Thin Ice

by Karyn Sandlos

In my mid-thirties I realized I had slipped past a childhood I had ignored and not understood

— Michael Ondaatje, Running in the Family, 1982:22

Beginnings can be awkward, because they ask us to do things before we know how. I read somewhere that that we can’t learn our personal histories off by heart. Memory is fickle; it doesn’t fade with time, it shape shifts. And although memory is a central preoccupation in Philip Hoffman’s work, his first film, On the Pond, suggests that telling personal stories requires a certain degree of amnesia. In 1978, while a student at Sheridan College, Hoffman tape-recorded a family gathering as material for a personal documentary film. The occasion was his birthday, and the Hoffman family had assembled for a celebratory slide show. Following on diaristic work in writing and photography, Hoffman recalls that his aim, in making On the Pond, was to begin with what he knew. What could be more familiar than one’s own family history, retrieved from an archive of Kodak mementos? Yet, in On the Pond, tensions between what can be revealed and what must remain hidden behind a veil of propriety, suggest a much deeper layer of prohibition at stake in the telling of personal stories. In this film, pictures of home give provisional shape to an indeterminate longing, and make of the familiar an uneasy place to return to. At our most personal, it would seem, we are never quite at home.

Memory, the thirst for presence…

— Octavio Paz, A Tree Within, 1988:151

In On the Pond, Hoffman brings the truth-making apparatuses of the still and moving image to bear on that most colloquial of historic documents: the family anecdote. The film opens with a series of black and white stills, underscored by a family’s exclamations of delight. A number of voices proffer the details of time and place. There is the cottage and the pond. There are the children going fishing in summer and skating in winter. The photographs are animated by the usual snippets of commentary:  “Oh, that’s a good one of you!”  “Do you remember when we…?”  “I wish I knew you better then…” Amidst the convivial clamor of the soundtrack, a daughter’s wish to have known her mother better then captures my attention, for she speaks with the quiet resignation of one who has arrived too late. In this moment, the family’s exuberance for the factual details of a past life together belies the tones and shadows of their shared recollections. Through fleeting disclosures they tell stories of longing through a past—or at least a version of the past—that might temper all that is unbearable about the present.

I often wonder whether I have any actual memories of my own childhood, or whether access to a past that I have lived through is made possible only by the stories of others. And there are few things I find more frustrating than being left to my own failed recollections. Lost keys, forgotten directions, and misplaced bits of information are the hints that trying too hard to remember makes us forget. Perhaps most images are like tools that relieve us of this kind of difficulty, by giving shape to a past that is largely made up of traces, impulses, flashes of colour, and fragments in need of a structure. Tell me a story that will help me forget what I want from a past that is lost to me. Images aren’t lies exactly, but they may work like screens that shield us from the discards of our lives. To preserve the past, to give meaning to these fragments, is at once the work of a magician and the practice of an embalmer. With a wish to give order to the refractory pull of desire, the archive snatches memory from the flow of time.

On the map of history, perhaps the water stain is memory.

— Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces, 1996:137

But even anesthesia can be administered in uneven doses. On the Pond cuts between family photographs and the recurring scene of a boy playing hockey on a frozen pond; the clamor of the domestic drama and the stillness of a frozen landscape. Apart from the puck-chasing antics of a German Shepherd, the boy plays alone. At night, backlit by the windows of the cottage, his father prepares the ice with buckets of water. With the toss of a bucket, bleeding through the darkness, there appears a vanishing image of water coating ice. The water will be solid by morning, but first it leaves a stain. While most stains have a material presence, this one lifts off of the emulsion of the film and lingers in the mind with a haunting intractability. It is there and not there at the same time. Amidst images of landscape and childhood that beckon with a nostalgia that is echoed in the words of Hoffman’s older sister when she intones “Oh, I want to go back,” traces of uncertainty pierce through ordered time. If there is a true picture of the past, it must be like these fleeting glimpses, when they surface like a photograph that could easily have been discarded, or returned from the lab stamped ‘print no charge.’ In On the Pond, these are moments when, just as the negative image gives birth to the positive print, amnesia gives memory its contours.

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it the way it really was. It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.

—Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, 1955:255


In On the Pond there is a strange image of the back of Hoffman’s mother’s head, framed by a figure in motion on the left, and the small face of a very young Hoffman in the lower right hand corner.  The voiceover tells us that this photograph was taken on Thanksgiving Day, when Hoffman’s mother was “feeling lousy.” While the emotional tone of the day is admitted, Hoffman’s effort to cheer his mother up becomes the focus of this conversation. But the seconds of silence that surround the tiny image of a child’s smiling face tear at the delicate suturing between meaning and image, between memory and the psychic cost of bringing the past to light. The family gathers in an act of forgetting. It is not the picture itself that leaves a stain, but the layers of affect and meaning that linger unresolved in the silence that follows their conversation about a day that is lost to them. Forgotten, perhaps, but not gone. The image is as permanent and imperfect as the conflicts it serves to disguise, and it glances off the viewer with the tug of retrospective desire. This is, as Benjamin might have put it, a moment of recognition in which the past flashes up as an image, never to be seen again.

If only I had a photograph, so that people could see who I was.

— Caryl Phillips, The Nature of Blood, 1997:195

On the Pond is a study in still and moving images, and the flow of the past through preserved moments in time. Pictures of home and family are intercut with photographs of Hoffman’s hockey team, as the silence of the pond is broken by the clamor of an audience, a coach’s obsessive words of encouragement, and the encroaching chant of Ca-na-da! Ca-na-da! A young Hoffman surveys a collection of trophies alongside team photographs that herald his departure from the family. Through a labored series of pushups, he measures his stamina against the ice. Photographs of Hoffman’s own childhood provide a measure of the distance between home and the world, and the small rituals of the pond reveal their larger purpose: Hoffman gains strength in order to leave, and distance so that he may one day return.

It is no accident that many of us become fascinated by our family histories long after we have left home. For years after my own leaving, I asked my family not to pose for photographs at our annual reunions. I stopped taking pictures when I realized that we didn’t know how not to perform in front of a camera. Not posing became more awkward than posing. Perhaps this was my way of trying to call attention to a certain distance of my own; to manipulate the conventional time of family portraits as a way of trying to live outside the ordered traditions of home and family. And it may be that going home requires this measure of distance, this lapse of memory, that most pictures afford us. If absence clears a path for our return, a little amnesia may be the price of presence. Like trying to hold light between two hands.

As in childhood we live sweeping close to the sky, and now what dawn is this.

— Ann Carson, Autobiography of Red, 1998:54

It is possible that the process of making a personal film relies more on memory lapses than it does on memory. My own first film began as a disparate collection of stories that were contained in mental images. These were stories that I had been told about my childhood, repetitively, over time, until I was old enough to wonder where the stories ended and my own experience began. The images I had shot didn’t lend themselves to an easy or obvious ordering, and so I experimented with one version and then another, wondering all the while why I felt compelled to tell stories that I had been told; stories that seemed to fill in the spaces where memory failed me. There was a period in which mastery over the film’s unfolding gave way to a strange sense of disorientation. The film began to unmake the maker, like a dream that was nudging me forward in search of artifacts, vestiges, echos. Toward the end of On the Pond, Hoffman, now in his twenties, reclines on a bed flipping the pages of an old hockey album. Next to the bed, a projector reel rotates and a turntable revolves.  The film has ended and the music has stopped, but the silence is disturbed by the skip of the needle and the incessant hum of the projector. If memories are like water staining ice, then the best replicas of memory must glimmer even as they disappear. The problem is, we make films when we wake to the knowledge that we have been sleeping, but we also make films in order to help us sleep better. And if we do, in fact, sleep through much of our childhoods, it is not just the familiar that we reach for later on, but the urgent flashes of ourselves that can’t be explained, or understood, or fully retrieved. Hoffman glances intently at the camera as he moves off of the bed, leaving the photo album behind. Emerging from the cottage, he makes his way back to the pond.

