The Independent Imaging Retreat

by Chris Gehman

(Curated by Chris Gehman • Hanover Civic Centre, 341 10th Street, Hanover • Saturday, Sept. 20, 2003, 8:00 pm)

The Independent Imaging Retreat, now in its tenth year, was founded by Canadian filmmakers Philip Hoffman and Marian McMahon to encourage a direct, hands-on approach to filmmaking that is far removed from the costly, hierarchical and inaccessible industrial model, with its intensive division of labour into many specialized craft areas. Each summer it brings to Mount Forest, Ontario, a small group of interested filmmakers – some novices and some highly experienced – for an intensive week of shooting, processing, watching and editing, most of the action taking place in and around an old barn on Hoffman’s property.

The retreat is part of a little-recognized international movement towards what might be called an artisanal mode of filmmaking – one in which the artist works directly on every stage of a film, from shooting and editing to the processing and printing of the film stock itself. In the past, even the most solitary of avant-garde filmmakers have usually turned the processing, printing, and negative cutting of their films over to professional film laboratories whose primary products are commercial films, advertisements, television programs, etc. A new generation of filmmakers has emerged, willing to forego the predictability and standardization of industrial processes in favour of direct control of their materials, motivated by a combination of necessity and curiosity.

Economically, the existence of adventurous independent films has been dependent upon the existence of a larger commercial industry that creates a demand for products and services, and therefore keeps prices relatively low. As the commercial film industry, particularly its low-budget ranks, have shifted production away from 16mm film to digital media, the availability of 16mm film stocks and services such as processing and printing has declined, and will certainly continue to decline further.

There are several possible responses available to filmmakers who have been dependent upon this economy: follow the shifts in the larger industry and switch to video and digital media; transfer production to 35mm, with its higher attendant costs; or take control of those stages of the filmmaking process which are disappearing at the business level. (Of course, many artists will practice some combination of these basic strategies.) The Independent Imaging Retreat has played a crucial part in North America in developing and disseminating the basic skills and knowledge necessary for artists to begin taking control of those crucial elements of the filmmaking process that are becoming harder to find from commercial sources.

It would be a mistake, however, to look at the movement towards artisanal filmmaking as solely an economic response to outside factors. As is so often the case in art, internal aesthetic ideas and pressures produced effects that precede their putative economic causes: The movement was burgeoning well before the practical effects of the shifts in the commercial industry had begun to make themselves felt by independent filmmakers. The examples of individual filmmakers have been crucial in motivating new generations to take matters into their own hands: Internationally renowned artists such as Len Lye and Stan Brakhage offered inspiration in their lifelong commitments to individual, artisanal film practices. And in Canada, across a period from the mid-60s through the present, filmmakers such as Joyce Wieland, Al Razutis, Carl Brown, Gary Popovich, Barbara Sternberg, Philip Hoffman and Steven Woloshen have experimented in different ways with unconventional approaches to the film surface and image through processing, colour toning, optical printing, scratching and painting, etc.

What these filmmakers tend to share is a desire to complicate the reception of the image: In contrast to the ordinary commercial practice of creating seamless, transparent representations – illusions – through which stories are told, many independent filmmakers are committed to a more complex kind of image-making in which the projected image may be both representation and object simultaneously, or may reject representation altogether (as is the case in many of Stan Brakhage’s and Len Lye’s films). The filmmaker builds images, ideas, stories, atmospheres, while at the same time keeping the method of construction of the film, and the images which make it up, present in the viewer’sconsciousness. In this context, the nicks, scratches and inconsistencies in development which result when a roll of film is processed “spaghetti-style” in a plastic bucket are not seen as a problem – as they certainly would in making a commercial movie! – but become part of the film’s style and method.

Artists mining this cinematic vein tend also to embrace a process-oriented mode of production, in which the film’s form and subject are discovered in the course of the making, rather than following a preconceived script or plan – an art of discovery, then, not only of management and execution. This is what allows these artists to dispense with thepredictability of laboratory results, knowing that footage they hoped would be particularly good might not turn out as expected in the processing. It is a practice which embraces genuine experimentation and the discovery of a personal method of production.

