York film professors break ground at home and abroad

York film professors continue to create groundbreaking new productions as well as to ensure important works from the past are available to future audiences. Professor Philip Hoffman is preparing for his eighth Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) screening while Professor Amnon Buchbinder, chair of the Department of Film, is making the international release and distribution of his mentor’s opus a reality.

Celebrities, red carpets and paparazzi will transform Toronto for the 10 days of silver screen magic that is TIFF, running Sept. 10 to 19. Rivalled only by Cannes and Berlin, the festival is one of the largest and most prestigious in the world. This year, TIFF is showcasing 335 films from 64 countries, including 271 feature-length films.

Left: Philip Hoffman

One of them is the North American premiere of Hoffman’s feature directing debut, the experimental documentary All Fall Down. The production – co-written by Hoffman’s film department colleague and partner, Janine Marchessault, Canada Research Chair in Art, Digital Media & Globalization – made its world premiere last February in a packed screening at the Berlin International Film Festival (see YFile, Feb. 6).

“While it certainly would have fit within Toronto’s Hot Docs or Images festivals, I think TIFF is a good place for this film,” says Hoffman. “There is a segment of the TIFF audience who are definitely seeking films that push boundaries.”

Right: A scene from Philip Hoffman’s All Fall Down

All Fall Down juxtaposes the lives of two people living in different centuries but linked by a farm house in southern Ontario: Nahneebahweequa, an aboriginal woman and land rights activist, and the writer George Lachlan Brown, an ex-pat drifter and the father of Hoffman’s stepdaughter, in the troubled final years of his life. Hoffman explores the characters through a variety of archival materials, including diaries, landscape paintings, photographs, heritage films, poems, phone messages, maps, historical re-enactments and songs that express the complexity of time and the politics of land.

“What emerges is a film that is at once mysterious, visually and aurally stunning, heart-rending and intellectually rigorous,” says TIFF programmer Steve Gravestock, who chose the work for inclusion in the festival. “[It] is one of the most invigorating and rewarding pleasures you’re likely to have in a cinema this year.”

Like several of Hoffman’s productions, All Fall Down had a long gestation. “I’ve been working on the production off and on for 15 years,” Hoffman says. “I became more serious about it in 2001 and have been concentrating on it in the last two years. I gradually collected images and sound for the film and eventually the story surfaced. I like to take my time pondering the materials, to better understand how they are all related. Eventually the various strands of the story find their place in the finished work.”

This style of filmmaking seems a perfect complement to the demands of an academic career. “I use the summers for intense creative focus,” says Hoffman. “Over the past several years I’ve greatly benefited from the assistance of graduate students in my research, collection and editing phases. Many of the first work-in-progress screenings were held here on campus, and the feedback from my colleagues and students, has, I think, been a rich experience for everyone.”

All Fall Down plays Sept. 12 at 2:15pm and Sept. 13 at 11:45am in the AMC Yonge & Dundas, followed by a press and industry screening at the Varsity Cinemas Sept. 14.

Alongside his own creative work, Buchbinder has dedicated himself to the restoration of the productions of his film school mentor, the late Don Levy. He persuaded the British Film Institute (BFI) to re-release Levy’s 1968 feature film Herostratus as well as several of his shorts on DVD and Blu-ray to international distribution. Buchbinder supervised the transfer from the original negatives to high definition and contributed an essay for the liner notes.

Right: Don Levy. Photo courtesy of BFI Stills, Posters and Designs.

Herostratus tells the story of a young poet who hires a marketing company to turn his suicide-by-jumping into a mass-media spectacle. His subversive intentions are quickly diluted into a reactionary gesture and his motivations revealed as a desperate attempt to seek attention through celebrity.

The BFI described the film as “criminally overlooked” and says it “left a profound mark on the landscape of late-1960s British cinema, with echoes of its visual style evident in the more celebrated work of such notable directors as Stanley Kubrick, Nicolas Roeg and Michael Winner.”

Above: An image from the late Don Levy’s groundbreaking film Herostratus. Photo courtesy of BFI Stills, Posters and Designs.

Originally from Australia, Levy (1932-1987) made his first short films while a student at the University of Cambridge and went on to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Herostratus, filmed on a shoestring budget over the course of five years, was released in May 1968 (the same week as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) and went on to film festival success before falling into obscurity. Levy went on to teach at Harvard University and then at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Los Angeles, where he conducted research in film, video and multimedia until his death.

It was at CalArts that Buchbinder met Levy, who became his graduate supervisor.

“Levy was probably the most significant person in my artistic life,” says Buchbinder. “In addition to his inspiring rigour and integrity as an artist, he modelled an approach to teaching that was challenging and profound. At the time I didn’t expect to end up teaching myself, but now that I have, I’m grateful that I was given such a powerful example to try to live up to.”

Left: Amnon Buchbinder

Buchbinder recently returned from Los Angeles where he has been cataloguing and organizing Levy’s extensive (and un-released) 16-millimetre film and three-quarter-inch video works.

“This material includes some stunningly beautiful pieces shot with an ultra-high-speed film camera – 229 times normal speed – and many hours of video studio improvisations,” Buchbinder says. “None of the material looks like anything I’ve ever seen before.”

He plans to restore and release more of Levy’s productions in the future.