Proposal for Destroying Angel

(16mm/B&W & Color/30 minutes)

by Philip Hoffman in collaboration with Wayne Salazar
August 1995


In 1994 I collaborated with Finnish filmmaker Sami van Ingen to produce Sweep (1995/32min). The film chronicles a journey to James Bay, in search of the place that Sami’s great-grandfather, Robert Flaherty, had been and to Kapuskasing, where my mother’s family first settled when they arrived in Canada from Poland. The film represents my continued interest in the ephemeral nature of conscious memory. It furthers my understanding of how preferred, abstract views of history are a deterrent to realising history as it is manifested in one’s identity and the activities of daily living.

In Sweep, rather than approaching these concerns alone as I had in the past, I chose to work collaboratively with an artist who was grappling with similar issues. The intersection of public and private histories was starkly visible through the figure of Sami’s great-grandfather. Robert Flaherty had made a significant contribution to the public history of ethnographic filmmaking and had left a remarkable family legacy of the great ‘genius’ artist by embodying this myth and by repeated intergenerational stories of his valour.

Our reflections were informed by a shared commitment to view the Western European colonization of Indigenous people and their cultures in light of our respective histories. We started by attempting to dismantle the division between public and private history vis a vis Sami’s great-grandfather. Formally, the film manipulates the conventions of the decidedly male ‘Road Movie’ genre which informed my earlier film The Road Ended At the Beach (1983/33 min). As expected, we immediately confronted the dilemma of how to shoot in an others’ culture, a dilemma which is the focus of my earlier filmSomewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion (1984/6 min). The collaborative nature of this project created new possibilities for reformulating old questions about representation. Keeping in mind Flaherty’s dubious legacy of filming the ‘other’, how were we to shoot, what were we to film? These crucial questions changed through the process of collaboration from “How do we film in this Native culture?” to “What does the way we shoot tell us about the privilege we are seeking to disavow?” We filmed with this question in the forefront of our thoughts with a view to examine how the nature of our looking was always already coded as entitled by virtue of our recognisable status as privileged citizens. Thus the subject made object of the film is not others who we encounter on our privileged passage into lands of otherness, but ourselves in relation to the looking which we have been entitled to do. As the process evolved and the questions became clearer, so to was there an alteration in the way we deployed conventions borrowed from the ‘Road Movie’ tradition. The film concludes with an awareness of how the public world lives in us, despite our best intentions to live beyond the grasp of its constraints. The fantasy of mastery of living beyond this realm means not being responsible for how we inevitably can’t and don’t.

Wayne Salazar, co-maker of the proposed project, Destroying Angel, has, in past works, explored the tension between history and memory, between fact and fiction. In Some Lies”, the essay that follows, he tells faithfully remembered stories from different stages of his life linking them together through the common themes of lies we live by and the construction of gendered identity. These stories culminate in a fictionalized present, (the beer with Leandro) an imagined scene used as a vehicle to conclude the telling of events remembered. Wayne’s concern with the construction of gender relates to my exploration of masculine subjectivity.

In Cuba/USA (1991/19 min), Wayne explores different notions of freedom through the life stories of three Cuban painters living in NYC. He focuses on how these artists’ memories of their lives in Cuba have deeply affected the form and content of their art. Each artist tells a history of events (i.e. Castro’s ascension to power) in relation to the lived histories of these artists. Through their stories and their work the divisions between proper history and personal memory are shown to be invested divisions which in fact, in real material conditions of lives lived, simply do not exist. Clearly there is a relationship between history and practice which the startling images of their art beautifully declare. Just as the stories of these artists cut across divisions between private and public vis a vis the recent history of Cuba, Wayne’s HIV seropositivity status is the point of contact between a public ostensibly objective history of AIDS and his lived ostensibly subjective experience of the disease itself.

As a visual artist Wayne has recently treated his relationship to his parents and his HIV seropositivity. He has painted self-portraits that highlight his body and the limitations his disease has put upon it, abstracted pop art images of the drugs he takes, and images of his present self with his parents. Moving these images and his project from the canvas to the screen will allow Wayne to continue this exploration using narrative as a means to get at things he wasn’t able to in two dimensions.

Waynes ability as an artist and his appreciation of process in the act of creation is complemented by his experience as a programmer at the Hawaii International Film Festival. There he created a very well-attended experimental film section of the Festival and wrote the accompanying program notes.


Destroying Angel has evolved through an artistic practice which is integrally connected to my everyday life. The co-director, Wayne Salazar and I met in Sydney in 1991 where we were both attending the Sydney International Film Festival. Wayne was moved by my work to think more deeply about what he learned about family relations and how that history lives in him, disguised by popular notions about agency, free will and choice. I was moved by Wayne’s openness and his ability to speak his process out loud with a unique combination of vulnerability and strength.

Growing up in North America, we had both been differently shaped in relation to dominant and preferred modes of being masculine which, amongst other things, limit the ways in which men can relate to themselves and to others. Wayne’s capacity to resist those dominant modes, made real through the ways he interacted with me was instructive and contributed to my capacity to move onto work collaboratively with Gerry Shikatani in Opening Series – 3 (8 min/1994) and Sami van Ingen in Sweep. I met Wayne at a time when my work was turning more towards collaboration and it seems in retrospect, that our chance meeting was perfectly timed.

Wayne came to visit for the first time in May 1995 following a trip to Upstate New York to visit his mother. The time spent with his mother was troubled and Wayne used this experience as a catalyst for self reflection and revisioning about identity, love and death. In this state of mind Wayne began to notice similarities between the landscape of his childhood and the Southern Ontario landscape in which he presently found himself: there were instances of his past that were visiting him in his present in startling ways.

Building on what we had already created through exchanges over time, beginning with my desire to learn from Wayne’s ability to be fearless about how he felt, and Wayne’s interest in my past work on family and identity, we started shooting a film together. What you see in the support material are shots that Wayne took, a few I took. The images which he shot during his visit play on the tension between scenes from his history and his present day life. For example shots of rural landscapes, traveling in a car and a dog running interact with a long shot of the drugs which he takes as part of the daily effort to keep well in light of his HIV seropositivity. Upon viewing this last shot, Wayne recalled his mother’s attempted suicide by overdose of prescribed medication and the subsequent care-taking she needed which fell upon him to provide. He remembered the tension between her growing dependency on him and his struggle as an adolescent for independence, for a sense of himself outside of the roles of child turned caretaker.

