If there is life in the BARN: it will survive

Philip Hoffman interview

by James Holcombe

The LUX Film Farm took place in June 2015, during the weekend of celebrations around the 10th anniversary of no.w.here, and following a 20th anniversary Film Farm screening at LUX. This conversation between Philip Hoffman and James Holcombe was conducted to mark the anniversaries of both organisations.

James Holcombe (JH): Can you talk a little about the history of the land and buildings before they became a rural lab? Can you paint a textual picture of the landscape over the seasons and how the equipment is bedded down for the winter – what do you have to do to keep quite complex machines working and functional?

Phillip Hoffman (PH): I got the property in the early 1990’s, with my partner at that time Marian McMahon, with the idea of creating a kind of school for image-making. The old stone house was built by Henry Chilton in the 1880’s, and had been used for farming ever since. The farm is approximately 50 acres, and some of it is used by my neighbours for farming purposes, in exchange for various things over the years… Erwin dug the pond and built a foundation for an extension to the house. Tom plows my lane and gives me a freezer of meat every year from his grass fed animals that graze on the land. We started the workshop in 1994 with Rob Butterworth, Tracy German and Marian McMahon, and at the time my neighbour had cows in the bottom of the barn, so we had mooing sounds echoing through the barn while we screened films! The old barn, built probably in the 1920’s is an old Mennonite constructed structure, held together solely by wooden pegs. Over the years my partner, Janine Marchessault, and I have had to maintain the barn by having our friend Jon Radojkovic, who’s an expert in timber frame barns, help to keep it standing, as the barn shifts. In 2007 he did a major repair, as the barn was shifting quickly. My neighbour Wayne put some cement posts at the back of the barn and Jon tightened some of the major beams using a permanent winching system, with thick wire, and replaced some beams by jacking the barn up…the jacking is done over a few months, raising the barn a fraction of an inch every week. So the barn is in a constant state of repair. Every winter the animals, the wind and snow take over the barn. We cover everything in tarp and hope the machines start up again in the spring!

JH: Do you prefer the term rural imaging retreat or film farm?

PH: Film Farm was a term that arose spontaneously from the participants, until writer/filmmaker Chris Gehman used it in one of his articles and confirmed it as its nickname….Helen Hill and I used to have a playful argument as she called it Film Camp, and though it may seem like that I always steered it away from camp….in 1999 Helen Hill, Trixy Sweetvittles (Wattenbarger) and Amy Lockhart drove to the Film Farm all the way from Halifax, in an old car with Film Camp or Bust spray painted along the side of the car, and a candy floss machine in the back seat for all to enjoy!…anyway the official name for the workshop is Independent Imaging Retreat but everyone uses Film Farm.

JH: Did you have a model to draw upon for Film Farm? What were its antecedents?

PH: In the 70’s and early 80’s I would go to the Grierson Film Seminar, usually in Niagara on the Lake, in Ontario, first as a student, later to show work as a filmmaker… there I met Peter Greenaway who showed `the Falls’  at the conference, and after some conversations he invited me to the set of Zed and Two Noughts, and I made ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) in 1985. Anyway, Grierson Seminar was a Doc seminar, but they also crossed the line quite often into Experimental Film. What impressed me was the way the conference was structured in a small town, where there was minimal urban distractions so a good concentrated space to talk film with the participants. Great friendships evolved and I felt the effect of that one week resonated over the next year for me… that level of intensity had a lot of impact, and so in some ways the Film Farm was based on that experience…put a group of creative people onto 50 acres for a week and something great is bound to surface.. Apart from that, I always like when people experience for the first time the photochemical process, that time in the dark when the image comes…we use red light with Kodak 3378 filmstock, so we can see that silvery magic surfacing which is powerful! You do get hooked on it!

JH: I’m interested in how you took the decision to start the retreat, and what it has meant for you personally – was it something you had been turning over in your mind for a long time? Also, if the film farm began in 1994 as a reaction against industrial schooling, the film industry – did you view it as the antithesis of this and set it up as such, or was it to fulfil a more practical need?

