The City of Mything Persons

Tales from the Winnipeg Film Group, directed by Kevin Nikkel and Dave Barber

The fiction connected to a myth is what makes it true. The myth attached to the Winnipeg Film Group (WFG) is that it is a magical place inside a freezing and isolated city that produces eccentric filmmakers and unique films. A selected filmography can make a case for the legitimacy of that description: John Paizs’s Crime Wave, 1985; Guy Maddin’s Tales from the Gimli Hospital, 1988; We’re Talking Vulva, 1990, by Shawna Dempsey, Lorri Millan and Tracy Traeger; Jeff Erbach’s Soft Like Me, 1996; Death By Popcorn, 2006, by atelier national du Manitoba; and Darryl Nepinak’s Indian, 2008. It is worth pointing out that scenes from 117 movies are put to work over the course of this 85-minute-long documentary. As Dempsey remarks, “No matter how insane things are at the Film Group, it still enables people to make work.”

Tales from the Winnipeg Film Group is a lively and unapologetically entertaining film that sets out to tell the ongoing history of the Winnipeg Film Group, the most successful of the film cooperatives that proliferated across Canada in the mid-1970s. Early in the film Gene Walz, a professor and filmmaker, calls the Film Group’s continued existence “a miracle” because so many things went wrong throughout the four and a half decades of its existence. Tales considers a number of those misdirections, including films that turned out to be critical disasters; questionable field production calls; the arrival of the National Film Board in Winnipeg, which drew away a number of experienced people; and divisive disagreements among the various groups who were part of the Film Group community, including filmmakers, administrators, board members and staff.

Among the films that caused problems for the organization was Walz’s own adaptation of a short story by David Arnason called The Washing Machine, 1987. “We all thought this was doomed,” Walz recalls, “because there were people who didn’t know what they were doing.” Included among those people was the cinematographer who illegally hooked up his electricity to the overhead wires in the woods off St. Anne’s Road and blew out the transformer, shutting down power to the whole neighbourhood. “It went off like a skyrocket, so we had to get the hell out of there before Winnipeg Hydro caught us.”

The first quarter of Tales from the Winnipeg Film Group is a series of intelligently strung-together sound bites from a wide range of filmmakers. Kevin Nikkel’s editing in joining them in one narrative voice is skilful; one person will begin an observation, which will be continued by someone else from a completely different interview. These smart, opinionated comments operate like mini-narratives, as if they were spoken haiku to the articulated long poem of the WFG’s history. They also provide insights into how the organization operated. Or didn’t operate. Years after the Film Group began, a pundit captured the spirit of the enterprise: “It was an un-cooperative cooperative.”

The documentary is noticeably long on anecdote and short on analysis. This is a consequence of a number of deliberate choices. It is a narrative strategy that utilizes the rich material harvested by the directors (not only did Nikkel and Dave Barber interview anyone who had any contact with the Film Group as a filmmaker, producer, board member, or cultural administrator, but they also went to figures outside of Winnipeg who are respected in the Canadian film world, including Piers Handling, the CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival; film critic and programmer Geoff Pevere; and independent experimental filmmaker Mike Hoolboom). A complicating problem for the film is the high quality of the storytellers, whom Allan Kroeker calls “a very exuberant group of individuals.” Pretty well everyone is interesting and so it was easy to let their commentary shape the story. (A voice-over narrator turns up infrequently in the film and has little impact, except when he says that “collaboration between members has bordered on the incestuous.”)

There are occasions where ideas do push through the engaging surface of the anecdotes. Bruce Duggan, a former executive director of the Film Group and the director of the ambitious but flawed political satire called Smoked Lizard Lips, 1991, suggests that the films of Paizs and Greg Hanec’s Downtime, 1985, led to a realization that “you could actually make a sustained narrative piece.” It is the first mention of any idea about the kind of film made by Film Group members. It comes at the 22-minute mark. Later, Piers Handling expresses his sense that after a boom in the ’80s, filmmaking had become risk-averse and that the funding had dried up. Whether you agree with his assessment or not, the documentary shows how risk-averse it is to ideas by shifting the “end of an era” narrative to the Film Group’s move into new offices in the Artspace building. Handling was addressing something a little weightier than moving furniture, but the film’s rapid pace for delivering information leaves no time for investigating an idea.