I have attempted to describe the process-driven nature of this project. As such, we can’t predict how the images mentioned above, or any subsequent images will be used. However, since we are both curious about the inevitable role of storytelling in representations of both memory and history we have an idea about how we might formally explore this role. Two sequences from Destroying Angel will be re-enactments of childhood memories – both stories pertain to our relationships with our respective fathers and memories of our respective pasts (see Story Excerpts which follow). Our intention is to use a voice-over narrator to tell stories we tell ourselves about the past, rehearsed histories which restrain the excess of emotion connected with memories of those events, an excess which we are taught to believe the present is too fragile to handle.

Memory will be viewed from a variety of perspectives: memory as fiction, as history made flesh in the present moment through our desire. The challenge will be to deal with memory via the manner in which it produces emotional responses which confusingly appear like phantom pain, and which are disproportionately strong in relationship to the current situation. Such a phenomenon is connected to an event long forgotten consciously, but visible in the lingering pains confusingly present in response to events which remind us of what we are afraid to remember. For example, in the story Rabbit, I lingered on a recent incident involving the accidental death of a rabbit only to recall a hunting expedition with my father when I was young where he unwittingly wounded a rabbit who then suffered a painful death. The tyranny of memory made it difficult to recall that painful episode and thus to grasp why a similar incident in the present was so intense without any particular referent. It was only upon reflection that I was able to recognise my reaction as a response to an event long ago forgotten. It is our intention through the process of making this film together, to create an ever-changing satisfying present through recreation/reintegration of the past. In doing so the revenge of the repressed will be seen as a liberatory moment of self discovery made possible through collective reflection, not to be viewed as pathology nor solely the jurisdiction of the analyst couch, but rather an activity that belongs firmly in the social world which produces the repression in the first instance.

The stories will be told through words and images – words will give content of the memory, images will show a re-enactment of the stories, though the scenes will not be scripted. Place and elements of the original story will be brought together and integrated through the present moment. For example Wayne’s father was a traveling insurance salesman. While shooting images taken from the car during his visit with me, Wayne dislodged memories of having traveled as a child with his father while he worked his way across the U.S. selling insurance door to door. This memory became an important avenue to recalling other times of intimacy with his father and his recollection of how he had learned about love. Ingredients of the memories will blend with unpredictable and spontaneous present moments. Symbols from the memories will interplay with present moments and bring forward the way the mind/camera shapes this interplay into something new. This will stand as metaphor for making memory anew, for making a new living present passing moment. The process of making the film will be used as a vehicle for transformation of the memory maker into a living moving changing present and sitting comfortably with that present – allowing it to grow and transform, rather than solidify as ‘The Past’. The process will always take into account the making as part of the story, and integrate the process of the making with the process of memory.

We will start with three of the stories enclosed (Story Excerpts – RabbitDogTraveling Salesman). As the project grows and transforms, we will incorporate other stories you will read here. In addition stories of the past will surface and be integrated (through editing) with stories already told. This transformative process will create one new fluid narrative about relationships: son to father, father to

son, friend to friend.

By relying on this process to date we have been able to put shape to a project that could not have otherwise been conceived. Hence our faith that by continuing to trust the process, the film will figuratively make itself.


Filming Locations:

Mt Forest Ont – Philip’s home

Ithaca NY – Wayne’s mother’s home

San Francisco – Wayne’s home

The film & sound post production will be done in

Toronto/Mount Forest by Philip with collaboration from Wayne through videotape swapping, electronic mail, and two trips for Wayne to Toronto/Mount Forest. This method was successfully used in the making of Sweep with co-maker Sami van Ingen.

Production Schedule:

August 95 to May 96

on Super-8, Hi-8 and 16mm, Wayne and Philip will shoot day to day images from home, pertaining to proposal content

November 95

Wayne to Toronto/Mount Forest/Ithaca – 2 weeks


plan and record sound

finish 1st rough cut

March 96

Philip to San Francisco – 2 weeks

additional shooting

narration recording

hi-8 edit and kine

finish 2nd rough cut

May 96

Wayne to Toronto/Mount Forest – 2 weeks

final picture and sound edit

sound mix

June 1996

1st answer print complete


In the best of all worlds, I’d like you to watch any one of my more recently completed films in order to get a sense of my filmmaking practice, including: how I handle ideas over time; explore the relationship between sound and image; and push the borders of my formal practice vis a vis experimental image making. Fantasies aside, I realise you are operating on time restraints given the number of applicants and support material you must view. In this light, I have selected excerpts from several of my films including passing through / torn formations (1988/43 min)

?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) (1986/23 min) and Sweep (1995/32 min)and entitled the tape Past Work Excerpts. These excerpts will focus your attention on the elements which will be further pursued in Destroying Angel i.e. storytelling/memories and collaborative production, and thus hopefully establish the link between past work and the concerns of this proposal. A second tape is included in the support material and is entitled Shooting Test – Destroying Angel. As mentioned, it includes some of the shots Wayne and I took during his recent visit to Mount Forest. I have also sent along Sweepproviding there is time to view the entire film.


Wayne’s stories:


He wasn’t home much, only on weekends, because he worked as a traveling insurance salesman. Picture this: a man with a thick Spanish accent, who had immigrated to the States from Guatemala when he was 32 years old, crisscrossing the Mid-west in his car, selling life insurance to farmers in Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin. And he was good at it.

A couple of times a year he’d take me along, and I’d help him find the little towns on the map so we could plan our route. When we got there, I’d play with the kids and with the animals. I got to see rich and poor and in-between, and to know another way of life.


I remember when I was five years old, I wondered what people meant when they used the word `love’. I knew it wasn’t something I could point at, like ‘ball’, and it wasn’t a simple action, like ‘run’. I thought about it sometimes.

That summer my dad took our dog for a walk. This was unusual but it made sense because Chico was a big dog, and whenever my brother or I took him for a walk he always ended up pulling us off our feet and running away, to be found hours later by an irate person who’s flower bed had been dug up on the other side of town. When dad came home he was carrying an empty leash.

“Did Chico run away again?” I asked

“No,” he said and then he explained that he’d gotten rid of Chico because he was too much trouble. He was given to the pound. Chico wasn’t coming home anymore.

“But I loved him!” I blurted out through my tears and suddenly I realized I new what that word meant.

I became a cat person like my mother.


My mother lives alone, in a house in the woods, with a cat named Kisa. The house is very `gray gardens’ at this point: unpainted outside for ten years, or inside for twenty. The walls and ceilings are stained from the smoke of cigarettes she chain smokes. Mold grows amongst the crumbs in the refrigerator. The bushes have grown as high as the house; the bottoms of them have been eaten away by deer in the night. She’s lonely, pining for love and human contact, but too afraid of being hurt to be able to give in the give-and-take of an emotional bond.

I hadn’t looked forward to the trip to see her. It had been three and a half years — not coincidentally, I believe, the same amount of time I’ve been living with HIV. She’s in denial; we never talk about it. She never, for instance, asks me how I feel. I want her to nurture and support me, but since I was a child it was always I who nurtured her. It was I who stood by her as she divorced my father, when her father and my brother turned against her. It was I who helped her through her attempts at suicide.

The first day of my visit to her house I was angry at her for her silence about my illness. The second day I kept reminding myself that she had never in my life been nurturing in the way I was hoping for now. I accepted that, but was still angry.

