Philip Hoffman brought creativity to Finnish Documentary Film Making

When Canadian filmmaker Philip Hoffman (b. 1955) arrived in Finland at the beginning of the 1990s, he left a lasting mark on the Finnish documentary film tradition. In the following text, Finnish filmmakers tell about their relationship with this legendary documentarist, whose liberating experimentation served as the launching pad for the careers of many film creators.

“For a moment, I knew what the long lost and cliché word ‘creativity’ truly means.”
– Mia Halme

Photo from Hoffman’s film Passing Through / torn formations (1988)

“I was Philip’s first contact in Finland. When I was studying filmmaking in London, I traveled to Canada as an exchange student. I went to Sheridan College, located in a suburb of Toronto. Philip Hoffman taught filmmaking there.”

– Ilppo Pohjola

When Ilppo Pohjola returned to Finland in 1988, Avek – the “promotion centre for audiovisual culture in Finland” – had just been founded. Through a collaborative effort by Avek and other Finnish film industry organizations, Hoffman was invited to Finland in the beginning of the 1990s. Hoffman taught a course at the Kaapelitehdas cultural centre in Helsinki and worked as a professor at the School of Art and Design. His courses dealt with the themes of subjective documentaries and experimental film. Partially due to the influence of these courses and workshops, the Finnish documentary short film scene started to produce films with a style that combined realistic documentary elements with fiction and subjective content.

“The end of the 1980s in Finland can be characterized as a period of globalization and cultural awakening, as well as a particular type of democratization. Video workshops enabled access to ‘the moving picture’ for people outside of the film business, including painters, photographers, and activists. At the same time, the professional film industry took a reserved attitude toward experimental artistic expression and methodological alternatives, which can be seen as the result of both general ignorance and a guild-like tendency to protect one’s own profession, typical of the era. Highly exclusive and lacking gender equality, the Finnish film industry nevertheless took Hoffman seriously – after all, he was a real film maker and also from a foreign country.”
– Sami van Ingen

“With his line of thought, Hoffman belongs to the tradition of North American film makers who emphasize artistic expression, highlight the role of the filmmaker as an artist, and strive to create films outside the huge American film industry machine. Hoffman taught critical thinking and independent art-making.”
– Ilppo Pohjola

Photo from Hoffman’s film Chimera (1995)

Many Finnish documentary filmmakers came to know Philip Hoffman for the first time at the cinema workshops put together in collaboration with the Kaapelitehdas cultural centre and the School of Art and Design. Apparently, for many of the workshop participants, the content of these workshops were exactly what they needed at the time.

“It felt like a breath of fresh air in the middle of a world that was focused on thematic narratives only. It was also significant for me to see his own films, created with the principle of ‘collecting images.’ I still need to have an experimental aspect in every project I work on, in order to maintain interest in my own work. The form must always be challenged, the language of the art of film always needs to be developed further. During Philip’s course, I began filming my breakthrough piece, Orpojen Joulu, and with help from Philip I finished the film.”
– Anu Kuivalainen

“I met Philip Hoffman at a workshop that he was leading at the beginning of the 1990s. I had read an article in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper which got me interested in his approach to creating films. At the time, I was studying documentary film making at the Cinema Studies Department. I had already made some short documentaries, and I was searching for my own style of expression. The dramatized, narrative documentary genre did not feel like the style for me. At that time, Philip’s views provided an answer for my artistic search. He emphasized a personal, carefully considered, and compositional approach to documentary filmmaking. Due to Philip’s artistic influence, I understood that a personal life experience could serve as the starting point for a documentary film, without necessarily resulting in an egocentric production.”
– Simo Halinen

Hoffman´s cinema workshops encouraged the participating artists to adopt a style that utilized self-expression. As a result, filmmakers in Finland created a wealth of subjective and autobiographical documentaries, including Kiti Luostarinen’s Sanokaa mitä näitte (“Tell Us What You Saw,” 1993) and Anu Kuivalainen’s Orpojen joulu (“Christmas in Distance,” 1994). Hoffman has also since returned to Finland. In 1998, filmmaker Mia Halme participated in a documentary film course with Hoffman at the School of Art and Design and shared some of her experiences in the AVEK magazine: “After the Philip Hoffman course, I was simply floating around in a space without rules or pressure … I think the other participants experienced a similar euphoria, as well, since people would be working night and day but remained very relaxed, without any signs of stress or strain.”

Sami van Ingen, who has been working together with Hoffman making films and curating the DocPoint’s Hoffman programme sees that Hoffman encouraged Finnish film makers to stretch the limits of documentary film making:

“Hoffman’s greatest contribution was perhaps that he acted as a catalyst for change. He worked as a teacher and colleague with traditional filmmakers as well as painters and photographers. Leading by his own example, he showed many Finnish artists that anybody can make a film and that the topic can be very personal. The form of the end result could be anything, as long as you are creating with an open mind, a critical approach, and empathy.”
– Sami Van Ingen

The photo is from the film Sweep (1995) by Philip Hoffman and Sami van Ingen

People interviewed for the article:

Sami van Ingen (b. 1964)

A Finnish filmmaker whose style often combines moving images and sound into different kinds of installations and film and video works. The DocPoint Philip Hoffman series includes two pieces by Sami van Ingen: Hammu (1991) and Sweep (1995, in collaboration with Philip Hoffman). The series is curated by Sami van Ingen together with Philip Hoffman.

Ilppo Pohjola (b. 1957)

A Finnish filmmaker and photographer who has also produced experimental videos, creative documentaries for television, and multimedia installations. Pohjola’s P(l)ain Truth will be screened as part of the DocPoint Philip Hoffman series.

Anu Kuivalainen (b. 1964)

A Finnish documentary maker whose film Orpojen joulu (“Christmas of the Orphans”) will be screened as part of the DocPoint Philip Hoffman series.

Simo Halinen (b. 1963)

A Finnish film director, script writer, actor, and author.

Additionally, the references for this article include Kari Yli-Annala’s and Mia Halme’s articles published in the AVEK magazine special issue on experimental film (1/1999).

Katri Tenhola
The editor of the DocPoint festival catalogue, web page and social media content

English translation: Sanna Parikka

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