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The Weirdest and Best Films in Canada Come Outta Winnipeg

The Winnipeg Film Group made the Prairie city a centre for creative filmmaking. A new documentary explains how.

Dorothy Woodend 14 Jun

Dorothy Woodend is The Tyee’s culture editor. Reach her here.

Oh Winnipeg, the city that launched the Guess Who, Neil Young and some of the weirdest damn films ever committed to celluloid.

In celebration of the Peg, The Cinematheque in Vancouver is hosting a special screening of Tales from the Winnipeg Film Group Tuesday, with directors Dave Barber and Kevin Nikkel in attendance for the film’s Vancouver premiere.

While Guy Maddin and John Paizs may be among the most-well known filmmakers of the Prairie postmodernists, there’s a legion of equally wild folk making strange and wonderful films with the support of the Winnipeg Film Group.

The group came into being in 1974 riding a wave of Canada Council funding, and cemented its place in Canadian cinema with ornery idiosyncrasy.

On the eve of the screening, The Tyee had a few questions for Dave Barber, programmer for The Winnipeg Cinematheque theatre and a cultural force all his own. The interview has been lightly edited.

The Tyee: Winnipegger Burton Cummings famously called his hometown “Negativipeg” after getting hit in the head with a beer bottle at a 7-Eleven. The event inspired filmmaker Matthew Rankin’s short of the same title, and Walter Forsberg’s film Fahrenheit 7-Eleven. Does Winnipeg have an attitude problem?

Dave Barber: Winnipeggers like to think for themselves and don’t want anyone telling them what to think, especially from Toronto.

Winnipeg has very strange contradictions in that it is the source of some of the finest, most unique independent filmmakers in Canada, as attested to in our documentary, and yet it also has a strange sense of self criticism. Some Winnipeggers feel we don’t measure up compared to other cities. For example, we once lost the Winnipeg Jets (though they moved back), which caused no end of grieving, and many famous landmarks have shut down, such as the infamous lunch bar the Wagon Wheel and Kelekis, an infamous hot dog restaurant [which closed after 81 years in business].

Progress moves slowly here. It seems like Toronto and Vancouver have buildings going up on every street corner. But the positive side is that because progress was so slow here we have some of the finest collection of historic heritage buildings in North America.

You only have to look at the recent referendum vote on whether to take down the concrete barricades at the corner of Portage and Main to see Winnipeg’s self-loathing at work. They were put up years ago so now pedestrians have to go to an underground concourse to cross the street. You can’t walk directly across the street at the most important corner in Winnipeg.

The film asserts that the character of the city, rising out of the swamp of the Red River, has played a large role in the development of its film culture. So what the heck is up with Winnipeg? Is there really too much lead in the water?

There certainly is something in the water and maybe in the snowflakes in the winter.

My observation is Winnipeggers are very resourceful. If something doesn’t exist here, Winnipeggers will band together and invent it.

Not having a lot of money, filmmakers here are forced to become inventive. Nobody illustrates this better than John Paizs and his brilliant film Crime Wave. I watched him shoot scenes for this film when the Winnipeg Film Group was based in an old historic house at 88 Adelaide St. and his working methods were a marvel of inventiveness. There is a close-up scene in the film of mafia types shaking hands. John showed up at our office one day to shoot the scene. He grabbed whoever was around and had everyone put on a white shirt and a suit jacket. But he ran out of white shirts, so he grabbed a piece of white paper and shoved it up my shirt so that it resembled a shirtsleeve. I marvel whenever I see that scene in the film, because it is a brilliant, creative solution.

Often a filmmaker will come into our offices and grab something in the corner of the room to use as a prop. Steve Loft, the Indigenous curator who is now at the Canada Council (but used to live here and work at Urban Shaman), said the great thing about Winnipeg is that you can be walking down the street and you may run into a photographer, and then five minutes later meet a painter, and within half an hour you have put together a project or a show. This doesn’t happen as easily in larger cities.

Some of Winnipeg’s cinematic aesthetic stemmed directly from isolation, poverty and not being part of the mainstream, or “removed from the centres of power,” as filmmaker Matthew Rankin puts it. Is this still the case?

