Special Ed, an incredible new film by John Paskievich, could be the noted Winnipeg documentarian’s best work yet. That’s partly because of Paskievich’s insight, empathy and endlessly patient eye (which we’ve seen in Ted Baryluk’s Grocery, If Only I Were an Indian, The Gypsies of Svinia and Unspeakable). But this kooky fight-the-system saga also gets a boost from some true-life plot turns that you couldn’t possibly script.
Paskievich set out to make a doc about fellow Winnipeg filmmaker Ed Ackerman, a creative, eccentric guy who’s best known for Primiti Too Taa, a perfect little 1988 animated short.
Ed is planning to revisit an unfinished decades-old project at the National Film Board when he gets sidetracked into a quixotic quest to save three dilapidated houses in Winnipeg’s core. Paskievich’s three-year record of Ed’s impossible dream combines shades of the mythological Sisyphus and the biblical Job with a whole heap of slapstick comedy.
This is a fascinating character study of a man in the grip of a fixed idea. Ed’s attempt to rehabilitate his houses—using salvaged materials, hair-raisingly haphazard DIY, and what seems to be a never-ending timeline—might not quite qualify as a magnificent obsession. But it is magnificently weird.
Special Ed is kind of A Portrait of the Artist as a Hopeless Renovator, with crazy montages of planks breaking and windows smashing and things falling over. Paskeivich never comments directly, but the film seems to strongly suggest that inspired amateurism just isn’t enough when you’re dealing with failing foundations and basements filling with water.
Still, Ed is interesting company, whether he’s dragging a giant steel I-beam behind his truck, digging a well in his backyard or running for parliament. He’s a champion procrastinator, an inveterate collector of odd objects, and a natural—though possibly deluded—optimist. Paskievich gets in close enough to craft an intimate portrayal, but he also allows enough room to let Ed’s words and actions speak for themselves.
At one point, Ed reels off a list of organizations with which he’s currently feuding: Manitoba Hydro, Manitoba Telephone System, the City of Winnipeg, Revenue Canada, the Winnipeg Police Service. Viewers can decide for themselves whether he’s an irritating crank or an irresistible dreamer, whether his constant windmill-tilting is admirable idealism or sheer crazed contrarianism. Maybe Ed is fighting the good fight. Or maybe—as the film’s wry tagline suggests (“A problem for every solution”)—he has reached the point where he just likes to fight.
Even though some sequences play as farce, there’s a pervasive underlying sadness to the film. Ed declares that he wants to fix these houses to leave an inheritance for his three now-adult children, whom he didn’t see much when they were growing up.
As he talks more about embittered ex-wives and lost kids, it becomes clear that the physical renovation of these structures is some kind of attempt to reclaim, maybe even redeem his emotional past. It makes it more difficult that everything Ed does is shadowed by the City’s threats to demolish what it views as derelict buildings.
You might already know what will happen when the film reaches its ending. That doesn’t really matter: On the way there, Special Ed is hilariously funny, deeply melancholy and absolutely unforgettable.
After premiering at Toronto’s Hot Docs, Special Ed makes its Winnipeg debut at Cinematheque (October 17-19 at 7:00 p.m., October 20 at 2:00 p.m. and October 23 at 7:00 p.m.)
Hear Alison Gillmor on Up to Speed Wednesday October 16 at 4:40 p.m.