PH: I had been teaching at Sheridan College since the early 80’s and was getting a bit tired of the limitations of the academic institution. I had just returned from teaching for 6 months in 1991 in Finland, where I had a lot of freedom to develop more personal teaching methods. I helped to start up the Helsinki Elokuvapaja (Co-op), working with film and media makers like Sami van Ingen, Ilppo Pohjola, Hannu Puttonen, and also Juha Samola from Avek (the funding body), and Perttu Rastas who ran AV-Arkki (the media art distributor). It seemed easier to set up an alternative teaching space away from home with these pragmatic and inventive Fins! So when I returned I had the idea of making a school of image-making, using similar methods we were developing in Finland. Marian and I bought the farm at the end of 1992 and in the summer of 1994 we had our first retreat. Rob Butterworth and Tracy German were students in the Media Arts Department where I taught at Sheridan College and they helped set it up and run it. The barn was filled with hay so the first step was to empty it, and see what was underneath. Rob is still with me and has not missed a Film Farm Retreat since 1994! We grew from 3 of us running the whole workshop to about eight, including 2 cooks. Really, it couldn’t have survived without the dedicated staff who keep everything running so well. The numbers for staff grew to 6 for production, because we realised that people didn’t just work 8 hours…they arrive by 9am and go till midnight…longer sometimes…

I remember coming out early one morning during the workshop, there was a path from the house to the barn, and there frozen in the path was Rebecca Meyers. She had fallen asleep on the way to the barn probably in the early hours of the morning….so the staff have kind of informal shift work that may go quite late…

JH: I noticed from the timeline that you had paused the workshop in 2005 and taken a year out at the ten year point – can I ask why that was, and what changes you made subsequently?

PH: Around the time of the 10th Anniversary the Film Farm group at the time (Rob Butterworth, Deirdre Logue Karyn Sandlos, Christine Harrison, Garrick Filewod, and a couple of dedicated past participants David Gatten and Scott Puccio) met for a summer retreat to talk about the future. At that time we planned the development of 3 new darkrooms in the basement of the barn where we have running water. Before that the darkrooms were on the main floor, in an old grain room…we just used black plastic to keep the light out before we built the new darkrooms. We made other plans like setting up a daytime screening venue in the bottom of the barn, where it is dark and cool. Christine Harrison and I had to clean out all the dried manure from the floor, which was a fun chore, and so the basement ceased to have animals living there (though there are still goats and chickens in the chicken coop). I was a bit worried that the lack of animals (and warmth), in the barn in the winter, would cause the cement to crack but my friend, Michael Schmidt an organic farmer and champion in the area of raw milk in Ontario told me that as long as you have life in the barn (the workshop) then the barn would survive…and it has!

JH: Since the industrial decline, and near death of the film industry globally (and I’d be interested on a Canadian perspective on this as I sensed when I went to Toronto that film was alive and well and that people seemed to think it has an industrial future) in the light of this how do you now view the film farm – do you see it offering an alternative to the digital image? Has it’s purpose shifted in light of these changes?

PH: I think there was a point earlier on when I felt I would just get swept up into the digital age and leave celluloid behind as well…I started using the computer to assist me in working out sequences to be printed with the optical printer, and to more easily organise footage with films like ‘Chimera’ (1995) and ‘What these ashes wanted’ (2001)…but I still finished those works with a Steenbeck and on celluloid…after some time I realised the digital can’t replace film because shooting and processing film is a different process for me, and creates different results…not just physically, but psychologically and of course that effects the film. For example the slow and thoughtful process of optical printing on celluloid produces different results than After Effects…looking at each frame individually when printing, allows time to ponder what I am doing and has a direct effect on the finished results…. so I have maintained a hybrid approach of using celluloid and digital, for the inherent qualities they embody. At the Film Farm, less are finishing on film compared to the time we started in the 90’s, but there is now more use of digital in the editing. Often people leave after the workshop, with a rough cut, or even some rolls of material, they often transfer to digital and finish in that form. But even at the workshop, digital applications are used…Pouyan Jafarizadeh copied digital images onto film in  `I Came For the Wedding’ and wonderfully applies crackle to create a look somewhere between film and visual art, so this use of pillaging the digital archive has been going on quite heavily. Deirdre Logue, started her series `Enlightened Nonsense” while a participant, but kept making it once she became staff…it’s a wonderfully encyclopaedic series on her relationship to her body, and lives also as a digital installation. She used tiny monitors, spread out through the gallery space with all the works shuffling through the many digital mini monitors. And Jeremy Moss in `Cicatrix’ takes what he has shot on film in a graveyard, and brings it into the digital realm creating a work that exposes the properties of celluloid and digital. So to finally answer your question, I think the Film Farm is a place to experiment with all these different methods and materials and it is less a reaction to the film industry and more a place that runs tandem with other art movements, nationally and internationally.

In the early days I’d get applications from people asking if we had a steadicam! David Gatten talks about how when he arrived as a young filmmaker, he expected to see a big film studio in the country (he was just being introduced to film at the time through Zack Stiglitz). I don’t think he was disappointed with the barn…he came back two more times and made his first incredible work, `Hardwood Process’ (1997) which we screened in June 2015 on 16mm at LUX, during the 20th Anniversary screening, along with other works that span the 20 years, both celluloid and digitally completed works (all originating on film of course).

JH: Have you noticed any ‘trends’ in the way artists approach working with the retreat?

