My Winnipeg

March 19, 2009


“What if I film my way out of here?”

Any film that calls itself a  “docu-fantasia” is sure to have the eyes rolling like a slot machine.  The opening of the film doesn’t assuage the fears that this is going to be indulgent, ‘art-house’ (read: student film) sludge.  A blend of black and white photos, black and white footage of a man asleep on a train with rear-screen projection in the background, and the narration that continuously repeats the word “Winnipeg” over images old maps of the city’s four rivers (called the ‘Lap’) and a woman’s bare pelvic area (don’t want to be crude) had me slouching on the couch and audibly sighing.  What a joy and a surprise to discover how the film turned out!  It is never miles away from the opening, but it does give an excellent argument in favour of art-house self-indulgence.

It should be said outright that while this film isn’t a documentary, not really anyway, it has no overt narrative.  It isn’t stream of consciousness ranting by any means.  In fact, it ismywinnipeg-4 quite the opposite; it meticulously builds its view of the city and its history with that of the filmmaker himself.  The film is a combination of footage and photographs of various eras in Winnipeg’s history intercut with re-enactments.  The director, Guy Maddin, as played by an actor, is asleep on a train heading out of the city, or perhaps dreaming of himself asleep on a train heading out of the city.  The ties to his hometown are strong, and he has always been unable to leave even though he always felt he wanted to.  “What if I film my way out of here?” he speaks in a somewhat dweeb-y voice, announcing his intentions for the film as a cathartic exercise to leave the past behind.  The narration discusses some of the re-enactments while ignoring others.  He also runs a series of “experiments” to better understand his mother by recreating episodes of his childhood with actors playing himself and his siblings, though he claims it is his actual mother playing herself (she isn’t, it’s actually film noir legend Ann Savage in her final performance).

The film continually touches back on the man asleep in the train car, with a variety of projections of the town, his mother, and his recreated memories passing in the window behind him.  Along with the family recreations, he wanders into digressions about the historical events of the city (real or imagined), his own invented mythology and folklore, as well as important buildings in his and the town’s development.  In his extraordinary recreations, he binds a seemingly random selection of events and diverse film styles with his own thoughts and experience, which are rarely explicitly stated but often implicit within the array of images hurtling at the viewer.

mywinnipeg-31Take the 1919 worker’s strike sequence as an example.  Period photographs of the masses of strikers facing off against the police force give way to the images of the newspaper reporting on the incident.  Early 20th Century European style silhouette animation is superimposed over the newspapers, evoking the socialist revolutionary aspects of the riots, which then give way to silent film recreations of the ‘bourgeoisie’ men fortifying a posh girls school to protect their daughters from the possible sexual abuse of the marauding working classes.  The narration then turns to Maddin’s experience as a three year old at the school, falling over outside the gate.  8mm footage of girls in school uniform skirts surrounding the camera recall the unspoken sexual awakening this memory has for him.  The real event becomes an idealistic revolution that turns into the personal experience in a matter of minutes.

There are more conventional sections to the film.  There is a very touching recounting of the history of the ice hockey team, the Jets, and their eventual relocation to Phoenix.  He tells of his childhood spent watching them, and how his father worked for them.  He expresses the anger over the team joining the NHL, and how that eventually ruined them.  He’s then dismayed by the city planners, whom after demolishing the old stadium replaced it with a new one too small, effectively ending Winnipeg’s hopes of having a major league hockey team again.  And all of it is tied into his relationship with his long-dead father.  Most of this is achieved with photographs, stock footage, and home video.

The film is very funny (note the scene where his sister comes home with a wrecked front fender and blood on the hood of the car, and the deductions their mother makes) as well as poignant, often in the same scene.  The film moves from brazen folklore (probably constructed by Maddin himself) about séances in city hall and horses being frozen in the river to descriptions of architectural oddities and the slow death of what he deemed to be community institutions.  In many ways, he’s using his own invention to make what is probably a rather dull town more exciting than it is, but in developing and depicting specific idiosyncrasies for Winnipeg, he creates an identifiable experience for the viewer.  The specifically personal becomes a broader theme, understandable by all.

mywinnipeg-5The anger and sadness over the city’s deterioration from what he remembered as a child, as well as the many reasons he never liked being there in the first place, are why he’s on the train, but these are the same reasons he’s felt obliged to stay so long.  And we understand where he’s coming from.  He wonders, “What if I film my way out here?” early on in the film, wanting to use the medium as catharsis to put the past to rest and move on (not to say forward).  Using the tools of creation to work out personal issues is what makes this art.  The fact that he does so in such an ingenious, affecting, and wildly entertaining way is what makes this a film.


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