The third day, over a bottle of wine, she matter-of-factly began a conversation about the way our society keeps people in a state of prolonged childhood–keeping kids at home too long, and in school even longer–when biologically we’re programmed to leave home much earlier, at the age of 14 or so. We are meant, she said, to become independent earlier.

How then, I asked, do you account for the deep connection we continue to want with our parents, the longing we maintain for our parents’ love? Well, she said, it’s true, we all want that unconditional love. (In her case, especially, this is true: Her parents never made her feel loved. An only child, she was an accident, and always knew it.)

But I always felt loved unconditionally, I said. What I didn’t feel, and still don’t, is nurtured.

“Oh, I know,” she said, not missing a beat. “I leaned on you for far too long — I feel terrible guilty about it. I made you the parent.”

I was stunned. I didn’t know she was that aware of it.

“Yes,” I said, “that’s it exactly. So as your child, I’d like it if you could be more nurturing. And as your parent, I think you need to face my illness now, rather than later. It will only get harder for you.”

“I try not to think about it,” she said, and the waitress brought the check.

A Beginning

Today Richard said something I want to talk to him more about. I’m not sure I understand it, or can repeat it here. It has to do with the legacy people with AIDS leave to generations of survivors. He feels it benefits society, or our culture, to see PWAs conquer their demons, to find peace in their lives before they die. A legacy of peace, not struggle; of contentment, not confusion. More on this later, I guess.

Philip’s story:


The last time we killed a rabbit was when I was nine. Dad and I went on our winter weekend cottage trip to the lake, me running home, breathless at lunch hour Friday. Dad would pull me out of school in the afternoon sometimes so we could get an early start.

We’d go for long walks with the gun (that’s what men did), under the pretense of hunting. Mostly we walked quietly, taking in the sights of the freshly fallen snow.

The rabbit jumped out, startled us at close range, its big feet sliding across the thin cover of fresh snow, and dad knee deep, two thick legs, grounded – he reacts without thought and fires. The rabbit takes the shot, from dad’s 12 gauge. I don’t remember him ever hitting an animal except this time he did. The animal winces and scrambles to an alcove for cover. Screaming pain. We walk through some evergreen, and into the clearing to see the suffering animal – butterflies surface in my stomach; dad felt bad. The creature just stared up at us.

Twenty three years later we’re on the road to Holland Centre, in the July sunrise. After a few days of rest and work at the lake, the cottage now their home, dad is driving me to the bus for my trip back to my home, Toronto. As we leave the laneway dad slows down to let a rabbit cross our path. He says that there’s been alot of them around, and its nice to see them back again. We don’t talk much as usual, me, a bit anxious about making the bus. Dad was glad I came to help him fix the dock and haul loads of sand to the beach

for the soon to be arriving grandchildren. He liked being with his son, few words, just the bond of working together, passed down from his dad to him and him to me. I felt comfortable within this wordless intimacy.

Traveling on gravel dad turned and pointed at some beautiful wildflowers, purply branches. I ask dad to hurry. “I’ll be late..” He steps on it just as a small rabbit arrives in full view, through the clear sights of the car’s windshield. It scampers hesitantly in front and falls beneath the car’s dark, hovering body. Fur flies up behind us. The double thud tells us that the animal did not find a route through. I try and break the tension with a remark about having rabbit tonight. shit – ! Dad is silent.

As we drive I can tell it hurts him. He recalls for me other times when rabbits and dogs find their way through. Waiting for death under the car’s body – the silence could last a lifetime. And then magically across the road – safe.

Dad places the gun barrel against the rabbit’s ear to stop the pain, and fires. What’s inside comes out. The suffering stops. We trudge home through the snow…silent, defeated.

As I sit on the bus and replay the scenes to myself, I wonder where all the butterflies had gone this time…years of silence had closed tight the road from heart to speech.

I wonder whether dad went back and dragged the rabbit off the road and put it in the bushes as a makeshift burial. I imagine he might do that. Maybe I’ll call him tonight, see how he’s doing, find out what happened.

Philip Hoffman (Radio Banff Interview 1989)

by XX – Autumn 1989

XX: Last evening in the Banff Auditorium there was a screening of three films by an independent filmmaker from Toronto, Philip Hoffman, who has been in the artist colony for the past week; rejuvenating and working on ideas and basically plumbing the depths of new ideas for, and taking shots around the Banff area for up and coming films that he may make or will make. Philip’s in the studio this evening with us. He leaves tomorrow, you leave tomorrow morning.

PH: Yes, short stay. Short stay. Good one, though.

XX: It seems like quite a homey bunch in the artist colony at the moment.

PH: Really good group. We’re working on our own, plus we seem to be working together too. Everybody’s looking at each other’s work, and it’s nice to meet new people.

XX: In the artists colony there are times when people are producing intensive work and you rarely even see them. You hear that so-and-so is here, and nobody even in the colony knew because they would sneak out in the middle of the night, and be gone by dawn. Sleep all day… or however they worked.

PH: I’m sure that still prevails.

XX: Yeah, oh yeah. It’s just that there’s a liberty that I think is wonderful when you’re in the colony. Maybe you could just tell us a little bit about your background. I know you began as an amateur photographer in your youth, and maybe you could take it up from there.

PH: Yeah, that’s just one of the stories that I put out.

XX: Is that the real one?

PH: It could be. Yeah, it was important, photography, right from the start; when I was thirteen, fourteen years old. I managed a darkroom in the basement of the house. And went out collecting images. As I was saying last night, after all these films I’ve made, about eight now, I’ve realized how that’s been so important in my work. Both being interested in the realist image in photography and questioning that image. And on the other hand, the magic that happens in the darkroom when the image starts coming up, when you’ve got the paper in the developer, in that moment of transformation, that fleeting moment that you can’t really put your finger on. Those things are happening always in your life, I think… in my life. How to try to use film to conjure that transformation? Maybe it’s in the view or in the viewer’s mind that moment might appear.

XX: So you’re saying that magical moment, which for you was when the picture started to appear in the developing process, is possibly transferred to perception? When the viewer perceives your work. Is there another place for you where that magic still exists in the making of a film?

PH: Yes, there is. It’s in the shooting and the interaction between camera and subject. I like to work from that rather than from scripts and confront my subject whatever it may be, and let the structure and the rhythms of the film come out of that moment in shooting. Sometimes I just go collecting images, and that tells me what a future film might be. Which is something evolving here for the past week in Banff, giving myself the time to concentrate on that kind of work.

XX: You use the term diarist not only for your films but the working method. So it’s a very ongoing process, you never start with a script, you collect and assemble.

PH: I don’t think it’s an unusual way of working for artists in any discipline. It’s an unusual way to work in film, when you consider that 99% of the stuff that we see on television and feature films is prefab, the script’s got to be there, or the money doesn’t happen. When you’re working with a Bolex or in Super-8, with small equipment, you have control of the costs so you can work another way. I may work on larger projects in the future, but I would always like try to hold on to the role of intuition. I’m sure this happens in feature films, when people are working with actors there must be moments when the script is changed right on the spot. This is important because filmmaking doesn’t happen on paper.

XX: In a recent interview out of the University of Calgary and in your comments last evening about the films, the word memory came up. And in seeing the films, your approach to time and the use of memory especially in the second film breaking through/torn formations… breaking through or is it the other way around?

PH: Passing through.

XX: passing through, sorry.

