If a viewer were to visit director Chad Terpstra’s Father The Flame website, the About page contains a lovely adaptation of the René Magritte line from “The Treachery of Images” now-reading “Ceci n’est pas un filme de pipe,” or “This is not a film about a pipe.” In a lovely way, this absolutely sums up the entire documentary. Though the tradition of handcrafting smoker’s pipes is very much a driving factor, Father The Flame is more interested in the people who continue to make them and why. We are in an era where everything is fast-paced. Information is accessible at near-instantaneous speeds, modes of transportation are escalating to include hyperloop tech enabling breakneck speeds for highway travel, and technology is becoming outdated the moment it’s purchased. Yet there remains a longing for stillness which the pipe affords, a connectedness Terpstra suggests is lost by today’s standards of living. In following world-renowned pipe maker Lee Erck, Terpstra introduces the world the global keepers of the flame.
It all begins with a flame. The embers’ red-orange glow cradled by the bowl, smoke slowly rising from within. Through the embers and smoke comes a collage of images: the past, the stars, and a hint of the cosmos. Within this small burning bowl is a history we’re all quick to ignore as we move forward in our lives, but not Terpstra. Terpstra explores the modern world of pipe making, its past, and perhaps a glimpse of its future. As otherworldly as it sounds, a notion heavily supported by frequent use of cosmic imagery, Terpstra’s approach is heavily grounded. Those whom Terpstra focuses on may be artisans,but they are always framed as individuals. In one sequence, Lee discusses the focus, the sweat, and the blood that goes into every piece he makes. In another, Lee describes his life of solitude, one of his own making, which precludes any chance of passing his knowledge along. As a father of the flame, his life is finite and his gifts end with him. Declarations like these infuse a sense of melancholic inevitability within Father The Flame.
Not all within Father The Flame is heavy-hearted, for Terpstra also ensures to present the legacy and meaning of the pipes. Through Italian briar cutter and pipe maker Romeo “Mimmo” Domenico, a sense of vitality is introduced. Mimmo is vibrant, instilling a youthful exuberance in contrast to Lee’s outwardly stoic demeanor. It’s not just that Mimmo sometimes creates alongside his wife Karin, works in close proximity to his two small children, or that he houses his father in the same home. All of these things are clear markers of difference between the two men. Unlike Lee’s self-imposed isolation, Mimmo comes to represent the legacy and commitment to an old, dying tradition, passed down from generation to generation. Having learned from his father, nicknamed Pippo, Mimmo supplies the specific wood Lee uses: seeking out the trees, using a precise method for curing and caring, as well as carving out the blocks Lee will later use to create his pieces. In comparison to Lee’s smaller, more insular workshop – a notion made clear for the audience as Lee’s workspace is the only time Terpstra’s camerawork struggles to remain invisible as it captures Lee’s process – Mimmo’s space is wide open and uncluttered. There’s vibrancy on display, not just in Mimmo’s effervescence, but in the place his crafts his pieces. Mimmo’s shop is yellow, more open, and close to his family. Lee’s is cramped, a deep blue, and isolated. These differences are significant in carrying forward Terpstra’s deeper meaning of the film. This is a notion more deeply explored when the Dannish Ivarsson family is introduced and a true legacy within the pipe making industry is explored across three generations. In these moments: the familial ones, the industry insider ones, the ones which explore the cultural meaning of the pipe, Father The Flame appears inextinguishable.
Undeniably, there is incredible artistry is on display. Throughout Father The Flame, Terpstra remains keenly focused on the why of the process moreso than the what. This means that there are times when Mimmo, Lee, and others mention specific attributes the briar wood offers without deep explanation, or identify deficiencies which are not explained. Even the type of tobacco smoked within the pipes isn’t explored by any specific means. It’s only mentioned that some makers possess a preference for how much one smokes and for what duration. As the website warns, Father The Flame isn’t a film about pipes, though they are the focus. It’s always about the people. Over the film’s 80 minutes, this one particular aspect makes the already rich experience more bountiful by creating balance between the metaphysical and function. The metaphysical, as depicted through some incredible cinematography by Terpstra pulling double-duty, is the strongest element of all. Even as the audience longs for more information about the process so as to more strongly connect with the emotional, the cinematography invokes something cosmic and eternal, pulling the audience in closer, making them want to lean in and gaze at the wonders of something larger even as the film focuses on the particularly small and delicate.
Even with a few noticeably shaky camera moments which pull the audience sharply from the narrative (a potential risk when filming documentaries as naturally as possible) and the frequent lack of outsider consideration for details, Father The Flame is an undeniable gorgeous and evocative story of culture, community, and legacy. It may not incite anyone to pick up a pipe to smoke, but the film invites a deeper examination of a craft considered unimportant or irrelevant. In this, Father The Flame’s greater message of legacy succeeds for in the memories of our children does the past survive, unforgotten. Even as the pipe makers grow older, the flame has a chance to carry on, vibrant and awash in the glow of the cosmos.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.