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Home truths

Guy Maddin takes a dream-like tour of Winnipeg

Filmmaker Guy Maddin explores his hometown in the documentary My Winnipeg. (Carlo Allegri/Getty Images) Filmmaker Guy Maddin explores his hometown in the documentary My Winnipeg. (Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)

Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin is an unlikely documentarian. Prairie fabulist, extravagant stylist, ardent devotee of the arcane and the tremblingly neurotic, he has always defied standard genre categories. When Maddin agreed to make a film about his hometown for The Documentary Channel, it became what he calls a “docu-fantasia,” a potent, highly personal blend of fact and fiction. My Winnipeg is a hypnotic vision of a dreamy burg trapped in eternal winter and heavy, hibernating passivity. Shot in gauzy black and white, and as odd and insulated as his fictional features (The Saddest Music in the World, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, Careful), the whole thing could be set inside a snow globe.

The original title was Love Me, Love My Winnipeg, once the town’s chippy civic slogan, and Maddin’s agonized affection for his metropolitan muse comes through. “But it could be subtitled A Self-Destructive Sulk,” suggests the 51-year-old filmmaker, on the phone with CBCNews.ca from his cottage near Gimli. In the introductory scenes, the narrator, voiced by Maddin himself, imagines leaving Winnipeg forever, while a Maddin stand-in, played by actor Darcy Fehr, dozes on a night train. Maddin wants to make one last tour of Winnipeg’s curious history and geography before making a determined break for the city limits. “I must leave it. I must leave it. I must leave it now,” he chants to the rhythm of the rails, while inter-titles urgently flash, “How to Escape?”

The movie is partly an examination of the psychological paralysis that has kept Maddin in town long after many Winnipeggers assumed he would have hightailed it for Toronto, if not for Hollywood. In Manitoba, he is sometimes underappreciated, and frequently underemployed. Out in the wide world, he’s a welcome regular at TIFF, the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Telluride film fest, the blue-eyed darling of the Village Voice critics. 

“What if I film my way out of here?” ponders Maddin in the film's narration. And in this hybrid of civic myth and fevered Freudian autobiography, he gives it one hell of a try.  

During the interview, Maddin suggests that “Canadians are petrified by myth. We make our historical figures smaller than life.” The film combines archival footage with jolly, woolly, snowy, speculative re-enactments. “My working definition of myth includes the real and the not real mixed together,” says Maddin. “It’s all true as long as it helps us get at what’s happened and what could happen.” Unfazed by what literalists might think, Maddin jokes that he’s had the script “vetted by a team of poetic lawyers.”

Maddin superimposes his cinematic obsessions onto his civic narrative. Winnipeg is a city where historical eras are stacked up on top of each other, so it makes sense to tell its story in a montage of Soviet propaganda (Citizen Girl, a sort of a proletarian pin-up, flies around righting social wrongs), German Expressionist dance film and throbbing ’50s melodrama. With all these layers, even old-time Winnipeggers will have a hard time sorting out Maddin’s revisions. (Was the Happyland amusement park really flattened by a bison stampede?) What outsiders might think is impossible to say. “My dream is to show this film at the Berlin Film Festival and have hundreds of Germans watching it as a travelogue of Winnipeg,” says Maddin.

Maddin's documentary is built on myths and memories. (Jody Shapiro/The Documentary Channel)
Maddin's documentary is built on myths and memories. (Jody Shapiro/The Documentary Channel)

As Maddin narrates, his camera digs for hidden histories, with footage of the Masonic messages built into the architecture of the provincial legislative buildings; or still photos of the ectoplasmic seances that gripped the city in the 1920s. He gives erotic dimensions to the 1919 General Strike (in silhouetted animation re-enactments, the chaste girls at St. Mary’s Academy eye those work-hardened Bolshevists). He even makes explicit political points: In a rare comment on the contemporary scene, Maddin mourns the loss of the Eaton’s building and curses what he perceives as the bland, blind mediocrity of Winnipeg city leaders.

The film mines the poetic in the mundane, whether it’s the city’s mysterious labyrinth of back lanes or the orange Jell-O at the The Bay’s Paddlewheel restaurant. Always, Maddin  envisions the city as snowy, drifting, somnolent, stupefied by nostalgia. “Winnipeg has 10 times the sleepwalking rate of any other city in the world,” the narrator claims authoritatively, a statement clearly more metaphorical than statistical.

Maddin’s mental map of Winnipeg gradually turns into charged psychosexual terrain, charting the filmmaker’s early life from the “gynocracy” of his mother’s Ellice Avenue beauty shop to the steamy male bonding of the Winnipeg Arena, where his father worked for the Winnipeg Maroons hockey team.  

Footage from old home movies leads into a section in which Maddin hires actors to play his siblings, circa 1963. He then directs deadpan re-enactments of key emotional episodes. The narrator pretends that his looming mother stands in for herself, but she’s actually played by the 86-year-old Ann Savage, a 1940s B-movie bad girl and cult fave. (“An actress who would have scared the pants off Bette Davis,” Maddin says about her.)

Maddin has always flirted with dysfunctional family dynamics — Cowards Bend the Knee and Brand Upon the Brain! are packed with odd couplings and blurred boundaries — but My Winnipeg tackles these issues straight-on (or as straight-on as Maddin gets). “I haven’t faced telling my siblings I hired look-alike actors to play them,” he admits. “I’m concerned about the consequences, but I felt like I had to do it.”

Maddin will be in Toronto to perform live narration for the film’s premiere on Sept. 7, but the TIFF showing might not be a representative reading of the out-of-town reception.“The tricky thing is that Toronto has so many displaced Winnipeggers,” says Maddin. “The litmus test will be when the Clifford’s sign flashes on screen [the logo of a Portage Avenue dress shop famed for its cheesy ‘70s commercials]. I’ll get my Winnipeg head count then.”

So, is Maddin about to join those exiled Winnipeggers? Has he managed to escape? He hopes to establish a base in Toronto. (His daughter Jilian, who lives there, is pregnant, and Maddin wants “to do the Sunday dinner thing.”) But he also has an ongoing teaching gig in the film studies program at the University of Manitoba that should keep him tied to his hometown for at least part of every year.

“I don’t know if you can get out of Winnipeg,” Maddin finally concedes. “The trains don’t go out. They just loop around the Perimeter and come back.”

My Winnipeg screens Sept. 7, 9 and 15 at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Alison Gillmor is a Winnipeg-based writer.

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