The Outsider: Sami van ingen
NEW DIRECTIONS IN CINEMA & Pleasure Dome presents: INTROSPECTIVE VISION
The Works of Sami van Ingen (In Person)
A co-presentation with Pleasure Dome
It is a great pleasure to welcome Sami van Ingen back to Toronto for a retrospective of his recent films during his artist residency at LIFT. Despite living in Finland, Sami van Ingen has deep roots in the Canadian film community. His artistic friendship with Phil Hoffman began in the late eighties and has been a key to both of their filmmaking practices,
culminating in the collaborative 1995 film Sweep. van Ingen’s work has been influenced both by documentary and experimental traditions (his great-grandfather was Robert Flaherty) and by his own observations of culture exchange as coloured by his childhood growing up in both India and Finland. The roots of perception and the possibilities of the film camera in creating and investigating vision are at the core of his work.
van Ingen’s residency at LIFT will find him exploring new ways to merge digital practices with attentive work in 16mm and 35mm. Our screening will feature a small selection of works-in-progress as well as three completed films that represent the range of his work in film. Twone is a short series of 35mm trailers that uses a poem by Dr. Seuss to examine how children learn visual recognition. Texas Scramble relates a structuring mechanism from a golf game with a quote from the Dhammapada to create an editing pattern that ruminates on how our experience in the world depends on our position in it –
a visual hop-frog equivalent of “What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday/our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow/our life is the creation of our mind”.
The OutsiderL Sami van Ingen
By Chris Kennedy
Chris Kennedy is a filmmaker and is also a programmer for the Images Festival.
Canadians know Sami van Ingen’s work, it is most likely through Sweep, his 1995 collaboration with local filmmaker Phil Hoffman. The culmination of an artistic friendship-beginning when van Ingen forced himself into a Hoffman workshop after seeing Hoffman’s O, Zoo (The Making of a Fiction Film)-Sweep is a unique film. The film was created out of what van Ingen calls “a very open and dynamic working method-just going with flow” and the result is a personal film by two very different artists. Those familiar with Hoffman’s work can see his influence in the way the film interrogates stories and histories, but van Ingen’s contributions are equally present, especially in the way the camera absorbs its environment. Like van Ingen’s other work, the roots of perception and the possibilities of the film camera in creating and investigating vision are at the core of this film.
Even without this initial introduction to van Ingen’s work, his artist’s residency this fall at lift gives local audiences and filmmakers a fresh chance to get acquainted with his films and working methods. A twenty year veteran of moving images, van Ingen has produced many films, videos and installations from his home base in Finland. van Ingen’s work has been influenced both by documentary and experimental traditions and his own observations of culture as coloured by his childhood growing up in both India and Finland, but his main instinct is towards the camera. He explains, “[It is an] endless fascination on the simple co-operation of the cinematic apparatus and the eye. I find life a bewildering experience and I try to put film technology and art together to examine it closely-not only to understand, but just to keep movement going.” As a result, his films are extremely rich visually and create a visceral response to what one sees.
Examining what one sees is part of van Ingen’s heritage. A great-grandson of Robert flaherty, van Ingen seems to have inherited the filmmaking gene. Although the shadow of his grandmother’s father hung heavy over the artists in his family, van Ingen resists drawing a direct link from flaherty to himself. His earliest memory of Nanook of the North was at a family screening in Vermont when he was seven. At that age, he was much more interested in going outside to play in the countryside. He sees his filmmaking as a more direct lineage from his van Ingen grandfather teaching him photography, his own initial studies in cultural anthropology and his childhood home.
Flaherty’s shadow failed to dim the more direct influence of van Ingen’s childhood in India. Originally Dutch traders, the van Ingens migrated to Mysore in Southern India during the 1600s and have lived there ever since. His father’s grandfather started a taxidermy firm, which van Ingen remembers as a “place of many bewildering sights and smells of my childhood… I have a deep feeling towards India as my father’s land and as a place of strong childhood memories.” Despite now living in a small town in Finland, it is his connection with India that consistently recurs in his films, especially in the informal “trilogy” of The Blow, Days and Fokus. “I feel my interest in examining the way of looking and the passing moments comes mainly from my childhood in India and Finland, being a outsider everywhere. Too Indian in Finland and too European in India,” he says.
Out of the twenty films and videos he has made, his four longest films form a strong introduction to his style of filmmaking. Of these, Texas Scramble (1996) is the hardest of van Ingen’s films to describe, partly because it is a closed system that only reveals itself through watching. The film starts with the first line of the Dhammapada [Buddhist verse]: “What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday/our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow/our life is the creation of our mind.” To build a structure out of this statement, van Ingen uses the rules of an unlikely source. As he explains, “Texas Scramble is a golf game played in the Southern US. After the players hit their golf balls, the balls are moved forward to the best position so that each round the players start at par. It’s also a great name”.
A travelogue of sorts, the images are edited with this structure in mind and earlier moments are recalled by images drawn from different locations. A Texan fairground cuts to the interior of a cathedral, to shots of a golf game, to a watermelon snack in a gazebo, to a dog running, to the displays of a zoology museum. The camera is always mobile and the images swim by with beautiful optically printed saturation, finally ending in a maze of hedges that circle around us.
van Ingen still labels Texas Scramble his favourite film, partly because it is a very simple starting point that allows for beautifully complex outcomes. Surprisingly, the film was made for television, and although it flummoxed the station managers and had to be cut down to 21 minutes (more for contractual reasons than content), it has shown three or four times on Finnish television.
