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Film The not-so-secret history of Ontario’s Film Farm, the experimental-film incubator that’s nurtured an entire cinematic movement

When people think about the guiding forces of Canadian filmmaking, bureaucratic behemoths such as the Canadian Film Centre, Telefilm Canada and the National Film Board of Canada come to mind. But in the shadow of these institutions is an organization a scant two hours northwest of Toronto, which has left an indelible mark on nearly 300 artists since its inception.

The Independent Imaging Retreat (known affectionately as the Film Farm) was founded by award-winning filmmaker and York University professor Phil Hoffman. It has been a central and consistent part of the experimental film scene in Canada since 1994. The week-long analogue filmmaking intensive program runs every July on Hoffman’s 50-acre Mount Forest property, with a barn outfitted with two screening spaces and three dark rooms to process film. Participants take workshops, screen films and endeavour to make new works on 8mm and 16mm.

Towards Everyday Lightning is a silent, 16mm, hand-processed experimental, film made in 2003 by James L Gillespie.

courtesy Phil Hoffman

This summer, the Toronto International Film Festival is celebrating a quarter-century of homegrown film experimentation with the exhibition Film Farm: 25 Years of the Independent Imaging Retreat, which is running at the TIFF Reference Library in Toronto until July 19, plus two free screenings featuring 27 films as part of Wavelengths on July 10 and 11, programmed by Chris Kennedy.

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The second screening will be introduced by Kim Knowles of Aberystwyth University, Wales, and will be followed by the launch of Process Cinema: Handmade Film in the Digital Age, a collection of essays co-edited by Scott MacKenzie and Janine Marchessault, which was conceived of at the Film Farm.

Over the past 25 years, Hoffman and his staff have sought to nurture the talents of curious artists from around the world with a mandate that focuses on “artisan filmmaking” and encourages the “participation of artists typically underrepresented in mainstream film production.”

The Film Farm was inspired in part by the John Grierson Documentary Film Seminars, which Hoffman attended in the 1980s.

Across is a 1997 film directed by Cara Morton.

courtesy Phil Hoffman

“That intensity of people living together, eating together, talking about films together reverberated throughout the next year and longer. I just felt there was something different about having this kind of workshop with people together and away from the centre,” Hoffman said in an interview.

Community and conversation are central to the Film Reference Library exhibit. Michelle Lovegrove Thomson, the library’s manager, has curated an immersive survey that includes video diaries, photographs, equipment, ephemera and 50 films made at the farm over the years. The exhibit also features an installation of Hoffman’s recent feature-length work vulture. Attendees can interact with samples of celluloid, equipment and learn about the ever innovative techniques the farm is employing. For the past few years, there has been increasing interest in replacing traditional harsh chemicals for processing with plants and flowers.

“For a lot of people, the Film Farm is a transformative moment,” Kennedy says. “They are making work in a certain way and then they go to the farm and they have a complete break from how they were doing it in the past.”

This transformation is directly related to learning how to process your own film, which all participants have done since 1999.

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“When I learned how to hand-process, that changed a lot of things about how I could perform as a filmmaker with very limited means,” Kennedy says. “Before that, I had no idea how to make films without raising funds. [Hand-processing] is a lot more like getting a canvas and painting.”

Anamnesis is a 2009 film directed by Scott Miller Berry.

courtesy Phil Hoffman

Self-actualization is one of the guiding principles of the retreat and a key element Kennedy hopes audiences will take away from the two-night program. Hoffman describes his methodology as one that embraces fluid and organic inspiration.

“We teach techniques, ways of working and embracing the world without any preconceived notions of what the world is," he says. "We ask participants not to bring any plans or script. Everyone has a film inside them and it will come out.”

This intimacy between subject and process is evident throughout both evenings. The first program on July 10 looks inward at personal revelation with recurring themes of love, coming out and personal awareness of nature, while the July 11 films examine broader themes and a focus on archival material. As Kennedy says, “more than any other residency in Canada, there is a lot of portraiture and performances of self. And that’s because there is nothing else there. Everything is stripped away.”

For those who might not consider experimental film their wheelhouse, the screenings and exhibit remain accessible. As Kennedy points out, “for a new audience encountering this work [the takeaway is that], ‘you can do it.’ It is about being able to make films and respond to popular culture on your own terms.”

For more information on the Film Farm screenings and exhibition, visit tiff.net

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