PH: I think when we started there was a push to complete in 7 days. I used to say, if you can write a poem in a day, you can make a film in a week. I still maintain that but I think there is less pressure at the workshop to complete…people take away what they have shot, and we hope a seed has been planted (sorry), that the intensity of the experience lingers on over the next months, and participants come up with a film within a year, sometimes two or more…..but it’s always a kind of celebration for me when a new film is released! Still some folks like Christopher Beck and Alexander Stewart, or Marcia Connolly and Angela Joosse, used the week as a kind of structure to finish one or more works….they were less precious about making it a big complex piece and just tried small experiments that were completed by the time the workshop had ended. On the last Sunday of the workshop, participants gather materials together that they would like to show and we have a screening and then a barbecue, and that’s it..

JH: Do artists come with pre-planned ideas for making work, and if so how have you experienced tensions between people’s expectations and desires?

PH: I tell people they can bring anything they want to the workshop (Helen Hill brought that candy floss maker!) but they are not suppose to bring an idea for a film…they are suppose to find it here… we all have films inside us, and that film can be made at any location/place …especially if you don’t preplan…it will come out…and you will be drawn to collected images that express these hidden gems! Jennifer Reeves called me from the airport on her way to her first trip to the Film Farm in 1997 and was worried because she had an idea for the film, and she knew I suggested that she not come with an idea! Her plan was connected to a surreal concept, and she was worried that I’d would disqualify it!!! ha!….Well these `rules’ are not very strictly kept, and of course the limitations all need to be self imposed. The film she made was the intoxicating work `We are going home’ (1998), which I think works as a response to Dali and Bunuel’s `Un Chien Andalou’. Though it wasn’t officially done through the Film Farm, my friend Sarah Abbott used the barn for processing a dance film…the chemicals were a bit exhausted I guess, and there was a lot of silver in the tubs. After she processed she came back to me disappointed…there was a kind of pattern forming on the image.

I was blown away by the beauty, the way the silvery residue followed the dancer through her moves…Norman McLaren had to work so hard for that magic, in `Pas de Deux’ (1968) and she had found it by accident.

Soon she saw the beauty and finished `The Light in our Lizard Bellies’ (1999). But people come to terms with process in different ways, ..its unique every time. In the early 90’s one participant, spent the whole workshop, shooting `spontaneously’ and getting no results. I was quite concerned and worried that he’d be dissatisfied with the workshop but he actually didn’t care. He probably was in the best place possible because he was totally into process without a need to have a product. He thanked me at the end for one of the most memorable experiences he had ever had. I wonder what he is doing now!

JH: Can you talk about how those artists in the group each year make collective decisions, share roles and responsibilities, and how the group functions consensually in relation to each other such as time on equipment, sharing resources – do you set this out at the beginning as a group or does it evolve naturally as the retreat unfolds?

PH: It really runs like a clock in some ways…it’s set up like that…its big enough so that there are a lot of little cubby holes for people to hide away in…or just go out and film…everyone comes with or is given a camera, so there is always something to do if they are waiting to process etc… I think here I can talk about `the angels’ as Ken Paul Rosenthal called them….the staff are really incredible and seem to just appear, from a field or around a corner, when difficulties arise!!…I think they are really sensitive to how things work, and how people work. This is why the workshop works, and has endured. Since they are practising artists with many great gifts, they keep the ball rolling, with a great vibe.

Deirdre Logue has been so important for me, she does all the things I can’t do, and most of the things I can do, but better! She’s smart, and she’s so funny, and with (just now) retired Images Festival Director, Scott Miller Berry, you have a great team that logistically run the workshop. I spoke about the enduring power of Rob already, he will be lugging yet another Steenbeck up the road next spring, probably with his daughter Lexie who was co-pilot at the last workshop….as the machines breakdown we have planted them in the field as a kind of homage to the wheeled world, along with wagon wheels and other farm implements.

Christine Harrison is basically the camera department, so she makes sure everyone has what they want, and will often go out on a shoot with someone who is less sure about shooting with a Bolex…Christine was a student when I taught 16mm film at Sheridan College in the 90’s, but she was first in the video stream….when she came to the film farm she was very worried about scratching her film at the start of the workshop, but by the end of it she was rolling logs over the film to create an effect. Anyway Chris also has been instrumental in taking participants out on the river to shoot underwater….and also our `Captain Nemo’, Garrick Filewod, trained Chris in this underwater use. Eve Heller’s film, `Behind this Soft Eclipse’ (2005) which Garrick and Chris helped to produce, is breathtaking. Also, more recent staff taking part in the workshop are Cuban Filmmaker, Marcel Beltran, and Toronto filmmaker Terra Jean Long, who are always there when you need them!

