Over the past three decades, Toronto's Mike Hoolboom has quietly become one of the most unique and respected experimental filmmakers in Canada, having created more than 50 films and videos that have garnered 30 awards at festivals around the world. A true artist, Hoolboom pushes creative boundaries by refusing to create films that tell us what to think and feel -- instead, he wants viewers to have their own unique experiences.
Hoolboom's film Positiv (1998), the first of his six-part Panic Bodies, explores the dramatic and unsettling impact of HIV on his identity, his body and his relationships with friends and family. In the top quarter of a four-way split screen, Hoolboom's handsome face delivers a personal, unsentimental and often witty monologue about HIV, while a montage of intriguing and disorienting images in the remaining three screens symbolically and seamlessly reinforce his perspective. He begins by explaining how he no longer feels at home in his own body: "The yeast in my mouth is so bad it turns all my favourite foods, even chocolate-chocolate-chip ice cream, into a dull metallic taste, like licking a crowbar," he says, staring directly at the camera. "I know then that my body -- my real body -- is somewhere else, bungee jumping into mine shafts stuffed with chocolate wafers and whipped cream and blueberry pie and just having a good time, you know?"
I had the opportunity to talk to Mike about the making of this short film.
Jennifer McPhee: In Positiv, you let the audience in on what it's like to have HIV. What did you want to accomplish with this film?
Mike Hoolboom: Positiv was made a couple of years after the combination of anti-HIV drugs we called the cocktail arrived. It was part of the "afterlife" -- the time I was never supposed to have. I had set every watch, reoriented every compass, staked every bet on the endgame -- and watched with my doctors the steady decline of my T4 cells. The march toward the end was measurable, quantifiable, almost reliable. I had a year left, maybe less, when the new [anti-HIV] drugs arrived. With them came a strange new set of disappointments: How could I forgive myself for outliving the contracted moment, particularly when so many others were dying simply because they were born in the wrong country? I had prepared so thoroughly and for so long for my death that I didn't know how to receive the unwanted gift of more and more time. I think the movie is a kind of grieving for the death I didn't have -- though others might not read it that way.
Hoolboom's new film, Buffalo Death Mask (2013), takes viewers back to a moment, before antiretroviral therapy (ART) became available, when being HIV positive meant certain death. The movie opens to beautiful haunting music and the grainy black-and-white image of a death mask (a cast of a person's face following death). Seconds later, a gray human face that resembles the mask appears, alive now and looking at the camera. A conversation begins between Hoolboom and artist Stephen Andrews (both men were diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s). While the two men open up to each other about their shared experience of almost dying, hazy light-drenched images appear onscreen. Andrews (who appeared on the cover of the Summer 2012 Positive Side) says: "I hadn't anticipated the difficulty of coming back from the brink. It took me three or four years to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. How do you start again from below zero?"
Jennifer McPhee: With Buffalo Death Mask, what did you want people to understand about those years before ART?
Mike Hoolboom: I had chanced across a roll of film exposed many years ago, showing a meeting of three friends in a small Buffalo apartment. When I slowed down the footage, I saw that light came from within their bodies, instead of falling onto them. This was something I had learned to see in the pre-cocktail years of being positive. Of course, I wasn't alone in this -- many others opened their eyes in exactly the same way, at exactly the same time, like genius Canadian painter Stephen Andrews. He might have shot these figures himself, because that way of seeing glowing, luminescent bodies resides in his paintings, too. I can imagine that Stephen would put it differently, but that's the cover story I'm offering today. There is a light the body gives off when it's dying, and perhaps you can only see it when you're dying, or at least when you're dying you feel it in a very particular way. Everything is fading and aging and moving toward death, and this is carried in a particular kind of light. I wanted to show people what this looks like.
Jennifer McPhee: In this latest film of yours, Stephen Andrews describes what was a common experience for HIV-positive people back then -- watching a beloved partner die -- yet your interview with Andrews is often humorous.
Mike Hoolboom: Stephen is very funny! He could make a brick wall convulse with laughter. We touch upon some difficult moments, including the death of his partner Alex Wilson, who he had been with for 15 years. We talk about getting shingles, and nearly dying, and resenting others who are dying but not as fast as you are, and the whole while we are laughing our faces off. The laughing makes it possible to hold these stories, don't you find? Despair and depression are also popular options, but there was so much death at that time that we needed to blend up emotional cocktails along with the pharmaceutical ones, and these often included healthy doses of denial, deferral and gut-shaking laughter.
Jennifer McPhee: You started filmmaking at the age of 20. What did you love about making movies back then?
Mike Hoolboom: Movies offered a single irresistible promise: taking the place of the life I was too afraid to have.
Jennifer McPhee: Have your reasons for making films changed?
Mike Hoolboom: I've made movies for more than three decades now, though it is a medium for which I am particularly ill-suited. I am technically inept in a medium that still values some degree of machine esperanto. And my method is fundamentally unsound: I start at the edges, slowly filling in the frame from the corners until at last the outline of a figure is revealed at the heart of the matter. This requires a lot of time, and getting lost, and taking strange turns and tangents. So much is thrown away. It's very inefficient, and often what is revealed is so congested and mysterious that it is unreadable to anyone but my most cherished familiars. Or is it all right to make pictures for two or three friends? It makes me wonder, how many faces does it take to create an audience?
Jennifer McPhee is a freelance writer who contributes regularly to The Positive Side.