From internet millions to Lana del Rey, storyteller and ESPhil-alumnus Tim van den Hoff (40) has seen it all. After a rejection from the Film Academy in Amsterdam, he chose Philosophy. By now, he is one of the few independent filmmakers in Rotterdam. We talked about his development as a filmmaker, the influence of philosophy on his work, and his acquaintance with film director Werner Herzog.
Interview by Stijn Voogt
It is the first sunny day of the year when I have an appointment with Tim at his office in Het Industriegebouw at the Goudsesingel in Rotterdam. With a voice message, he leads me through the building. Up the stairs, to the left, crossing over the balcony, through the folding doors, and then to the right. Central in the sunlit office stands a big table, and on both sides of the door two small and somewhat dark rooms. "Editing caves", Tim says. Although it may be nice that the spring arrives early this year, a filmmaker prefers to work in the dark.
When I ask Tim whether he immediately knew what to study after his time at high school, a deep breath follows. "The story is complex. When I was at high school, during the late nineties, I leaped into the midst of the so-called internethype. The possibilities of the internet were expanding rapidly, and shortly after high school I appeared to be one of the early whizzkids to surf this wave. On my eighteenth I became world champion in webdesign, when I was nineteen I became an internet millionaire, and once I turned twenty my company and I were declared bankrupt. In short, I had become the dot-com-bubble in the flesh."
With an initially successful internet company, subsequently facing an enormous depth, Tim was introduced to the mercilessness of life at an early age. Whereas investors such as ING Groep and Nationale Nederlanden were lining up for him at first, it was Tim who was left with the losses as soon as the bubble popped. The six years thereafter, he worked for a metal manufacturing company to pay for his debts. "When you are getting thrown around by life just as I did, you will automatically start to ask yourself questions. In the end, this has also brought me closer to the path of philosophy."
Between Bravado and Philosophy
This path to philosophy was not entirely new for Tim. According to him, his upbringing and his parents have had an important influence on his eventual decision to study philosophy. "At home we watched a lot of movies,and I also liked going to the theatre, a true 'VPRO-kind' one might say. In fact, I always wanted to be an actor. That is, until I found out that there is also someone who can work with actors and make them perform stories: the director.” In order to find out whether this role would suit him, Tim decided to apply for the Film Academy as soon as he had paid his internet-debts. However, he was rejected. As he did not have to think about his second choice all too long, Tim would stay in Rotterdam and start with the Bachelor Philosophy.
"At first, I thought to try my luck again at the Film Academy after my first year of Philosophy, but after a few lectures I was sold. I could not stop with philosophy anymore." After the Bachelor Philosophy, Tim would continue to study philosophy in the Master programme, completing this cum laude. "At this moment, my wife studies Psychology at the EUR. After having moved out of Lebanon a few years ago, she is currently working on a career switch. As a part of her studies, she chose to participate in ESPhil’s minor-programme First Things with courses such as Early Enlightenment and The Quest for Man. During the past lockdowns, therefore, I was again reminded of the wonderful study time I had, hearing the voices of Jos de Mul en Wiep van Bunge blaring through my living room."
Perhaps, the voice of Jos de Mul was most reminiscentary to Tim. As Jos’ student-assistant, he partook in the editorial of Destiny Domesticated (2006) and fulfilled several educational tasks. Moreover, his small job at the Philosophy Faculty yielded him one of his first assignments in film. "When Tegenlicht, a television programme from public broadcaster VPRO, was working on a topic in a similar direction as Jos in his research, I proposed to them to provide them with a few video-interviews with Jos. However, only in exchange for an internship at Tegenlicht, I said. A few days laters, I got myself a meeting." Although the internship has never been realised, Tim would still end up making it at the VPRO. Before he knew it, he was one of the editor-producers behind the programme that would later become known as the multimedia-project Metropolis.
With bravado Tim went through his student days. Under the supervision of Gijs van Oenen, Tim wrote both his Bachelor and Master Thesis, and for the latter he initially even received the opportunity for publication. "For my Master Thesis, I wrote about the so-called ‘quarter-life crisis’ – at the time, a new buzzword – in the light of the life and work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Thereon, I received an offer from a publisher, Uitgeverij Klement. After finishing my Philosophy studies and the expiration of my contract with Metropolis, however, I got stuck. I experienced great difficulty, not only with finishing the manuscript of my book, but also with making a start as an independent filmmaker." Arriving in his own ‘quarter-life’, Tim’s successes seemed to have been replaced by a few disappointments. Without the safe environment of the university, he had to look for a new path again.
