 and 3/4″ video, digital video, 16mm reversal, 16mm high contrast and negative, digital to film transfers and so on… It’s a way of working that I would be more concerned about losing during the corporate mandate of this millennium. Film has a beauty we should use when we need it, even if we have to get into making our own emulsion up at the film farm…

Helsinki Trip 2004

by Philip Hoffman

Once again I find myself in Finland, and wonder why I am drawn to this place. It isn’t only because I have good friends here from my many other visits. This is a place where I feel comfortable, and maybe the only place in my life that reminds me of my mother’s eastern European heritage. Of course, I know that Helsinki is as developed in city life as any Canadian city, yet somehow  life is more the pace I can handle, compared to that of the busy North Americans cities. I know I’m romantically naive in these judgments, but I also know that our experience of the world is always filtered through our  greatest passions, and the foundational moments. Babji (my mother’s mother) taught me how to shoot from the hip. When she took pictures, she did not look through the lens, but just kind of used her body to find the picture. This daily practice of acknowledging the body (and not only the mind), in my filmmaking, working the hand with the heart, telling stories that are both personal and, I hope, universal, finds its source in Babji’s kichen, where supper chats went on through the night, as light and dark tales of their past were laid out one by one on the kitchen table.


The Trip

Sami picks Janine and I up at the airport. I’ve come to do six days of workshop with Finnish filmmakers. Sami, who will be co-directing this venture, and Tuula who is hosting the workshop for her students at UIAH along with some students from the Art Academy, have organised everything just right. It is colder and darker than Canada. I look out the window and think about my friends back home who have gone to warm climates for their holidays.

After a day of organising the workshop (it starts tomorrow) I decide to take Janine out to an old haunt. Elite. The wine and food are good. This is familiar. There is an open screening next door at a local gallery, so we slide over and during the film breaks, the old gang starts appearing before my eyes, one by one: Denise, Mikko, Oliver, Seppo, Ali, Sami… they are all continuing to make and screen their work locally and internationally. There is great energy in this little basement ‘open screening’  and the work covers the range of alternative practice from documentaries that skillfully deconstruct Finnish history to campy critiques. This reminds me of the old days of the Funnel experimental Film Theatre in Toronto where people show up not knowing what will be screened but always leave entertained, stimulated and yes, a little tipsy.  What is great about it is that it’s a place to share an image, a work in progress or a brand new short, and have at times a deep exchange about some aspect. It is a place where old ideas and films get revamped and new ideas for films develop. It is polar-opposite to the ‘pitch,’ a process used nowadays in the commercial and independent film world which is less about development and the nurturing of an artistic practice and more about authoritative control through an industrial model. What I saw  in the ‘Open Screening’ follows what Jonas Mekas meant when he called the New American Cinema movement, a living cinema. In that little basement screening no one talked about not enough funding for their project. I heard nothing about problems people were having trying to secure a producer, so they could make their film. There seemed to be no yearning for the most up-to-date digital tools. This kind of film and video is more akin to the Canadian artist, Joyce Weiland, who made films on her kitchen table. In her work the stuff of everyday life surfaced.

Before sleep I remember the words of a former teacher of mine, Rick Hancox. If the Romans made films, would we be most interested in seeing their feature films, or their home movies and personal films?

A bunch of nervous students, and a couple of nervous instructors find themselves in the same room, 9am at UIAH,  on the first day of the workshop. Sami decides to put on the comical film …Mongoloid by American Avant Garde (comedian) filmmaker George Kuchar…and the ice is broken…..we come together  in laughter. Many more films are screened. There is no shortage of questions and opinions regarding the work, once again dispelling the myth that the Finns do not talk (as I was told during my first workshops at ETL in 1989 -92…I can’t imagine  Anu, Kiti, Petri, Arto, Sami, Heiki, Vesa not speaking!!!). Starting tomorrow the participants will bring in projects they are working on. Ones which they have had problems with. We will look at them together.

The projects screen one by one. People explain what they are trying to do. These projects are as deep and dark and as strongly felt, as anything I’ve seen, as anything in life. The most obvious problem surfaces time and time again. The form often does not fit the subject. Participants are forcing the passions of their life into conventional forms, handed down byHollywood…handed down by funding agencies…handed down by film schools. I understand this problem so well as I have been teaching within filmmaking institutions for years. So often, the curriculum cannot keep up with all of the needs of the students, of the industry, of the art form. At York University where I have been teaching for four years we finally decided to make a change to allow the possibility of developing innovative forms, yet maintaining the needs that students and the industry has to develop conventional narrative. In year three and four, students choose one of the following as a major: Fiction Project Workshop, Doc Project Workshop or Alternative Project Workshop.  Alternative covers everything from innovative non-linear fiction to experimental projects to hybrids of Doc, Narrative and Experimental. When the decision to change the curriculum from one that favoured fiction filmmaking to one that allowed the possibilities of three genres, one of the Professors suggested that every year we would have trouble filling the alternative class. This past autumn, we discovered that this class was the most sought after, and the only one in which students were turned down due to over enrollment.

Days are filled with screenings, talking about films…getting to know the group, what they most would like to realise…the fears we all have about making work that pushes boundaries…how much? Is it enough? Too much for an audience, and not enough for the filmmaker is the usual answer from experimentalists.

The nights are filled with meeting old friends… Seppo takes me for a ride in his new ambulance…finally he has room for all his film projectors, cameras, films and videos. He tells me about a plan to use the speaker system for a poetry/film performance…he’s already got the projector rigged through the back window, and powered up. It’s good to hear what people are up to in work and life… Denise… Mikko…gathering their new projects to show at our Fabulous Festival of Fringe Film in Canada, where we screen films in rural Ontario during the month of August  in galleries, town halls, against old barn walls, under the stars, and the grand finale at the Drive-In. I want to show Ilppo’s Routemaster there this summer …last year I ran his Plain Truth to the applause of horns honking exuberantly by  the end. Sami’s Twone would look good, sprinkled throughout the program… it would be magnificent to have some Finnish visiting filmmakers. ..let’s keep the exchange going! As well, as it will be the 10th Anniversary of my Film Farm Workshop, a 35mm hand-processed group film will screen under the stars at the drive-in.

By the last day of the workshop it appears everyone has come some distance….Sami and I  never really know how these kinds of creative workshops affect filmmaker’s work, but I like to think that they give participants confidence to go a bit further then they have already. I know it has worked that way for me. Workshops with Jean Pierre Lefebvre, theQuebequois narrative director, helped me understand that pushing narrative boundaries is as important and exciting as pushing boundaries in documentary and alternative film. During our mandatory pool game at the local  hall, I realised the worth of these visits, how they have fueled my own filmmaking  (the thankyous to Finns on the end credits of  my latest film What these ashes wanted, is as long as your arm, and proves that). And  the thankyous are mutual as the talks continue that night in the pool hall with Anu, Ilppo, Kiti, Toni,Juha, Sami, Passi…and much, much later an ecstatic Petri rolls in, plays  me a few games, we’re the last ones left, and we talk about the first workshops in `89, the old times are always the good times …what is everyone doing.? Where’s Arto, Heikki, Monday is she still shooting? We talk it out to the cold Helsinki streets, and down to the railway station…

Originally published in AVEK (Magazine for Audio-Visual Culture), Finland, Feb. 16. 2004