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

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