PH: Slash, torn formations.

XX: Those two elements. Almost the manipulation of time. Not in a way that’s so rigid you feel some sort of structural approach, but in a way that’s definitely engaging, mixed with your concern about memory. I remember in the Calgary interview you said that memory was something that we were going to have to deal with in the latter part of this century because most mass media is creating a passive viewer, creating things which are very fleeting and ephemeral so we don’t use memory in the same way. I think you’re broaching that subject in your films.

PH: The mass media freezes and packages history so when we think back, we think of what’s been documented. Why do we imagine the world before 1930 in black and white? Time should move on and it shouldn’t be pinned down. For everything that you’re doing in the present you have to remake or question the past. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do in the film, by using personal experience, and reworking it. In some of the early works I dealt with home movies more and still photographs of the past, and tried to make a history that would sit well with me at the time of the making. Now maybe in ten years I don’t like that. I’m not really sure where it’s going, but Chris Marker, the maker of La Jetéeand Sans Soleil said that memory is the most important thing we have to deal with in the latter part of this century.

XX: The first film ?O Zoo! The Making of a Fiction Film was for me the most accessible in terms of… there’s a certain lightness to it, and even the camera and editing style was much more conservative and traditional. The other two passing through/torn formations and Kitchener-Berlin both used really interesting collage and superimpositions and almost rhythmic imaging that I found quite fascinating. But before we get into that, the whole idea of history which you brought up in the second film, torn formations, you’re dealing with a very personal subject; your family, your mother’s side of the family coming from Czechoslovakia. What I wonder is, this is you making a film, but is it also you working through a very personal thing, that you had to work through and this was the way you were doing it through the making of this film?

PH: I showed it out in Vancouver, and someone said it was an exorcism, which sort of struck me weirdly at first, but then I thought hmmm… if so it’s not over. I guess there’s a lot of things we put under the table and don’t want to look at, and this was something I wanted to look at, because I thought that it might be of value, firstly to the family and secondly the issues of immigration and the incredible pain that comes through that kind of movement which is amplified by my mother’s family coming from Czechoslovakia to Canada in the 1920’s… well it wasn’t Czechoslovakia then, it was the Austria-Hungarian Empire in the twenties… and how the pain echoed down the line through the children. So in that way I think it’s universal as well as my own personal thing of dealing with it.

XX: I felt that there was enough objectivity in the film, there were enough characters, there was enough scope in the film that it didn’t look like a self indulgent home movie. Obviously it goes much, much further than that, and even though everyone in it is your family, the way you approached it and also in the way you present it, the style never allows its viewer to sink into that reverie of just thinking about it as being one specific family, it’s swirled around so that any personage becomes a sort of universal person. The first image shows your Grandmother or an old woman and her daughter, would that be her daughter?

PH: Yes.

XX: I found myself immediately identifying them as family characters. Their particular identities didn’t matter, they were people on the family tree that were established and they would come back and more of their story would be revealed by having another person down the line. I found that fascinating.

PH: I’m glad it worked like that. The formal experiment is the thing with memory… [TAPE ENDS]

XX: …and with a lot of pop videos it’s almost as if they don’t think they can keep your attention with a shot longer than two seconds. They chop it up according to certain rhythms to make it seem dynamic and exciting but sometimes it’s totally exhausting. With your work on the other hand, I’m thinking of Kitchener-Berlin, a work in progress I believe, in which you show buildings, is it a town square or something like that…?

PH: Yes.

XX: It’s swirling. It gives you a sense that they’re swirling around a crowd. And then you also have the ground—the pavement of cobblestones—moving underneath that and at first it seems impenetrable when you’re first presented with it—plus you have the sounds of bells clanging along. At first I was bewildered and then I felt that I had to make a decision, visually, what I was going to do, because I couldn’t watch the thing spinning around—it was making me dizzy for one thing—and so I concentrated on the most immobile part, the crowd sitting there. But at the same time your peripheral vision knows; it’s almost as if you’ve set up contexts within contexts. They’re going at different speeds. They’re taking up different parameters, or sizes of your visual capacity. And I found that whichever one you looked at you were getting them all because there was this counterpoint going on.

PH: It’s new, you know. When it hits its peak four images are superimposing and I’m still getting to know its effect. The same thing happened to me last night when I was watching it and I saw things that I hadn’t seen. It was interesting that you could… well you would never really watch it so many times before you could pick out every little thing, but… it’s shifting. It lets the viewer participate in a way because you’re not hemmed down to looking at only the thing that the filmmaker’s saying you have to look at. It’s giving you choices.

XX: Definitely, even if it is a whirlwind viewing. And it was interesting too, just to see some of the people from our Layton colony group and how they were perceiving the films in different ways. We talked about that. Your films somehow shows us each of us how we look, it represents the way each person sees. There were certain points where there were ways of seeing where you just allow yourself to be taken and the composite images become a unified matter in which no one image is more or less than another. In Kitchener-Berlin, I think I got a sense of what you were trying to say about Germanic culture in Canada before the First World War and after the Second World War, the alienation of being in a country which isn’t your country any longer. That repeated spiral from the Berlin Wall moves upwards into the sky. At first they seem like images that go by and by and by but because you’re not bombarded, it’s not like a rock video where you’re bombarded. I found that you’re enticed and provoked into questioning, “Well why is this scene in there, and what is that?” Some are quite short. There are some scenes of a street in Kitchener, I guess, with the streetcars when they had Berlin on the side of them. You only see them for a moment but you know this is an old picture. You just have enough time to see the Berlin on the side and you don’t know whether it’s Germany or if it’s Kitchener… if it’s Canada. And the whole thing draws you along. The sense of alienation comes through, the ambiguity between it being Berlin one day and Kitchener the next.

PH: I’m from Kitchener in Ontario and before World War I, or on the crest of that, the name was changed from Berlin to Kitchener because of the war and what was happening inGermany. So I wanted to try to deal with that, but I was afraid that people were going to say, “Well this is not a film about Germany or the German heritage, because you’ve got these images off the TV of the Pope visiting the native people.” I just kept fighting this project of doing something about the German people in Kitchener so directly because my experience of Kitchener shared many different cultures, not just the German culture and that’s what happens with migration to the new world or to Canada. The game changes and what we end up with are stereotyped images of Germany, and German dances, colliding with Canadian culture.

XX: Now this work is still in progress. You didn’t show the second half of it, last night. What’s the subtitle of the first part?

PH: A Measured Dance.

XX: A Measured Dance. That in itself is a provocative title.

PH: Yes, when I screened it in David Rimmer’s class in Vancouver he said that as a country becomes fully controlled by the state, the dancing becomes more regular and measured. Now with the wall breaking down the dancing around East and West Germany is a little less measured. They’re pretty wild on the streets right now. The measured dance also pertains to the dance of technology and the repetition which I think is shown through the repetition of television imagery, the screen flashing through the TV bars.

I used a SteadiCam for its fluidly, though put it to a different use than usual, which is to follow a doggy to his dog food in some commercial. My operator was making circular motions and trying all kinds of things which she had never tried before with a SteadiCam and that’s what you’re speaking about at the end where everything’s spinning.

XX: It gives an incredible fluidity to the piece which I found extremely musical. The composer who wrote and performed the music for Zoo and passing through is Tucker Zimmerman?