We try to keep bringing in new people when others take a year off, for example Josh Bonnetta helped for several years, and we expect him back at some point, so the extended family seems to be growing! All these folks have their set jobs, and I think it works more organically which makes the experience meaningful…we all look forward to seeing each other again every year….it’s kind of like setting up the backyard carnival with your friends, when you were a kid! We have a meeting in the winter/spring before the workshop and talk about new developments and also the coming workshop, and what new processes we want to accomplish, or things we need build. Finally I should mention the cooks, who have been so dedicated to keeping everyone nourished, but both are writers in film (I call them cine-chefs) and so they use the time to develop their own writing projects while they cook the suppers (our neighbour Bev handles the lunches and puts some people up). Janine Marchessault, my partner, and our friend Scott MacKenzie have developed this cooking/writing time into a new wing of the workshop, and they have invited writers to participate with them in a writing retreat, called Book Farm. We try to integrate screenings and even readings into the workshop. Once they each read a haiku at the end screening, which they made during the week, as a response to me talking about visual haiku in filmmaking! So I think the two words for how the workshop works is `process’ and `integrate’. Out of this comes a new book by Janine and Scott called `Process Cinema: Handmade Film in the Digital Age’, which should be completed in a few years. It is inspired by the Film Farm but includes around 30 writers, who try to paint a picture of the handmade film scene internationally.

JH: What is the future of the retreat?

PH: Another new development is `Film Farm On the Road’. Last summer, Maria Palacios Cruz and Benjamin Cook organized the two-day LUX Film Farm, at a transformed dairy barn (Double Negative Darkroom) in the Hackney Marshes, which was fantastic. I had great help from Bea Haut who really made this happen. I am still in touch with some of the participants. All this points to future developments. Currently, we are planning two more international Film Farm workshops: one in Cuba and another in Barbados in 2016. As well, this past autumn I have done a few Process Cinema (Film Farm inspired) workshops through LIFT in North Bay and London, Ontario with filmmaker Eva Kolcze. Our plan for `Film Farm On the Road’ is to try to try to get some funds through Arts Councils in Canada to do another LUX Film Farm, and make it longer, and have a blend of LUX staff and Film Farm staff!

JH: Do you see the Film Farm as existing forever, being passed along a chain of descendants?

PH: We are bringing younger folks on hand, so I can see the workshop continuing to develop for quite a while. My daughter Jessie Marchessault, helped at the workshop in her youth, so she knows the gang, and made 2 or 3 films during the workshop…she has an interest in photography so may someday get involved again. But really I have no idea what will happen when I am gone.  I hope the changes develop organically, and simply….so that we all just know the right thing to do as time goes on.

JH: What is the primary importance for you of the retreat?

PH: It’s two-fold. Firstly to offer a place for participants to take time to reflect on their work, fuelled by self expression. That’s kind of obvious, as any retreat can offer. Secondly, it is a place for community…a place where we staff, and the participants can hold a space with each other. I always felt the workshop was equally an experiment in community, as much as a place to experiment with the medium of film. A hope that something could be taken away from the workshop experience, and brought into the day to day experience of one’s life after the workshop ended and we all go home, back to our jobs and life. In this way the Film Farm could be a catalyst for change, maybe…. for some it’s just the thing they need..

JH: I’d finally like to ask you how you work with the inorganic and toxic nature of photographic chemicals in the rural landscape, and how you dispose of them? Has the development of formulas such as caffenol changed the nature of the farm – how does the organic sit alongside the inorganic?

PH: Yea, we try to balance things out so that there is not too much toxicity affecting the land. By only doing the workshop once per year, I think the land can easily recover from the wear and tear of the yearly, week-long invasion. We keep the exhausted chemistry from each workshop, in 5 large garbage cans for a whole year, and put screens on top of them. Rob (Butterworth) has done research in the way that mixed chemistry, percolates, and cancels out each other’s toxicity. At the end of the yearlong process we take the materials to the dump, which accepts these kind of toxins. It’s the same department that handles disposed farm chemicals from the agriculture processes in the area. My philosophy is to maintain a balance, so we don’t create damage to the land and it seems to be working. The movement towards developing organic processing is now worldwide and last workshop we opened up a reduced-toxicity darkroom, inspired by the work of Dagie Brundert, we are processing with seaweed, from the pond, flowers from the garden and even liquor will process film, along with a little washing soda and vitamin-C. A replacement for fixer is still an issue, but a 3-day wash in salt (in total darkness of course!) has proven to stop development. We are exploring local plants and minerals that will color and effect the film.

The walnut trees that we planted in 1994-95, now bear fruit, which after a year of fermenting in a bucket, makes a marvelous sepia toner.



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