Monumental Crossroads (2018)
Erik Vermunt enters the room, editor and one of Tim’s two colleagues at his company Frontaal Film. After Erik settled himself in one of the two editing caves, Tim and I talk about the time after his Philosophy studies. "Sometimes, I tell people that I move through life as Forrest Gump. Instead of logical steps of progression, my development consists of crises and breaking points." Whilst I am still processing this analogy, Tim already starts telling me his next anecdote. "Soon after my graduation, a friend of mine pointed my attention to the new music video of, the by then undiscovered, Lana del Rey. In the music video of what turned out to be the global hit Video Games, 'Super 8'-shots were inserted which I had once recorded."
So, a new unexpected turn presented itself. As a result of this, Tim gets to meet Lana del Rey, and keeps in contact with her about the potential production of a future videoclip. Instead of a video clip with the American pop star, however, Tim ends up filming and directing a series of video clips for the new album of Dutch singer Roel van Velzen. What makes Tim a philosopher at that time, is a question he asks himself more and more often. "It was not until 2014 when it all started to come together for me. I received a few big offers for commercial work, and I made a trip to the United States. Above all, I got to know Ruben (Hamelink, eds.) during the 48 Hour Film Project, and in him I found the sparring partner I had long been looking for."
Together with Ruben – still part of Frontaal Film and resident of the other editing cave – Tim travels back to the United States to research the phenomenon of ‘iconoclasm’ that was taking place in a few southern states at the time. "When I read about this, I thought: this looks like the Dutch discussion about the figure of ‘Black Pete’, but then on steroids. With slogans such as ‘it’s heritage, not hate’, I stumbled upon a cultural conflict that would only become more urgent in the years thereafter.” Entirely funding the project himself, this would become the documentary Monumental Crossroads (2018). At that moment, this was Tim’s first extended documentary. However, the question was for whom he had made it. The European market deemed the project not urgent enough, and in the United States nobody seemed to be interested in a European who would come to teach them something about their culture.
When it seems like no one wants to buy his film, Tim starts to write to universities in both the United States and the United Kingdom. He presumes that his audience might be the Anglo American academic public, and this presumption seems about right. "Especially after the murder on George Floyd and the upswing of the BLM-demonstrations, the interest for my film started to grow. Tens and hundreds of universities ended up buying options on the film as part of their educational material. Since then, I have done multiple guest lectures and Q&A’s accompanying the content of the documentary.” For the first time, two worlds meet for Tim. Both as a filmmaker, and as a philosopher, Tim seems to have found his niche.
An Acquaintance with Werner Herzog
Till this day, Tim is planning tours to give talks and lectures about his film at different universities throughout the United States. On top of that, his newly acquired audience functions as a rich source for new projects as well. Together with Princeton University, for example, he filmed a documentary about the concept of ‘resentment’, and with Sjoerd van Tuinen he developed a digital lecture series for the Bachelor course Aesthetics at ESPhil. Currently, he prepares a documentary for public broadcaster NTR about the dubious legacy of the Dutch sailor Piet Hein, a film he could not have made without the experiences has lived through so far.
Convinced of the path that Tim is currently walking, he is able to reflect on his development with ease. During a two-week Masterclass provided by his hero and inspiration, the German film director Werner Herzog, he shoots a short movie The Return of Ba'al on the former Phoenician island of Lanzarote at the end of 2021. “I was very excited to meet with Werner Herzog. Moreover, it was the environment and the history of Lanzarote where the Masterclass took place that provided me the idea to make a movie for my Lebanese wife from whom I had then just learned that she was pregnant.” It turned out to be a film full of Phoenician mythology, a style of narration clearly influenced by his mentor Herzog, and an ode to Tim’s still to be born child.
The film reflects the peace Tim has found in his work. Still an eager storyteller, and constantly looking for future opportunities, he is now able to focus on the things he wants to make. Now that he has found his niche in the form of the socially concerned documentary, I ask him what The Return of Ba'al and his meeting with Werner Herzog means for the continuation of his career. “What I like about Herzog is the way he handles ‘truth’, or as he puts it: 'facts are the truth of the accountant'. Instead of facts, he is looking for aesthetic truth. However, this approach comes together with responsibility, because such a truth can also lead to the most awful propaganda. Just like Herzog, though, I am interested in blurring the difference between fiction and documentary every now and then. Till now, I have not made any cinema-documentaries yet, but in the future I surely hope to focus on that aspect of my work as well.”