Ph: Yes.

XX: Is he based in Toronto?

PH: No, he’s an American draft dodger who had a composer’s scholarship in Italy during Vietnam and didn’t come back so he wouldn’t have to go to the war in Vietnam. There he met this lovely woman Marie-Claire from Belgium, so now he lives in Belgium, he’s quite an amazing person.

XX: Did you meet him when you were in Holland doing ?O Zoo!?

PH: Yes, we had a mutual friend, Ton Maas, who was helping me out and when I told him about the type of music I was interested he said I should go see Tucker in Leiges. I had about five days and he was pretty laid back for the first four days. We just played baseball… he was still living sort of the American way…

XX: Belgium.

PH: He got a baseball team going there. But anyway, on the night of the fourth day we looked at the film and it was amazing how he just… you know he wanted to get to know me as a person, he felt that was more important than seeing the film. And I can go for that kind of working relationship. He also did the music for passing through/torn formations a couple years after that. I was so impressed by the way he created a kind of… the repetition of… well, he uses a synthesizer and he mixes real instruments with it, but how he created that sort of… Philip Glass type music with a Czech quality to it.

XX: If you’d heard it without the film you wouldn’t say it was specifically Czechoslovakian, but it does have something about it… it’s almost the tonal quality, there’s a bit of an Eastern something in there. There’s one scene where the narration describes your uncle who was an accordion player and we see someone’s hands running over a keyboard and the music at that point is repetitive synthesizer which gradually blends into actual accordion sounds. It’s really quite brilliant. It’s almost imperceptible and suddenly you feel yourself drawn in by this real instrument.

PH: The image shows a piano, the sound is an accordion with a synthesizer behind it. So instead of the conventional master-slave relation between picture and sound, when you see someone’s finger hit a key then you have to hear the note we worked until the music playing with the image rather than following the image. Most films are allowed to be made because of the way words fall on a page, and not the sound in a scene. For me film is much closer to music than literature, because they are rhythm based and move in time.

XX: Light and time. Just one more question about the audio of the films; when you’re collecting shots is audio also something you’re thinking about or is it only when things start to come together in the lab that you deal with the oral dimension?

PH: The collecting of sound and images happen at the same time. In passing through/torn formations I had a rough cut of the film with all its sound except for the voice over, yet even the voice over was written during certain experiences in journal form and then once the images started coming together with the rest of the soundtrack, I started placing the narration that goes along with it and the voices collected of the family members telling their different stories. While I made ?O Zoo! I collected the voices that are in the background. When I got the images back I would write something, so there’s a big pot of soup and all these different ingredients in it and it gradually, hopefully tastes OK.

XX: Right. Little personal spice put on it in the end. I find the making of ?O Zoo! fascinating in that it’s a film made within a film- like Shakespeare’s play within a play. Were you actually working with Peter Greenaway as an assistant?

Ph: I would help out sometimes, but I had a camera and could go where I wanted. He was encouraging me to make more films because he had seen some early work that he liked. The film’s not really about him, it skirts along his feature film A Zed and Two Noughts as well as some of my side trips out in Holland.

XX: There’s a few scenes in ?O Zoo! that… I don’t know if the footage is from him or was it taken at the same time as he was filming?

Ph: The footage was shot while he was shooting as well, and I got access to all their sound. I worked in the same space they did while editing.

XX: It sounds like a really rare experience for a commercial film, although I guess this was the first big commercial feature he did.

Ph: Peter Greenaway made Draughtsman’s Contract before that, but even that was Super 16, it wasn’t 35 millimetre, and his previous short work had been done in 16mm. With A Zed and Two Noughts he was struggling with things, not always real happy on the set. And sometimes he would come up to me and say that he envied what I was doing… he has a Bolex. Actually he said after he’s starting to make a diary film.

XX: A Zed and Two Noughts is nonetheless a fascinating film and it’s definitely not mainstream. It’s quite…

Ph: Well, that was part of the reason I went over, I wanted to see how someone who has worked as an artist-he’s a painter as well, trained in art school-how he would work in the commercial industry. He has people around him, producers and that, who are interested in not so much in making money, but making films that are important for our cultures.

XX: It seems in every art right now the whole aspect of financing and support whether it be moral support, or financial support is such a big question, especially since so many art forms have integrated a certain array of technology so in order to make certain kinds of art you need an incredible amount of support and the film industry has certainly gone that way. To make so many films that are not good films and if you look at the budget it’s just astronomical.

PH: Filmmakers can really work another way. They can work like a still photographer if they want. I guess you need a grant to get the materials paid for because that’s where it gets expensive but if you can manage that then you can pick up a Bolex for five hundred bucks and you’ve got your camera that does anything. Images can be blown up to 35; I’ve seen some of my stuff blown up to 35 with the Bolex and it looks great. I mean, it’s not something that normally happens but… and just an editing bench and… You could transfer to tape if you want, there’s such a push and hype around video right now, not like in Europe, over here the attitude is let’s get all this video equipment and figure out what to do later.

XX: Yeah, figure out what to do later.

PH: Video will find its place if it hasn’t already, but it doesn’t mean film is dead. When photography arrived painting didn’t die, it changed. I think film should be an integral part of any art institute.

XX: You’ve been teaching at Sheridan College’s Media Arts Department for three years?

PH: I’ve been there about eight years part time along with doing my own work. Now I’ve taken a year off to do some other kinds of things and I’m enjoying it a lot.

XX: Great. I was just thinking of one scene in torn formations in which you show your mother through the video scanning lines. Instead of trying to clean that up, instead of looking at it as an impingement upon what you’re doing, you get these scan lines going and at one point you superimpose a fence or bars or something across it which transforms these scan lines into an iron grate.

PH: I’ve worked with video in quite a few of my last three, four films, but didn’t have the money to transfer the video to film, so when shooting the video I put the camera on its side, which places the scan lines vertically instead of horizontal, so that it would sort of match the shape of the human body, rather than cutting the head off. The reason the line is there is because I couldn’t afford getting it transferred professionally. I used an Éclair camera which allows you to change the shutter angle in order to minimize the flicker and scan lines. This way I could shoot a lot of video and decide what I wanted to use later. Once the film gets old you get scratches and it all looks like a scratch (laughs).

XX: I think we’re going to play some of the soundtrack. So for anyone that was at the screening last night you can remember the pictures, and for those who weren’t you can make your own. This is from ?O,Zoo!, and maybe it will catch your imagination and sometime in the near future you will get a chance to see some films by Philip Hoffman. You’re heading out to Edmonton tomorrow morning to show some films up there?

PH: Friday and Saturday in Edmonton, and then Tuesday in Regina.

XX: So this is the Philip Hoffman Western Canadian Tour.

PH: (laughs)Well  I was in Vancouver and Calgary… so it’s been great to talk to people who are dealing in film and video through the west. You get to looking at yourself in Toronto and you need to travel so I decided to make the trip.

XX: Great. Well, it’s been wonderful having you at the centre last week and wonderful to hear and see your work and to have you here this evening. Good luck.

PH: Thanks.

