The documentary film genre is a fascinating window into our world, focusing on a specific aspect of mankind to tell a non-fiction story to a wider audience. Documentaries can range from delving into the dusty corridors of history, shining a light into the plight of the oppressed, or painting a picture of a person, place, or hobby. No matter the topic, the documentary tells a story about reality, rather than some fantastical world or a fictional drama. For a documentary to be successful, it must tell an interesting story that captivates an audience or springs them into action.
For the past few years, pipe smokers have been waiting for their chance to watch a documentary all about their favorite hobby, called Father the Flame. While some pipe smokers grumbled about the lengthy wait they had to endure to finally watch the movie, it’s not unusual for a small passion project to take its time before being ready. Films aren’t made overnight, and given the amount of people featured in the documentary, as well as the various locations filmed all around the world; it’s understandable that Father the Flame needed time in the oven.
Now that the film is out, Father the Flame has received a somewhat mixed reaction from the wider pipe community. While I can’t speak for everyone, I think part of the reaction comes from the expectations of what a pipe documentary should be. After all, the rest of the non-smoking world views anything that has to do with smoking in a negative light. With all the criticism we face, we finally have a film that highlights what makes our hobby the tight knit community that it is. We want a film that we can show to our non-smoking friends and say, “This is why I smoke a pipe.”
In reality, Father the Flame isn’t exactly about pipe smoking. Oh, there’s plenty of pipe smoking in it, and it’s certainly celebrated; but instead of taking center stage, pipe smoking is more of a supporting role. If you go into this film thinking you’re going to learn about the history and ins and outs of the pipe smoking hobby, you’ll leave the film disappointed. There’s hardly a peep about pipe tobacco, and very little focus on your average pipe smoker.
Instead, for bettor or worse, Father the Flame focuses on the pipe maker, and more specifically the high-end artisan pipe maker. The documentary tells the story of multiple pipe carvers, mainly through the eyes of our POV character, Michigan pipe maker Lee von Erck. Other pipe carvers are also highlighted, such as Italian pipe carver Romero ‘Mimmo’ Domenico and his family, stone pipe carver Travis Erickson, and the legendary Ivarsson Danish pipe carving clan. While we have glimpses of the pipe community through pipe shows, ultimately this is Lee Erck’s story.
While this might come as a disappointment for those like me have very little to do with the artisan world, I understand why the filmmakers behind Father the Flame pursued this route. Instead of telling a broader story about our community that might struggle to connect with a wider audience, by zeroing in on Lee Erck and the artisan world, the filmmakers can tell a tight and succinct story about the craftsmanship and beauty behind a skillfully carved pipe. The non-smoking members of the wider world might sneer their noses at the many clouds of pipe smoke seen in the film, but their eyes will grow wide at the stunning close up images of a birds eye grain in a smooth briar, or the architectural wonders discovered in the grooves and nooks and crannies of a well-carved pipe. If there’s one lesson Father the Flame tells well to a broad audience, it’s that pipe carvers deserve the same respect given to a painter or sculptor.
Father the Flame tells a global story about pipes, travelling across continents to show the wide appeal and passion of pipe and pipe making. While the film mainly takes place in the United States, the filmmakers jump all around the globe, spending time in Italy, France, Japan, and Denmark. While plenty of time is spent in sawdust covered workshops, the camera ventures out into the wider world, searching for briar wood in the hills of Italy, walking through the quiet villages of Denmark and France, and experiencing the shrines in Tokyo. No matter what the setting is, though, you can be sure to see a pipe somewhere in the background.
A documentary is only as good as the people featured in the film, and thankfully Father the Flame delivers in this area in spades. Lee von Erck acts as the focus of the documentary, as we follow him from his workshop to his travels around the world. We’re given a peek behind the curtain into von Erck’s solitary life as he acts as our personal guide, explaining his carving philosophies as he works on his latest briar. Von Erck has years of carving under his belt, and yet he speaks to the audience as he would a friend, detailing everything in down to earth terms. Von Erck might as well be your next-door neighbor, welcoming us to his world as he reveals his remarkable talents. There’s humility to von Erck’s demeanor, candidly expressing his joy for his work, and yet revealing the hidden sadness of his isolated life when at home.
We’re also introduced through von Erck to the Domenico family. The Domenico’s are a pipe making family, started by elderly late patriarch Pippo and passed down to his son Mimmo and his wife Karin. Mimmo takes his role seriously as a legacy pipe maker, and has a youthful energy in producing his work. Mimmo has many hats to wear at home, balancing life as a pipe maker, father, and husband, all the while caring for his father. Mimmo isn’t alone, as his wife Karin has a knack for pipe making as well. It’s rare to see a husband and wife team of pipe carvers, but Mimmo and Karin are two of a kind, and it’s sweet watching the two interact in their workshop. While Pippo has long retired from pipe making, he’s content to sit in Mimmo’s backyard, smoking his pipe while watching the new generation continue the work he built years prior. Sadly, Pippo passed away before filming ended, but the film and Mimmo have a chance to give tribute to the late Italian pipe carver.
