On Philip Hoffman

Philip Hoffman is certainly one of the most important experimental filmmakers in Canada, especially in terms of his diaristic work, in which private memories, personal genealogies and anecdotal serendipities are assembled into a self-portrait that defies the limits of conceited autobiography. Within the contemporary Canadian avant-garde, Hoffman might very well be the leading cineaste of his generation. But Hoffman’s contribution to Canada’s cultural scene goes beyond his remarkable filmography. His involvement in Toronto’s artistic community, his curatorial practice and his work as an educator at York University render him a true public intellectual, whose influence is as diverse as it is lasting and palpable.

As a scholar of Canadian cinema, I have always admired Hoffman’s ability to capture our shared experience of superimposed lives; lives that are at once grounded in the reality of a familiar landscape and propelled into an imaginary web of polymorphous identities. His films are deeply committed to tracing the intimate correlation between the awareness of local spaces and the uncertainties of geographical and cultural otherness.

This is at the core of one of his most celebrated films, Kitchener-Berlin (1990). Here nostalgic home movies and WWII footage of bombings over Germany are juxtaposed to create a deeply emotional yet lucidly political commentary on the historical coincidence of immigration that binds small-town Ontario and Nazi Germany. As is always the case in Hoffman’s films, the link between Kitchener, formerly known as Berlin, and its European counterpart is not a simple one. The eerie luminescence of the home-movies, the uncanny grayscale of archival stills showing various moments of Kitchener’s local history and the haunting soundtrack all combine to make the familiar Canadian space look surreal; and conversely, it is present-day Germany that looks most authentic and concrete as Hoffman constructs that space through a documentary mode of address. The increasingly intangible sense of locality as the film unfolds gives new form and depth to Frye’s famous observation that Canadians are haunted by the question “where is here?”

If there is a “here” to be found anywhere in Hoffman’s cinema it is in the surface of things: the grain of old archival film; the light touch of fingers on a keyboard; the translucence of leaves; the coarse façade of brick walls; the texture of aging skin. The tangibility of water, wood and earth in River (1979) and Sweep (1995) assert that the value of objects is found in the ontology of touch. Even the artificial hues of television screens showing news reports on the Gulf War in Technilogic Ordering (1994) draw the spectators attention to the absence of depth in the chatter and auditory chaos that emanate from the flickering cathode tube.

Hoffman’s work thus stages film’s fundamental dichotomy as a device that records the materiality of existence and a window into memory as the elusive anchor of private and public identity. This is especially true of my personal favorite, passing through / torn formations, which stands as one of the most haunting memory films made in this country. This audiovisual journey through the cineaste’s genealogy combines the tactility of documentary film with the evanescence of formalist experimentation to construct a multilayered narrative of attachment, impermanence, belonging and fluidity.

John Piekoszewski