I think so, though obviously there are great filmmakers in every city. Winnipeg is not a wealthy city compared to larger centres like Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, but it has a fantastically creative visual arts scene, as well as literary and music communities. The work created here is written about and respected internationally.

I don’t think having more money necessarily leads to a better film. Writer Geoff Pevere is very articulate about this in our film with his observation that it is often smaller centres, whether here or in the U.S., that create great work. The isolation, in a strange way I feel works to our advantage. Filmmakers are forced to go into their imagination to find ideas and that is the best place to develop a unique, original vision.

I was chatting with a friend the other day who told me a story about someone from New York bemoaning the fact that Guy Maddin, a filmmaker that he considered Canada’s greatest artist, wasn’t better known in his home country. Are Canadians simply not very good at celebrating or supporting their own filmmakers?

I think Guy Maddin is better known now in this country but it took many years for this to happen. When they started writing about him in New York and Paris, the media in Canada had to wake up and take notice.

In a strange way there is almost a ceiling of fame in Winnipeg. Like if you’re so good how come you still live here? Because filmmakers live here and we can often see them walk down the street it doesn’t seem special. I remember Neil Young saying to really make it he had to leave Winnipeg, as if the city wouldn’t recognize his talent if he had stayed here. But artists like Shawna Dempsey like the fact that you can do your work quietly here in Winnipeg and people won’t bother you.

I think the Canadian media, like the rest of the world, is too obsessed with celebrity, and don’t write often enough about Canadian artists. Do you really think these Hollywood films need yet another review in the Canadian media? Luckily there are many ways now to publicize like blogs and podcasts so things are changing.

Of the filmmakers featured in the documentary — Maddin, John Paizs, Ed Ackerman, Caroline Monnet, Sean Garrity, Danishka Esterhazy, Matthew Rankin — is there a single quality that unites them, other than wild eccentricity and commitment to the DIY spirit?

They are all very strong artists with a unique vision. They prize original ideas, and each has had a lot of success. What unites them is they create great work. It seems like Caroline Monnet’s career is progressing rapidly and she got her start in Winnipeg with an incredible film called Ikwe. She received support from a mentorship program at the Winnipeg Film Group called the Mosaic Project.

Danishka [Esterhazy] really likes to be considered for her own vision and moved to San Francisco to be with her partner, but I think she has moved back to Canada. She’s having fantastic success, most recently with her sci-fi thriller Level 16.

What combines them is a determined spirit to make the best creative work they can, and their work doesn’t look like films from other parts of the country.

The Winnipeg Film Group was arguably something of a boy’s club for many years. How was this changed with the next generation of filmmakers?

There are many great artists who work in both film and video here, and always have — Danielle Sturk, Heidi Phillips, Freya Olafson, Erika MacPherson. There has always been strong women’s work coming out of Winnipeg, especially in the visual arts field.

There is a new women’s collective that operates out of the Winnipeg Film Group and they take workshops and support each other. Danishka was involved in a collective before she left town. And the Indigenous filmmakers are growing by leaps and bounds. There was recently an Indigenous Film Summit here organized by Roger Boyer, Charlene Moore and Justina Neepin that I see great things in the future for.

The film co-operative movement led to the development of different film scenes across the country, but as it gets more expensive to live in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, do you foresee folks moving to Winnipeg to live cheaply and make non-commercial stuff?

Winnipeg filmmaker Leslie Supnet is very articulate about this when she says that because the rent is lower here, you can do more work. She moved back to Winnipeg from Toronto because she found that city very expensive. On the other hand, a woman came here from the U.S. once to work on films because she was excited by what she heard about the independent scene. When she discovered it was 30-below for 10 days in a row she left, saying, “You people are crazy!”

Can you please explain Salisbury House?

The “Sals” is a chain of Winnipeg fast food hamburger joints, though there are less of them spread around the city than there used to be. It is a tradition amongst some Winnipeggers to eat there. Walter Forsberg and Matt Rankin used its iconography in their films, partly because I think Burton Cummings had part ownership at one point.

And, as Burton knows too well, you can never be through with Winnipeg.

Tales from the Winnipeg Film Group will be shown Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at The Cinematheque, 1131 Howe St. in Vancouver.  [Tyee]

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