by Lee Hill
LH: We’re here with Phil Hoffman. Talk about your work.
PH: My film work over the last eleven years has been busy purging the ghost of Grierson. Born and raised in Canada, the kind of films I saw in school and libraries was documentary film. I think in the United States a lot of independent experimental filmmakers have to purge the ghost ofHollywood. I see documentary as something I have to deal with as an artist. I don’t want to make films in the same way that documentarians but on the other hand, I can’t pretend that it’s not important to me. My work is a blend of documentary and experimental. I like to use a diary form, which again is a little bit different than documentary.
LH: You say you don’t use scripts? Explain.
PH: I like to deal with the experience of the camera and the subject first; rather than preconceiving something I might put myself in a situation. In this case it was the set of Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts, the feature film, and then try to react spontaneously to what’s going on.Greenaway sent me the script of his film, but in my work I’ve always tried to react to the moment. Then as the filmmaking goes on, I look at material that’s come back to the lab, I write about that. I collect sound as I’m going, and all this stuff gets woven into the film. So it’s like a big pot of soup with all kinds of things in it, that’s my working method.
LH: You said that the film deals with your father’s side of the family. How?
PH: Well actually in ?O Zoo! it’s a Grandfather that I’m dealing with, but it is my Father’s side of the family that I am using poetically. Some of it is fiction as the title explains, ?O Zoo! The Making of a Fiction Film. Some of it is fictionalized, some of it is… I guess that’s also for the audience to find out and discover. ?O Zoo! can be taken in many different ways, and I think once you put something onto film it becomes fiction anyway, it becomes something different than reality. I think passing through/torn formations is much closer to home, and lays more of my experience out on the line, family history and such things; whereas ?O Zoo! is kind of masks, the autobiographical part is masks. Since I began making work in 1978 with On the Pond, each of my eight films have been autobiographical, and also about the shaping of autobiography.
LH: Can you talk about your film influences?
PH: It’s a funny thing; my influences were not so much filmic as much as they were from literature, and painting. Especially literature, I was interested in Beat poets in my formative years, what they were doing in the fifties. I did a film that deals with that. But anyway, I went to film school and had two teachers, Rick Hancox who is an experimental filmmaker and Jeff Paull, who both emphasized the importance of doing something about your own life rather than mimicking the cop shows. That struck a chord in me, that was already happening through my interest in poetry and literature, and photography. When I was fourteen, fifteen, I had my own darkroom; so all these things came together in film.
There hasn’t been one thing but a multitude of things that have affected me. We talked about it a little at the beginning. Documentary did have a strong influence on me, and I still like good documentaries, innovative documentary, rather than the kind that tells you what you’re seeing. Things like David Holzman’s Diary which is a film about a guy in the sixties, I guess, he decides he’s going to make a film about his life, and he makes this diary, I guess I shouldn’t say what it’s about because people may get a chance to see it. But basically he’s dealing with questions about documentary realism, and truth, and how the medium makes things look as if… oh, it’s really happening… and he was one of the first to do that, that I know of. So there was that, but on the other hand there was the National Film Board, the lyrical documentaries of the fifties and sixties, which were sort of poetic, which was interesting for me too. And then also things like the New American Cinema which was Stan Brakhage, and JonasMekas, and Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland… and those filmmakers were dealing with form, or at least Michael Snow was dealing especially with form and duration, and Brakhage was doing poetic image making. All these different things come together in my work, because these have been influences and I think I get into that problem now, with some people that want to categorize you as purist, experimental, formalist. We’re using all these big terms but all I’m really trying to say is my work is a blend of many different things and I’m not afraid to mix them. It all doesn’t have to look exactly the same.
LH: What about experimental film influences?
PH: Both Michael Snow and Stan Brakhage make films dealing directly with perception, and I may be going more in that direction. In your work as an artist sometimes you need to explore a certain aspect of your making, but the mass audience doesn’t want you to. But you don’t want to stagnate either. I can see that problem, and how it happens, and I think it’s because, I’m sort of turning this round, but I think it’s because we don’t have very good visual education. It’s just not happening at schools, it happens at co-ops and art galleries and places like that where film orvideomakers come in. Artists should be moving this forward but that’s just not happening.
LH: Do you plan to do a feature. Something longer and bigger?
PH: It’s something that could happen, I don’t know. Right now I’m just finishing a series of films, so I’m not thinking about what’s going to happen next. I mean it’s always in the back of your mind, because it’s the features that get the air play… short films just don’t have as good a market but I don’t think it’s because people don’t want to see shorts. I think it’s the institutions that are trying to determine the market. But I’ve considered… I mean my films are getting longer. If I wanted to make the kind of feature film… I don’t know if I could do it in Canada. I know Peter Mettler tried to do it, and made a feature film called The Top of His Head which is fairly experimental. It’s still a lot more narrative than I would do, but it’s in that range. Canada is fairly closed minded regarding innovations in narrative.
LH: Atom Egoyan is doing quite well with his alternative narrative films.
PH: Yes he is, he found the approval of Europe, and that’s the only reason why he’s making films. What bothers me is that all these co-ops here in Canada are all striving for these Atom Egoyan type films, but Atom Egoyan is the only one they’re going to let that happen to. It’s only going to be some exceptional cases. So what you get is these people, one year out of film school wanting to make their big feature, failing miserably, making a load of crap, and not learning about film. Atom Egoyan made a lot of short films before he made feature films, he dealt with the medium. So it’s this whole thing, like “we’re going to make our feature,” I mean the whole Canadian film industry is based on that. And publications are the same, you just have to read Cinema Canada and you can see that them pulling for this kind of thing. So you don’t get people working in short film, and working out ideas, and working out their own story like Atom Egoyan did. That disturbs me, a lot.
LH: What about Greenaway?
PH: When Peter Greenaway made A Zed and Two Noughts, it was actually his first 35mm feature, because he did Draughtsman’s Contract on Super 16, and there’s a big difference between shooting on 16 and 35. I really saw him at the point where he was making the jump. PeterGreenaway was trained as an artist, a painter. He went to art school. That’s the reason why I wanted to see how he worked in feature films, and how he managed. Personally, I think on this shoot he wasn’t enjoying himself, and I would be walking around with my Bolex and shooting, which is a small 16mm camera, taking my time and making my own film, and he would come up to me and say Jesus, you know, I envy you. Because he had sixty people on the crew to satisfy and union rates, and things that he hadn’t really experienced much yet. But I think it’s the sheer will of putting his ideas on film that has made him successful. He’s very determined, and he found different places that would fund him and produce him. They have an interest in art not just in commercial film and I think that’s lacking in Canada.
LH: So how can good films get made?
MH: It’s a lot of things that we talked about already. I think that the co-ops are in a positive stage, but there’s so little money. If the National Film Board should put more of their relatively large budget towards supporting the independent filmmaking community. Everybody moves so cautiously in Canada, maybe that might be it.
LH: What about cable networks, video access and so on?
PH: Things like that help, but with our American media alliance we don’t have a chance. Free trade means the lines are wide open for the American mass media machine, and I can’t see that things are going to get better. I’m sorry, but I can’t. I guess that some people think that now it’s all freer, so the cream’s going to rise to the top. I don’t believe that, because I think there’s so much mediocrity out there on the airwaves. We’re just going to get more of it. You just have to walk into the supermarkets to see how that’s working and how that’s affecting people. Maybe that’s a bit negative but I think people have to stand up for things like this kind of stuff, and some are. We’ve got a big fight ahead of us.