(Originally published in Media News, Sheridan College, 1988)
by June Hodgson and Mike White
Rated amongst the best Canadian Independent filmmakers, Philip Hoffman has ostensibly been classified as a documentary filmmaker. However, his unique style transcends negative stereotypes once thought to be inescapable.
Speaking to Vox Magazine in November of 1989, Hoffman said, “As someone born and raised in Canada, the films that I saw when I was growing up were documentaries. However, I don’t want to make films in the same way that documentarians make films. On the other hand, I can’t pretend that it is not important to me or it hasn’t affected me. So, I work in a sort of blend of documentary and experimental.”
Currently teaching film in the Media Arts Program of Sheridan College, Hoffman is entering his thirteenth year as a filmmaker. Born in Kitchener, Ontario, Hoffman nurtured his youthful interest in photography and writing by building his own darkroom. Receiving a Bachelor of Arts at Wilfrid Laurier University, he then studied at Sheridan with filmmaker Rick Hancox.
His 1978 film debut, On The Pond, runs nine minutes and is largely a collection of black-and-white still photographs. It is the first in what Hoffman calls a “cycle of films” – all of them autobiographical and none of them derived from a script. To produce a film without a script is a Hoffman trademark. Instead, he pieces together images filmed over a period of time and connects them through a personal narrative. For example, The Road Ended At The Beach, finished in 1983, compiles events in Hoffman’s life over eight years. Remarkably, his films are cohesive and complete statements, in spite of his seemingly undisciplined approach. Hoffman calls this “controlled chaos”. He carries a Super 8 camera with him always and what he films may eventually become part of a future production. It is a slow, labourious process. Hoffman believes it is the little things in everyday life which are the most important and most worthy of being documented. “Filmmaking becomes a process of things that happen in life,” he says.
Hoffman’s latest film, Kitchener Berlin, concludes the “cycle”. Here he examines his father’s German heritage via comparisons of Kitchener, Ontario (named Berlin prior to World War II), and Berlin, Germany. Hoffman says, unlike his previous films, Kitchener Berlin has more to do with the times than with people. It is less personal than passing through/torn formations (1987). Completed in 1989, Kitchener Berlin was produced with the help of Sheridan graduates. Steadicam work was done by Colleen Graham and Bruce Johnson did the sound. Prior to returning to Sheridan in the fall of 1990, Hoffman took his films and Super 8 camera globe trotting. He led a two-week-long workshop at Finland’s Helsinki University of Art and Design. Hoffman also attended screenings of his work in Germany, England, and at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals. Of all of his excursions, Hoffman says Finland left the most indelible mark. Not because the people there are similar to Canadians, but because their primary struggle is similar to ours. “(Finnish) people live in the shadow of the USSR, dwarfed like Canadians are by the US. Finland’s history has been grappling with the USSR.
Disenchantment with the United States is a recurring topic in conversation with Hoffman. He believes that young people do not see enough shorts, experimental film and documentaries and he is disappointed by the predominance of American television in Canadian homes. Hoffman predicts that this situation may lend itself to creating a stronger film underground. “When the voice is taken away, people will go underground.”
To date, Hoffman does not need to work on an underground level. While he would like the National Film Board to put more of its budget towards independent filmmakers, he has managed to go from strength to strength over twelve years of filmmaking and he shows no sign of losing interest.