The Blow (1998) moves away from a formal structure to a more intuitive editing style. The central image of The Blow is the exterior of his grandfather’s taxidermy firm. It is shot out of focus and never identified, but the quality of light and color stunningly suggests the veil of memory. These exterior shots of the building are intercut with interior shots of the workbenches and with the surrounding sandalwood trees. The trees speak of a connection to Europe; Mysore was the main exporter of sandalwood to Europe. The trees were used to make incense and essential oils; they were also used as a treatment for syphilis during the Napoleonic era.
For van Ingen’s expatriate family who felt strong ties to Europe even though they had lived in India for centuries, the pull of the past still affected their sense of time and place. With The Blow, van Ingen wanted to explore “the nostalgia and sentiment that is built up in one’s mind regarding a family house… When my grandfather passed away, I was hit by the realization that the building, the walls and windows were just brick and wood and glass.” With death, the deeper sense of connection with a place and its memories becomes more fleeting and belonging becomes complicated.
Taxidermy reappears as an element in van Ingen’s next film, Days (2000). The initial inspiration for the film was a bbc news bulletin that forecast the extinction of the wild tiger in 200 days. The bluntness of this fact in an era where destruction is always deferred combined with the historical significance of tigers in many cultures made van Ingen reflect strongly on the division of man and nature. “There’s such a difference between the fantasy and reality of animals,” he says. “If you go through the jungle, you never see an animal. It’s only on tv that you get a chance to see animals.”
In the film, animals are constantly represented, but never really there. Days starts with images of animal skeletons on display, ready for purchase. The camera travels repeatedly down a jungle path. A leopard prances behind a fence. The leopard is the only animal we see, hidden by confinement. A safari through Marajahole National Park turns up nothing. The most striking image in the film is a leopard skin being rolled up and crushed down by human feet, for easy storage and shipping. The long traveling shot through the jungle that ends the piece is both unnerving and central to the film. The camera is either the eye of the tiger traveling through the bush or a hunter on safari. In either case, the jungle is empty and no animals are seen until we return to the room where animal bones are stacked and labeled.
The distance from reality and representation is also a key part of van Ingen’s masterful Fokus. van Ingen uses his grandmother’s 16mm home movie of the royal Indian court procession of Dussera in Mysore as source material for this stunning 35mm film. Deftly optically printing brief passages of her film, van Ingen carefully examines the peripheral elements of the frame. Through changing speeds, direction and amplification, the film becomes a cyclical study of gesture and shadows, finding new revelations with each sweep of his focus. The enlarged textures and colours of the Kodachrome film and the enveloping soundtrack make this an immersive study of the patterns of ritual and vision. As the film continues, the cyclical images build to a cumulative effect. The images pull from the poles of exoticism and banality, and the film helps us re-see this footage over and over again.
Like Days, there is a political undercurrent to the footage. According to van Ingen, the Dussera procession is actually a construct of the British Empire. The East India Company deposed the last Mogul in India in Mysore in 1799 and immediately installed a puppet government to keep the peace. Part of this peacemaking involved the development of this court procession and the creation of a royal palace. Strangely enough, the construction materials for the palace were imported from Birmingham. Around the same time that van Ingen researched the history of the procession, he discovered his grandmother’s footage and was inspired to make this film. With this knowledge, Fokus burrows even deeper into the image and the British uniforms, the processional car and the upper class audience members on the balcony all gain added significance.
After the intense optical printing that was required to make Fokus, van Ingen is looking forward to his next project. His residency at lift will find him exploring new ways to merge digital post-production strategies with traditional optical printing and hand-processing of 16mm and 35mm. “These are two seemingly opposite spheres of filmmaking, but I feel there is something important in combining the two. This opens creative possibilities in a new way and it is important not to be too nostalgic about the film-film.” van Ingen is investigating the possibilities of using High Definition to transfer film to digital for editing before outputting back onto 35mm. In this way, films can be shot on the smallest formats available and presented on the largest.
The proximity of Niagara Custom Lab also brings van Ingen to town: “I am very keen in doing a little experimenting in the lab. I have worked in a commercial film-lab and know the tremendous possibilities that these machines have for experimental filmmaking. But naturally straight labs, like the only one we have in Finland, do not wish to take part in such activities.”
van Ingen is not new to the co-op system. He saw his first screening of experimental films at the London Filmmakers Co-op, which convinced him to stop his cultural anthropology degree and follow filmmaking. After a few years in London, he returned to Helsinki: “I walked straight into the fancy offices of the Finnish film foundation and asked them where the Bolexes are and does anybody do hand processing. All that was unheard of, and I was told to go home and become a ‘real filmmaker.'” Instead, he joined with his friend Seppo Renvall to start the Helsinki Filmmakers Co-op, which he helped run for ten years.
His history with film co-ops makes him well aware of the value of an artist residency and his time in Toronto will build on the connections he already has here. “It is important to remember that it is not the facilities or location that are the most important asset in a project like this, but the people who work in and organize things like this. lift has a great crowd of people involved and I hope I will be able to add my share with my presence and work.”
Friday 25 November 2005 20:00
129 Spadina Avenue (down the alley)
Toronto ON Canada