Time Sweeping Space

At once an epistemological road movie and, in its own idiosyncratic way, a buddy picture, Sweep also represents Philip Hoffman’s first of several explicitly collaborative films made in the 1990s. Co-directed with Finnish filmmaking contemporary Sami Van Ingen, Sweep is also an elaboration upon the thematic preoccupations found in previous Hoffman films such as Road Ended At the Beach (1983), ?O Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film)(1986), as well as passing through/torn formations (1988) and, to a lesser degree, Kitchener-Berlin (1990). As in those earlier films, co-director Hoffman examines how knowledge is constructed and, perhaps more urgently, how memory is remembered, imagined, insinuated, and articulated. In the great ‘sweep’ of time and history, as the saying goes, just where do we stand, either as individuals or as collectives? How do we know what we know? How do we remember? What is the relationship between how we know and how we remember?

All of these vertiginous lines of inquiry thunder along beside Hoffman and Van Ingen while they travel by car to northern Ontario, as Hoffman tells us, “to make a film about where Sami’s great-grandfather had been.” Van Ingen’s great-grandfather is none other than the legendary documentary film pioneer, Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the NorthMoanaMan of Aran et al). Where he had been is Fort George, on the east coast of James Bay. Along the way to this absence, this place where Flaherty had been, the duo sojourns in Kapuskasing, where Hoffman’s mother’s family had first settled in Canada. Merging multiple personal reminiscences with archival footage of the north, family photographs, home movies, and the ephemeral and ubiquitous images of television, Sweepweaves together investigations of documentary film practice, the intersections of personal and collective memory, the incursions of white Europeans into northern Cree landscapes and dreamscapes, and the cinematic process itself.

At the most literal level, the cinematic process investigated in Sweep is that of the documentary. Van Ingen wants to go to the place where documentary’s most famous practitioner once stood and recorded, shaped, and disseminated images of the north with a new technology known as cinema. Flaherty is not seen, but he is present, as is the unidentified ‘old battleaxe’ invoked in ?O, Zoo! (The Making of A Fiction Film), John Grierson, the so-called father of documentary cinema, who described the documentary film as a “creative treatment of actuality.” Both Grierson and Flaherty and the epistemological claims to truth that their cinema represents hover outside the frames of Hoffman’s, and in Sweep, Van Ingen’s work. When they reach Fort George where Flaherty had been, of course, there is to be found only the presence of absence. It is in the discovery of the outlines of absence that Sweep finds its own peculiar power as a species of documentary filmmaking, as a kind of empirical record of a search, but also as a dialogical testimony to the silence of time. As Hoffman himself observes in a voiceover at the outset of the film, “All I know is that the process will happen, and we’ll go along to see what develops.” The film-specific resonance of terms such as ‘process’ and ‘develop’ are deliberate and suggestive, as what will come from this journey will be a finished film about the unfinished flow of experience, about what happens and what does not.

It is within this sense of process, or rather a poetics of process made concrete in the film’s final form, that Sweepprobes the densely textured underbrush of individual and shared memory. The film’s visual and aural structures insist that meaningful memory can be evoked by a mother telling a story of a childhood fall from a train bridge, by a Cree family talking about the benefit and the harm of modernity in their community, by the silence of an abandoned trading post, by the opaque ferocious power of a remote northern river, by cloud formations at dusk, by barroom photographs of hockey players, by distant familiar radio programmes, by a shovel overturning rich brown earth, by the undulations of water beneath a summer raft, by a bee’s benevolent patrolling of flowers, by human shadows upon the land. The collaborative construction of the film not only reflects Hoffman and Van Ingen’s experiment with the experience of memory as individual family history in the anecdotes of Hoffman’s mother and as cultural history in the figure of Robert Flaherty, but also suggests the potent force of the accumulation of intersection of individual and collective memory. For a Finn and a Canadian, the experience of such force may be expressed technologically in the cinematic assemblage of Sweep, but it is also present in that very assemblage’s articulation of a sense of its own limitations.

Fellow Canadian experimental filmmaker Chris Gallagher once asked: where is memory? Together and separately, Hoffman and Van Ingen answer: memory is everywhere. What is clear from Sweep is that memory, as a mode of constructing forms of individual and shared knowledge, cannot be adequately expressed or preserved within the documentary approaches of Flaherty, Grierson, cinema verite, or home video. Of course, what Sweepalso makes clear is that it cannot be adequately expressed or preserved without them, either.

On a broader level, beneath our (read: white European) tenacious and tenuous technological constructions and inscriptions of time and place (roads, bridges, cars, trains, paper mills, hydro electric power lines, radio, television, cinema itself), Sweep hints at a haunting which Canadian philosopher George Grant spoke about when suggesting that Canadians of European origin do not have their own gods inhabiting the landscape in which they live: the spirits in the vast Canadian landscape belong to the aboriginal peoples. As Sweep so effectively uncovers, there are other times, other histories, other mappings of experience and memory that persist in this land of the Cree where Flaherty had been. The building of dams, the displacement of Cree people, the flooding of their sacred sites, the erosion of traditional Cree culture all threaten erasure. And yet the camera and the telling of stories create ambiguous resistance to the barren inevitabilities of ‘progress’ and insinuates that new spirits have begun to weave themselves into those already there.

Ultimately, Sweep’s co-creators have undertaken a journey to disinter memory, to remove the accumulations of soil and dirt from what Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes calls ‘the buried mirror,’ a metaphor for our often obscured personal and collective identities. Repeated images of the Canadian terra firma, which is also now a terra nostra, suggest that the sedimentation of memory here in our old new country must be overturned for careful, critical examination. What Sweep offers is an exhumation of time, a resuscitation of time in Canadian northern space, an attempt to recognize ourselves in our many and elusive buried mirrors. Sweep illuminates those inexorable processes of change and erasure which we cannot elude but whose outlines, with the extraordinary and limited powers of film, we can at least begin to perceive.

John Piekoszewski