The Ivarsson family is disconnected from the main Von Erck/Domenico storyline, but the Danish pipe makers fit perfectly within Father the Flame’s overall message. The Ivarsson family are giants in the pipe carving world, starting with late Ivarrson patriarch Sixten. Sixten Ivarrson was an extremely influential pipe maker, having taken many a young pipe carver under his tutelage. While Sixten passed away back in 2001, Father the Flame splices in family videos of the pipe maker, allowing him to appear in the film and giving us a chance to get to know the late pipe maker on a personal level.
Though Sixten is no longer with us, his style and influence lives on through his son Lars, and granddaughter Nanna. Much of the time devoted to the Ivarsson’s is spent with Lars and Nanna reminiscing about Sixten and the profound effect he had on their lives and their eventual involvement in pipe making. Tragically, Lars passed away in 2018 before the film released, so to have these intimate moments with the late pipe carver are all the more special.
The film also spends some time in Pipestone, Minnesota with stone pipe carver Travis Erickson. Travis’s sections are much shorter compared to the rest of the subjects in the documentary, and if I’m being honest, it’s probably the weakest portion of the film. This isn’t Travis’s fault, and his section does go into the more spiritual aspects of pipe smoking with tobacco’s Native American roots. If the film was a bit longer and devoted more time to pipe smoking, it would probably tie everything together a bit more. It’s unfortunate, as there are some interesting bits here, but if it was cut from the film it wouldn’t ruin the overall narrative.
If there’s a central message found throughout Father the Flame, it’s the importance and value of legacy and passing down knowledge from the older stalwarts to the younger generation. Both themes are vital to our hobby, as seen in the proliferation of the youtube pipe community and pipe blogs in teaching the ways of pipe smoking. The pipe carvers of the old generation of Pippo and Sixten Ivarsson paved the way, learning the ins and outs of carving a briar and passing their knowledge down to their children. Yet what use is it to teach others these lessons if they’re not ready and eager to learn? Mimmo, Lars Ivarsson, and Nanna Ivarsson take the foundation of what they’ve learned from their parents and have innovated their craft. Will Mimmo’s and Nanna’s children pick up the torch for their families? Only time will tell, but if they do, they’ll have some of the best teachers to show them the way.
Legacy and family go hand in hand in Father the Flame, as seen in Mimmo’s, the Ivarsson’s, and Travis Erickson’s stories. With Lee von Erck, though, the story becomes a bit more complicated and more melancholy. Von Erck never had children, and now as he enters into his later years, he expresses regret that he never had the chance to bring up a family of his own. We see him interact with Mimmo’s family, sitting back with the whole Domenico family and enjoying their company. For von Erck, it’s a window into a different world, and one that he doesn’t have. As he watches Mimmo care for Pippo, von Erck wonders sadly what will happen to him when he reaches Pippo’s age.
Instead of looking forward, von Erck’s family story looks backwards at his relationship with his late father. Father the Flame begins with von Erck recounting the story of his father buying his first pipe at a tobacconist, and learning how to smoke it with the shop owner. It’s a wonderful story, and it hooked me right away into watching the documentary. Though von Erck’s father didn’t teach him how to carve pipes, he instead instilled a love of pipes that brought Lee to his present occupation as a talented pipe carver.
Where Father the Flame burns brightest is through the personal stories shared by Von Erck, Mimmo, the Ivarssons, and the many other pipe carvers and smokers seen throughout the film. These stories highlight why pipes are more than a fancy tool to indulge in tobacco. For many, the pipe connects people to a beloved family member, and that earthy aroma brings that person back, even for the briefest of moments. Father the Flame showcases only a few of these stories, but there’s no denying the power behind those tales.
Should you go out of your way and watch Father the Flame? In my opinion, I think you should. On it’s own, Father the Flame is a competent documentary on a niche subject that’s misunderstood by the general populace. Father the Flame highlights the best of our hobby, and shows why pipes mean so much to the people that smoke and collect them. The gorgeous cinematography shows off some beautiful briar pipes and blends them with imagery of galaxies and art in such a way that celebrates the artistic endeavors of pipe making. Father the Flame gives a face to pipe makers, making them more than just a name or brand, and fleshes them out into real and sympathetic people.
The only downside to Father the Flame is that it doesn’t do enough with the pipe smoking side of the hobby. Day after day, I read stories from my fellow pipe smokers about how they got into pipe smoking, and they speak so much about the influence of loved ones or friends, or about specific, life changing moments in time that are worth sharing. Father the Flame could’ve spent more time with people like Richard Newcombe or Sykes Wilford, or with the Chicago Pipe Show attendees. I won’t fault Father the Flame for focusing solely on pipe makers, but I would’ve appreciated more input from the average joe pipe smoker.
Regardless of my minor issues with Father the Flame, I do think it’s required viewing for the pipe world at large. If anything, how often do you get a documentary about something you’re passionate about? For that, I tip my hat in appreciation to the filmmakers behind Father the Flame, and commend them for a job well done.
I rate Father the Flame: five pipes out of a seven-day pipe set.
Focuses on interesting pipe makers
Great use of archival footage
Nice use of locations
Strong themes used
No discussion on pipe tobacco
Less about pipe smoking and more on pipe making
Not enough time spent with some interviewees
Until next time, happy puffing friends,