Philip Hoffman’s passing through/torn formations

by Mike Hoolboom
Cinema Canada (magazine), July 1988

The most important Canadian film made in 1987 will  not be playing in a theatre near you, neither subject to those journalists charged with turning images into verse or to an audience whose unflagging allegiance to  American stars has so recently nurtured Mulroney’s latest sell-out of Canadian theatres. Instead this brilliant meditation on violence must be relegated to the backwaters of Canadian expression, unwilling to con form—to change the how of its expression to suit Telefilm’s turning of Canadian light into American money.

A turn of a different sort has been negotiated by a group of filmmakers belonging to the Escarpment School, so named by Zone Cinema founder Mike Cartmell. Born and raised along the steep slope of the Canadian escarpment (or else subject to its looming beneficence in Ontario’s Sheridan College) the filmmakers are technically adept, well versed in experimental film (most are teachers), inclined towards autobiography and landscape, work in 16mm and have joined the formalist traditions of the international avant garde with the Canadian documentary tradition. Their works have moved from a lyrical formalism to a concern with the nature of representation and the reconstruction of the autobiographical subject. Central to the emerging mandate of Ontario’s Escarpment School has been the work of Philip Hoffman.

Hoffman’s sixth film in ten years, passing through/torn formations 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, madness and migration. Begun in darkness with an extract from Christopher Dewdney’s Predators of the Adoration, the poet narrates the story of ‘you,’ a child who explores an abandoned limestone quarry. Oblivious to the children who surround, it is the dead that fascinate, pressed together to form limestones that part slowly between prying fingers before lifting into a horizon of lost referentiality. The following scene moves silently from a window drape to enfeebled grandmother to her daughter, patiently feeding her blood in a quiet reversal of her own infancy. Over and over the camera searches out the flowered drape, speaking both of a vegetable life cycle of death and rebirth and the literal meaning of the word ‘apocalypse’ which means the tearing of the veil or drape. The film’s theme of reconciliation begins with death’s media/tion—and moves its broken signifiers together in 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. When Rimbaud announces ‘I am another’ he does so in a gesture that unites traveller and teller, confirming his status within the story while continuing to tell it. It is the absence of this distance, this doubling that leads the Czech side of the family to fatality.

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 (from the Latin ‘translatio’ to bear across) but also the burden of all that could not be said or carried, to 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 after the shooting. Unable to comply he breaks down instead, poised between death and its representation.

Hoffman’s imaging strategies recall the doubled tracks of American avant gardist Owen Land. An avowed Christian, Land posits a simultaneity of expression as the precondition for conversion, parodied in Land’s own Wide Angle Saxon. But while Land’s conversions transform the institutional settings of auto shows, instructional films and supermarkets into sites of individual revelation, Hoffman’s turning is a movement away from the violence that has marked past generations, using home movies to reshape the way history reproduces its truth within the family.

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. passing through/torn formations

This connection between things made in the dark: doesn’t this aspiration lie at the heart of every motion picture? We can say this for certain: that this darkness has occupied the centre of Hoffman’s film work since Somewhere Between Jalostotitlian and Encarnacion (1984). 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 his death in a series of printed intertitles that punctuate the film. Similarly, midway through ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) (1986) an elephant’s heart attack is related in voice-over while the screen remains dark and the voice explains, somewhat abashed, that showing its death would only exploit his subject.

Hoffman searches out the reasons for his wanderings in the home he never had, in the place of his conception, in a Czechslovakia ravaged by plague and occupation. That he should bear the stamp of this history,  without a glimpse of the death camps that would claim his ancestors or the soil that had nourished thousands of his forbears recalls for us the movement of this film around a figure that is 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 a perfect 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 practice. The music was a vacant place to return to. Over and over. His playing gave him passage. passing through/torn formations

CKLN Interview

with Cameron Bailey
(March 1988)

CB: ?O,Zoo!; what’s the intonation on that?

PH: You have to say with with a question ….

CB: ?O,Zoo?

PH: Something like that.

CB: OK, that was a film written on top of a film called A Zed and Two Noughts by Peter Greenaway. Anyway could you just describe the new film passing through for us?

PH: OK, I can talk a bit about it. It revolves around my mom’s history; she’s from Czechoslovakia and her family came over before the war, the second world war. And it’s sort of a collision between the old world and the new world, also it’s a collision of form and texture. Also a different genre of experimental film, I think is also included in the making of that.

CB: You say a collision between texture and form and also different genre of experimental film. What exactly do you mean by that? What genres does it use and what’s the experience of watching the film?

PH:  I try to make it so that it’s, you know, not on experience but you live it when you watch… anyway I guess what I mean is that my background is experimental film and the films of the 60s and 70s …the films that I studied and grew through film with…but I am making it in the present moment, so in same way the form is being further developed in my work…

CB: What about Stan Brakhage?

PH: Brakhage and Snow and Wieland and you know, a lot of those experimental filmmakers. And I think, in a sense, my film covers a lot of styles. Yet I believe it has its own style, its own way of speaking.

CB: From your other work that I’ve seen, you tend to work very much with your own history; your family history, your personal history, and with your memory of say growing up or what your childhood was like and that sort of thing. How is that treated in this film and how is it different from what you’ve done before?

PH: Well I think it would be good to compare it with my first film On the Pond, which was also about family in which I was trying to somehow represent my part. It was the first film I made, about eleven or twelve years ago, in 16mm. I don’t think this film tries to represent a past, but find a future. In passing through, I work through film to, I would say, I don’t try to represent a past but whatever I come upon, as I put myself in the midst of this filmmaking, looking into my mom’s past, I sort of discover as I go along and I guess put everything into a big pot of stew, and what comes out is the film. So I’m not consciously trying to remake my mother’s history but, you know, the film is very much about what’s happened to me right now and how I experience my mother’s history and the things that are happening both in the old country and Canada.

CB: What does your mother think about this? I know you make films… your films are very much involved with your family. What does your family think about having a filmmaker sort of filming them all the time? How do they react to it?

PH: Well that’s not too unusual because I’ve always had a dark room in the basement and I’ve always, you know, when I was young, they were used to a camera being around. It’s not that unusual. But I also don’t think the film comes off as someone’s personal life. I think it could be anyone’s. And I try to create the characters in a way that, even though I’m using people around me, through film I recreate different types of characters, using their voices and images to match. I try to get away from this thing of having to grab onto a character. There’s no way you can in my film, passing through. And in this way it sort of takes it out of the realm of simply personal, but its about family.  Hopefully then, more people can get involved in the film.

CB: I noticed as well that, you talk about emerging techniques, I noticed that you have a certain resistance to the conventions of any particular form; in ?O,Zoo! I remember there’s a sequence where you tell a story and then you say-you show an image of the site of the story after the actual story has happened. You say, “This is what it looked like after everybody had left.” And that sort of resistance to showing a narrative or just sort of getting caught up, as you mentioned before, in character. And I was just wondering what’s your relationship to filmic conventions, conventions of documentary or narrative or whatever? How do you work within and outside of them?

PH: Well I think, especially with the example you gave, it allows a viewer to participate more in the making of the film and whether I use a black screen and have a narrator talk about a scene and you know maybe I might not give you that scene in the image but really I am, because you can imagine it how you wish. I think the new film, passing through, is just a labyrinth of those kind of exercises, which I started with in maybe ?O,Zoo!… So how I feel about the conventions is, even in experimental film there are conventions and they must be continually broken. And so I think I’m interested in that always; to try to at least display a convention and then turn it upside down a little bit. That comes from making in the moment.

