Winnipeg General Strike inspires gritty love story for the silver screen

The simmering social tensions of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike may seem an unlikely setting for a romance film — and a musical to boot — but exactly such a movie premieres in theatres across Canada this weekend.

100 years after Canada's biggest-ever labour strike, Stand! premieres in theatres

Inspired by the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, Stand! is a timeless story about people standing together to fight for what they believe in. (Eric Zachanowich)

The simmering social tensions of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike may seem an unlikely setting for a romance film — and a musical to boot — but exactly such a movie premieres in theatres across Canada this weekend.

Stand! takes place against the backdrop of the strike that shut down the city for six weeks that spring, when nearly 30,000 workers walked off the job. It tells the story of Stefan and his father Mike, who leave Ukraine for Canada and want to earn enough money to re-unite their family. Stefan falls in love with his neighbour, Rebecca, whose own family opposes the union.

Soldiers returning from the First World War, meanwhile, are angry at the lack of jobs and turn on the city's immigrant population.

The film is a musical "for those people that love musicals," said Danny Schur, the film's Winnipeg-based co-writer and co-producer. "It's just got great songs and a good story."

The film is also a metaphor for modern-day society, he says.

"What I hope people get is an eye-opener about our world today — what we're doing and saying in regards to discrimination of immigrants and discrimination of people of colour and Indigenous people and labour issues — and realize that there is huge equivalence in the past that we can learn from."

Danny Schur, co-writer and co-producer of Stand!, and one of the film's stars, Marshall Williams, in a Winnipeg alley where some of the most dramatic scenes were filmed. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Two strikers were killed and 30 injured during a protest near the end of the strike that would become known as Bloody Saturday. Its leaders may have ended up on trial, but the general strike united the labour movement, which in turn helped establish collective bargaining rights in the 1940s.

Stand! was shot where it all happened — on the streets of Winnipeg.

"Some stuff happens in this alley that definitely is important," said Marshall Williams, one of the lead actors, standing in an alley in Winnipeg's historic Exchange District.

Born in the city, Williams played football at St. Paul's High School and the University of Manitoba. He's been a model and was a contestant on Canadian Idol in 2007 and 2008.

He's best known for starring as Spencer Porter in the final season of Glee, and he was thrilled to get a lead role in Stand!

"I always knew about the 1919 General Strike but I didn't know how much of a global impact it had on getting unions started and getting that going around the world, which was a great feeling and knowing that came out of your hometown," Williams said.

Marshall Williams plays Stefan, a hard-working young man in conflict with his father (Gregg Henry). Stand! is billed as an immigrant Romeo and Juliet-like battle for love and a better future during a time of social upheaval. (Eric Zachanowich)

Stand! was inspired by the 2005 stage musical, Strike!

The idea for the movie version came during the second-last show of the initial run of Strike! American actor Jeff Goldblum was dating the Canadian actress playing the female lead and told Schur it would make a great film.

But it took almost 15 years to raise the money to make the movie, which is directed by Robert Adetuyi (Stomp the Yard) and shot by Emmy award-winning director of photography Roy Wagner. 

Schur and his team cobbled together the film's $7 million budget with help from film tax credits, as well as contributions from unions and private investors, including descendants of the businessmen who tried to crush the strike.

The Winnipeg General Strike shut down the city for six weeks in 1919, when nearly 30,000 workers walked off the job. (Eric Zachanowich)

Film critic Curtis Woloschuk gives Stand! three stars out of five for "making bold choices."

"It's a film that demonstrates ambition," said Woloschuk, who is also associate director of programming for the Vancouver International Film Festival.

"It allows us to see Canadian history and — perhaps for someone like myself — a piece of Canadian history that I was largely unfamiliar with."

Vancouver film critic Curtis Woloschuk says themes in the movie, such as the tensions around immigration, resonate with Canadian society today. (Martin Diotte/CBC)

Canadians should get out and see homegrown films, especially if they're showing in big cinemas, Woloschuk says.

Opening weekend is always crucial. Canadian films account for less than 3 per cent of total box office revenues, even in Canada, because Hollywood films dominate the market, according to Toronto Star film critic Peter Howell, president of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

"Those people whose curiosity is piqued, I think they can probably be assured that Frozen 2 is going to be there in a week's time or two week's time or three week's time," Woloschuk said, referring to the sequel to Frozen, the animated hit film.

"But if they do want to support this film it's really crucial to get out in the first few days to do so."

Stand! is premiering in Cineplex theatres across Canada this weekend. It will also be released in the U.S. and Japan.

With files from Cameron MacIntosh