Looking Back to the Future by Peter Goddard (Toronto Star, 2003)

Toronto Star, October 11, 2003

Just at the point in the festival when it feels like movies have embraced the entire city, along comes a director whose vision embraces all of film-Mike Hoolboom. A stark and startling image in Imitations of Life-and there are dozens in his new film-comes near the end of a lyrical medley of images borrowed from 100-year-old Lumiére brothers silent footage. in this particular brief clip, two white women are shown throwing out bread crumbs to a crowd of little black children, who scramble crazily about to grab a bite. This “horrifying image,” comments Hoolboom in an interview this week, summarizes nothing less than the hegemony of Hollywood films over the world’s cinema-and the world’s imagination.

“Because the Lumiére films were done in one shot, this scene was choreographed like a Busby Berkeley movie,” he says as festivalgoers wander by sleepily, early coffees in their hands. “So the children were made to move in a very particular way.” You can’t imagine Hoolboom ever being sleepy, even when asleep. Wiry, lean, ferociously bright, he’s on all the time. “So we can see at the very beginnings of movies the urge, the drive to remake the world in its own image,” he adds. “It’s part of the politics of empire.” This critique-reflecting awe as much as fear on his part-is a mainstay concern with the multi-award winning filmmaker, who for the past ten years or more has been the Big Daddy to independent filmmaking in this city and beyond. Imitations of Life meditates on the childhood and the imagination of Hoolboom’s 10-year old nephew Jack, whom he’s been photographing for the past six years. With all its sunny images of Jack at play, Hoolboom hopes the movie-the second in a trilogy of features-will be a gift to Jack when he’s older and perhaps unhappy one day having no memory of who he once was (“We are what we forget,” goes one of his lines in the film.) Hoolboom has layered a range of overlapping themes throughout Imitations. Typically, he’s also working on not one but two novels. All of these themes merge to wonder about the world Jack’s inheriting, “where it’s impossible to make an image for the first time, just as it’s impossible to say a word for the first time. The language that we use just to make sense to one another, has words that we’ve either borrowed, stolen or copied. What we do as humans is to rearrange these stolen words to describe stolen experiences. We describe these re-arrangements as personality.

This sounds far gloomier than are either Hoolboom or Imitations of Life. Hollywood’s pervasive power may be a worry to him. But Hollywood’s also a source for many of his images. Canadian filmmaking is strangled through lack of funding he thinks. But we have a flourishing independent film scene. Cinemas for his kind of edgy, loosely narrative work doesn’t exist. But this festival is a feast. He seems as incapable as fearing the future as he is of taking a break from thinking. “As a person with AIDS and a filmmaker I’ve made a few stabs at trying to represent my experience,” he wrote about his earlier AIDS-related film, Letters From Home. Yet his representations have been consistently and thoroughly life-affirming, as is Imitations of Life, which, among other things, brings you back inside the feeling you had during summer days you spent as a kind without much to do, looking up into the bright sky, playing peek-a-boo with the sun through your closed fingers. Seeing only slivers of light, hearing only random sounds from the other kids, you had a ball imagining what it was all about.