By Mónica Delgado
The first session of Canadian filmmaker Phillip Hoffman at (S8) Mostra de Cinema Periférico in La Coruña, was strong enough to help us define his so-called Vulture Aesthetic, a kind of worldview that governs his way of making and understanding cinema. The figure of the Vulture is not only assumed as a simple metaphor of a being hunting for archival material or “detritus” but also the one that has the capacity of reviving and transforming time through celluloid, re-catch it and recreate it. Or like someone with an acute vision, who isn’t afraid to be attentive to adopt the irruption of the unexpected and the environment, even for a brief period of time, and become part of it.
As he told us in the first session, Phillip Hoffman directs his own workshop of experimental cinema in South Ontario, called Independent Imaging Retreat (his Film Farm), where he shares the precepts that have marked part of his cinematography, from the intimate and personal registry to a different one of more complexities, where the political dimension on earth as a source of work and identity prevails.
It’s remarkable that this first program from Hoffman, that opens his sessions at (S8) starts with Slaughterhouse, a film from 2014 that would become a thematic summa of the filmmaker interests towards the consequences of appropriation in agriculture or cattle raising, the lost value of their raw materials, and the transformational aspect of work, which he composes through collage, a work reaching up to six channels of visualization and two or three sound channels.
In Slaughterhouse’s original conception as an installation, the spectator could watch the projection from different holes in the exterior walls of a slaughterhouse, something which allows the auscultation of semi-occult images that require a voyeur-witness to watch them. This resource is recovered by Hoffman in his version for movie theaters through a zoom that makes us go through a hole and enter in this sort of Pinhole, that recovers a number of multi-screens in its inside, showing different discourses, among them, the rising and fall of a meat processing factory owed by the Hoffman.
The stock footage used by Hoffman has been recovered from different sources, like The Canada’s National Archive, to portray the activism for the rights of the land by the Nahnebahwequay, XIX century aborigines, as also to some methods of production of organic farmer Michael Schmidt. These events serve as two forms of resistance before a homogenization of the farmer and the livestock industries and its laws for the land, and the health of the products coming from it. This multi-screen collage of different archival footage makes the association and the editing process (which stablishes correspondences between discourses of micro tales of every screen we see in a simultaneous way) a way to understand the interaction of different events that even contradict each other, about property and how this subject has conditioned the social and economic stability. A slaughterhouse whose obscenity remains in a huge and out of focus out of field.
Instead in Vulture (work in progress), his most recent work of 2018, Hoffman recovers some motives of Slaughterhouse, here expanded in a different kind of staging. The farm is the space for the recording of different animals, cows, horses, chickens or pigs, in a suggestive harmony and symbiosis, however, this apparent harmonic ecosystem exists due to the absence of man, who isn’t interrupting this tranquility. In this context, the filmmaker, as the vulture of the title, is capturing (via slow zooms and panoramic shots) or waiting for the bursts which reveal this interaction of the animals in pseudo freedom: a cow nursing a pig, roosters and chickens looking for seeds in the woods, or horses riding in slow motion. But Hoffman doesn’t stay in the tale or naturalistic description, but instead confronts this gaze with the “performances” of the animals, with the scarce presence of farmers, and then with the work on crops free from animals to watch over.
If this is indeed a non-finished work, the nobleness of a work like Vulture lies in its choosing of a point of view, where the filmmaker’s function is clear, as a watcher of this uncommunicated fauna, but also in the process that is patented in several parts of the film, where he goes from a use of “clean” celluloid to the contaminated texture of flower-developed film, which give the frame a closer touch with the idea of the absorption of environment the filmmaker gives to his film.
In Vulture’s last minutes, Hoffman adds an appendix which has a different rhythm in its editing, executed by filmmaker Isaiah Medina, who follows the rhythm of a soundtrack made by the filmmaker. This ending subverts the initial bet to finally return with a significant shot and a perfect epilogue, of children in a farm separated from goats by a fence.
This edition of (S8) includes two more programs with the works of Philip Hoffman, which allows us to visualize a panorama of over forty years of experimentation and labor with archive footage of different format and caliber. A contemporary with Mike Hoolboom of Richard Kerr, Hoffman has achieved to characterize his work as a cinema that mixes residues of historical documents with familiar and personal aspects, to launch direct missiles to the conscience of memory and historical officialism.