Over the past ten years, more than 125 artists have attended the Independent Imaging Retreat. Its effect has been to share techniques and skills, but more importantly to encourage an approach to filmmaking which is as far removed as can be imagined from the conventional cinema whose products are so relentlessly promoted. A poetic, individual, exploratory filmmaking in which the artist is involved at every stage of the process. Perhaps for this reason, the Retreat has proved hospitable to people whose view of the world is poorly represented in the commercial media: women (there have been several weeks offered to women only), gay and lesbian people, people of colour and people from regions outside the recognized “cultural centres” of Canada and the US. This program provides a small sampling of the many films which have been made through, or under the immediate influence of, the Independent Imaging Retreat. Because the participants share basic materials and techniques during the week they are working together, there are often similarities in the surface appearances of the works; but each artist has gone on to apply these techniques and skills in a different way.

Chris Gehman is an independent filmmaker, film and video programmer and critic. He is currently the Artistic Director of the Images Festival in Toronto (


John Porter, Canada • 16mm b&w 10 min. 2002
Canada’s most prolific filmmaker, John Porter has made more than 300 short films, mostly in Super-8. He has also been documenting Toronto’s independent film scene in still photographs for about thirty years. This film brings these two practices together, creating a poetic document of the 2002 Retreat in which the filmmakers and the setting are laminated in gorgeous black-and-white in-camera multiple exposures. (The film may be shown either silent or with sound, depending upon the circumstances.)

Chris Chong, Canada • 16mm b&w 3 min. 1999
Minus is a hand-processed, unedited stream of movements. After subtracting most of what took place before the camera, what isleft is remnants of light and rhythm, traces of a body in motion. This was Chong’s first 16mm film, and demonstrates the kinds of rich results that can be obtained from simple, highly restricted means and techniques.

David Gatten, USA • 16mm colour silent 14 min. 1997
“A history of scarred surfaces, an inquiry, and an imagining: For the marks we see and the marks we make, for the languages we can read and for those we are trying to learn.Reproduced by hand on an old contact printer resulting in individual, unique release prints.” (David Gatten)

Dawn Wilkinson, Canada • 16mm b&w 9 min. 1997
“Lyrical and full of mirth, this filmmaker wonders out loud in her first film: How do I make myself at home in a landscape made foreign to me? Wilkinson looks at her self – black – and ponders in the white landscape called Canada how can she ‘enjoy the flowers’ as she cartwheels with great panache through fields of them. What kind of relationship to the land can she have in a place where she sees herself but where others constantly ask: Where are you from? Wilkinson’s existence vis-a-vis the land seems to lie somewhere in between the extreme long shots and the close ups that make up the film, giving at once the feelings of intimacy and estrangement.” (Marian McMahon)

Carolynne Hew, Canada • 16mm b&w/colour 5 min. 1998
Carolynne Hew’s Swell extends the techniques used at the Retreat by reworking her film footage in the digital realm. The result is a layered, oceanic embodiment of physical energy and desire.

Ma’ia Cybelle Carpenter, USA 16mm colour 7 min. 2000
Chicago-based filmmaker Ma’ia Carpenter acknowledges the pioneering lesbian filmmaker Barbara Hammer as a great inspiration. The Shape of the Gaze is a sort of manifesto of radical queer filmmaking in which Carpenter implicates the viewer in the exchange of looks between the filmmaker and her “butch” subjects, disrupting the usual filmmaker­subject-viewer triad through interventions in colour and film surface.

Karyn Sandlos, Canada • video 12 min. 1998
Since participating in the Retreat in 1998, Sandlos has been one of its main organizers most years, and has also co-edited a book, Landscape With Shipwreck, about the films of Philip Hoffman. Passing Through develops a more explicit narrative line than most of these films, creating a lovely journal of a short stay in a small, Ontario town during which nothing seems to fit properly.

Eve Heller, USA • 16mm b&w silent 5 min. 2003
Shot in the Saugeen River using a special underwater housing, Glint is a film-poem of the utmost subtlety and finesse, in which images emerge from black only to vanish again…

Related programming: Be sure to see Deirdre Logue’s installation Enlightened Nonsense: 10 Short Performance Films About Repetition and Repetition, a film series shot over the course of several years at the Independent Imaging Retreat. This work is installed at the Durham Art Gallery from Aug. 21 to Sept. 28. Address: 251 George St., DurhamTelephone: 519.369.3692 • Web:

Hours: Tuesday-Friday, 12-5; Saturday-Sunday, 1-4


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