Macroscopy in a mortar trough

Sami van Ingen is one of the founders of the now defunct but already legendary Helsinki Film-makers’ Co-op (Helsingin Elokuvapaja). In 1989, a group of young visual artists set up a working space for non-professional but artistically ambitious film production at the former Nokia Cable Factory. Many of the films created at the Filmmakers’ Co-op represented a style that can be called neoprimitivism. They were technically crude, often black and white, silent, edited in the camera and hand-developed. Van Ingen’s debut film All Our Policemen (1987, 8 min) is a conceptual film created without a camera. According to the director, the film comments on President Reagan’s state visit in Finland. Each policeman of Finland is represented by a star-shaped hole punched directly on black film material. “The best way to identify things is to repeat them over and over”, says van Ingen from Canada. He is in Toronto presenting his experimental “pseudo-trailer” Twone (1994) in drive-in screenings organized by his colleague Philip Hoffman, and putting the finishing touches to his latest film Fokus in a local film lab.

Fokus is based on a 16mm home movie shot in India during the early 1960s by the director’s grandmother, Barbara van Ingen. The original 11-minute stretch of film portrays the spectacular Dussera procession arranged annually in the town of Mysore. Barbara van Ingen had at the time moved to India, but was still largely an outsider in her new home country. She had initially come to India in order to help her father, the famous documentary filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty with his latest production (Elephant Boy, Robert J. Flaherty & Zoltan Korda, 1937), and had subsequently settled in the country.

Mika Taanila: What is Fokus about?

Sami van Ingen: By selecting seven scenes from my grandmother’s film, deconstructing and then reconstructing them again, I have attempted to make visible elements that are not perceivable in the original footage. The fact that I have chosen material filmed by my own grandmother as the starting point for my new film is not a coincidence. It is important to understand as much as possible of the footage you manipulate. My aim was to enhance details and moods that are already present in the material, but easily escape the spectator’s attention. One of the images, for example, was so dark that you couldn’t see anything in it in a video transfer. It wasn’t until I zoomed the image all the way in a film printer that it revealed two people sitting in a dim light.

MT: Technically Fokus has been an exceptionally extensive and demanding piece to work with. You live in the heart of the province of Savo, in the village of Hankavaara in an old school building: a splendid setting for a personal working space.

SvI: The way Fokus was created is also a statement on technology. Analogue and mechanical technology and a small scale is the order of the day in my studio in Hankavaara. Everything has been made by hand using my own equipment: with an old Oxberry optical printer, by developing the films by hand in mortar troughs and rubbish cans of the darkroom and by editing with a glue splicer from the early 1920s. The resulting work can only be presented in a standardized space for film presentations, in other words, in a cinema theatre. Fokus is a film macroscopy constructed of 514 frames of a Kodachrome home movie.

Fokus is a stirring viewing experience. Its extreme minimalism is based on contrasts, textures and glowing colours. The visual language consists of highly magnified and slowed images. Surface of the film material, the film grain and other anomalies function as integral parts of the whole. Van Ingen’s exceptionally rigorous structuralist methods have produced a beautiful, emotionally touching and many-layered result. It is as close to the art of painting as cinema can possibly strive to be. Theoretical speculations are only a point of departure for the director: “I am a romantic in the sense that I believe art can also be touching and, in some way, emotional.”


Sami van Ingen: Fokus (2004, Finland, 40 min, 35mm). Premiere in Orion on Thursday, November 18th at 17.00. Screens again on Saturday, November 20th at 21.00.

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