CB: Another thing I wanted to get your opinion on, the whole idea of ethics in filmmaking. It’s an old question, “What can you film and what can’t you?” We were talking earlier about your grandmother who is in the film and who is now in a nursing home. And your, sort of, initial reluctance to film her and also the state that she’s in now-she doesn’t necessarily know that you’re filming her. So it’s not a case of getting permission. What can you film and what can’t you?

PH: Well if we’re going to talk about my grandmother, that would be Babji, that’s the Polish translation of Grandma. The film’s dedicated to her, I remember her fondly from youth…she made perogies in the kitchen and taught me how to shoot a camera from the hip, not looking through the viewfinder…. I have to somehow deal with  those memories. But yet I still have to deal with her and the experience that she and I are going through during her sickness.  I have to deal with it right now with the bolex. And she happens to be in a nursing home and I know that can be taboo but I want to bring these real experiences to the screen, not just hide them away in the nursing home.

CB: OK, I’d like to ask one final question and that’s about the process of collaboration. In this film you have used a Christopher Dewdney poem and an excerpt from a work by Marian McMahon at the end. I know our relationship with Marian and I want to ask how do you work with each other? How do you bounce off each other?

PH: Well Marian gives me a bigger picture of things. To me that’s important. Its the other half.  I took the poem she wrote and had her read it for the end of the film. She talks about skipping a stone “across the smooth surface of Lake Kashagawigamog”. So after this tumultuous interweaving family story, I end with a reference to the land we are on…First Nation Land…it’s a small gesture to a very big question of land rights, but I wanted the film to end with this simple act, referencing the land…. throwing a stone… Marian’s lovely voiced poem.

Passing through

by Gary Popovich

It is from the Canadian tradition of intuitive gathering of sounds and images (partially indebted to the documentary and realist traditions)—their tireless re-working, and, ultimately, sublimation into an aesthetic experience—that Canada’s boldest works of film art have come. It is a process that is distinctly different from scripted, pre-conceived image structuring methods. One abandons literature and theatre and uses the microphone and camera to define the shape of experience. This legacy of Canadian cinema is situated between a European (most conspicuously, but by no means exclusively British and French) and American sensibility—the area ‘in-between’ the American technological imperative and a lament for what that suppresses. This is what Arthur Kroker calls the Canadian discourse on technology:

… it is our fate by virtue of historical circumstance and geographical accident to be forever marginal to the ‘present-mindedness’ of American culture (a society which, specializing as it does in the public ethic of ‘instrumental activism,’ does not enjoy the recriminations of historical remembrance); and to be incapable of being more than ambivalent on the cultural legacy of our European past. At work in the Canadian mind is, in fact, a great and dynamic polarity between technology and culture, between economy and landscape.

— Arthur Kroker, Technology and the Canadian Mind

It is in our films, predominantly from a group of filmmakers who are becoming known notoriously as the Escarpment School, that this discourse has been evolving its most fascinating and forceful arguments. I can think of few more powerful reflections on this discourse than Philip Hoffman’s seventh film passing through/torn formations. In it, he synthesizes a quasi-romantic European journey, home movie-like segments, enigmatic family stories, poetic narration, and some of the most beautiful and harrowing images he has recorded to date. Through a fragmentary landscape of familial ties that criss-cross the continent of memory, Hoffman orders the generation and re-generation of images passed down, passed through, a life’s becoming. And it is in the study of his own cultural legacy that this obsessive weaver of tales exposes the dark heirs which loom in camera.

passing through opens in darkness, while poet Christopher Dewdney recites a child’s archeology. A young boy, oblivious to the others playing around him, becomes enraptured by the image of a rock whose layers come apart easily, freeing moths that “flutter up like pieces of ash caught in a dust devil.” This transformation of darkness into the light of reflection, from darkness to speaking the image, from word to the mind-image evoked in a word, creates a spell where history is released, admitted, and set free. It is in this equivalence between layers of stone and human generation that passing through discovers its own logic of layering.

The image is formed of the words which dream it.

— Edmond Jabes

The next six minutes of the film comprises a silent colour sequence (one of only three in this otherwise black and white film) where the camera hesitates, draws, and re-draws a scene, in search of some way to record the filmmaker’s institutionalized grandmother (Babji) as she is being fed by her own daughter. Moving from mother to grandmother, Hoffman draws a painful trajectory before inserting an intertitle “To Babji” cut on the look of his grandmother to reaffirm, to us, that here the rock, the family, and the film are what holds and cares for generations before they too flutter up like ashes. This release is also about letting go—dying.

What these ashes wanted, I felt sure, was not containment but participation. Not an enclosure of memory, but the world.

— Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty

It is in these first two disjunctions, sound without image, then image without sound, that the film exposes the goals it sets for itself. It strives to return a fragmented history to a present-day unity and wholeness.

Hoffman travels to the old country, bringing with him tapes and photos of his family here in Canada; there he collects sounds and images of his Czech relatives that he brings back to Canada. Hoffman’s family has been severed, with one half remaining in the old world, and the other coming to Canada in an effort to escape Nazi persecution during WWII.


How often will I die, yet go on living?

this sequence unearths a host of images as if inspired to generate its own reproductive force. Representation becomes resurrection. Over her face, in a return to colour, we advance with the camera over lilting waters towards the face of a rock wall where we detect the outlines of Indian petroglyphs etched into this stone. As we draw near, the surface of the film itself emits scratches of colour which break into further superimpositions which appear to emerge from the stone. We see cascading layers of home-movie images, the filmmaker perhaps, his siblings, other family members, Babji in her hospital bed, pouring out of the cut stone/film in an epiphany that magically joins the film’s many threads in the eyes of its beholders.

Longing on a large scale is what makes history.

White Noise, Don DeLillo

From the fissured video image of his mother translating messages sent from Czechoslovakia: “We hope that God will somehow make us get together again and we can talk some more.” And then we hear the family cheering, as if they have survived a mortal test of their being. Hoffman’s journey ends on a train ride through Czech landscapes. There he recounts the tale of his Czech uncle, killed by his own son over a land dispute.

Life is lived forward but understood backward.

— Kierkegaard

The camera sweeps slowly past large rock fences which fragment the countryside, predominantly blue in colour—recalling the rocks of the epiphany sequence, the institutional blues of Babji’s hospital room and Babji’scraggy blue-veined hands peacefully folded into her lap. The blue blood that surges through her body finds its mirrored image in the rock formations of her homeland, where her grandson now makes his pilgrimage. Here in this dream landscape to which he awakes he finds the final pieces of his project, a dreamer’s reverie which draws together dispersed generations, recalled again in an image of the land.

Am I the sleep walker who does not tramp along the routes of life but who descends, always descends in quest of immemorial resting places?

— Gaston Bachelard

While technology’s path has so often been a horizontal movement, a progression, where chronology, history and narrativity unfold as if in unbroken chains, here the intrusion of the poetic unlinks this endless procession of zeros, opening a view to the vertical, where being falls in a slow suspension out of time and into a configuration closer to the spirit of experience. Hoffman conjures another ‘I’ whose being rests in the peace of imaginative reconstruction. Using the power of film he generates his incantations, and plunges us into meditations on our own generative powers. To make and unmake the past. To pass through.