A less problematic issue comes up in the way that Tales uses sequences and images from other films to cover observations being made by its interview subjects. There are times when the mix is amusing and clever. Following Bob Lower’s complaint that before the Film Group started, Winnipeg practitioners “were banging at the door and trying to get people’s attention,” we actually hear a voice for the first time in the film. The woman speaking is from Havakeen Lunch, 1979, a documentary made by his wife, Elise Swerhone, and when the woman asks, “What are you doing?” the question has to do with her own circumstances. But it tidily ties into questions about the Film Group’s involvement with cultural politics, circa 1974.

There are, however, other occasions when the correspondence between image and word is pedestrian. When Sean Garrity describes how the cooperative nature of the group could become so anarchic as to seem headless, we are shown a sequence from a cartoon where a chicken’s head is blown off. When one filmmaker comments about the feeling of competition he senses after returning to Winnipeg, the Glima wrestling scene from Gimli Hospital appears on the screen. The most literal of the linking between what we’re hearing and what we see occurs when Bruce Duggan is talking disparagingly about Toronto’s self-centred myopia—“For a lot of culture in Canada unless the CN Tower touches it sometime during the day, then it doesn’t exist”—and the film cuts to a Chamber of Commerce image of the tower. It’s a Paizsian shot but without the irony.

One of the most noticeable shifts in the narrative occurs with the discussion of the presence and influence of John Paizs. Mike Hoolboom calls him “legendary” and says that the trilogy of films comprising The Three Worlds of Nick are “perfect, maybe the finest examples of the half-hour form ever made in Canadian cinema.” Greg Hanec said that seeing The Obsession of Billy Botski, 1980, made him realize that a certain level of ambition was possible, and Shereen Jerrett, one of the few women members of the Film Group, said, “John had this kind of fuck you attitude. He brought in that cocky auteur ‘we can do it’ confidence.” Guy Maddin credits Paizs’s “collage of ideas done with panache and style” as his way into filmmaking: “There’s a bit of George Kuchar in Paizs but his big influences are Walt Disney and then schlock films. He didn’t want to be influenced by prairie realism and I decided I didn’t either. At that time, it was important to have a manifesto and that manifesto was to ignore everyone else, except John, and just make my own thing.” That uncompromising vision has produced the Film Group’s most recognized figure. Noam Gonick, his friend and sometime documentarian, says that, in Maddin, “we’re stuck with a very strange alpha filmmaker, who gave us a lot of room to experiment and to value artistic innovation.”

The lineage that moves from Paizs to Maddin gives the film another narrative line to develop: the outsider city so unique that no one else gets it, especially Toronto. The infamous rejection in 1988 of Maddin’s Tales from the Gimli Hospital by the programming committee at the Festival of Festivals (now the Toronto International Film Festival) is the spark that starts the fire of Greg Klymkiw’s marketing campaign for the film that was “too cool to be premiered in Toronto.” He was responsible for distribution and he was an indefatigable promoter of Film Group films. “Part of it was creating mythologies about Winnipeg, using Hollywood chutzpah from the studio period and actually making things up,” Klymkiw says. “Here are these wackos in the middle of nowhere making films that can find themselves internationally because they are so insane.”

Pitching Winnipeg in that way was undeniably successful, but it also set a narrow definition for the kind of films made in the city. Walz calls the success in the late ’80s and early ’90s a “cratering.” It had a negative effect on the institution: “We got a bunch of imitators who weren’t as good, we got a couple of bad administrators and that almost sabotaged the Film Group.”

What the documentary argues is that film in Winnipeg turned another corner with a new crop of edgy directors who made films that were perverse and sexually transgressive. Sol Nagler, taking a page from Viennese history, calls them Winnipeg Secessionists. In Death By Popcorn, Winnipeg becomes “a shit cake of broken dreams.” One of the most bizarre of the many stories told in the film is how Jeff Erbach managed to smuggle a dead deer into a hotel for a bathtub shot and then inconspicuously moved it out again, only to be confronted by an elderly woman who felt there was something odd about the sheet-covered bundle. Matthew Rankin describes these films as “a deliberate attempt to torture the soul of the viewer.” As it turned out, the audience was able to deal with the assault and the Film Group survived. That result is embodied in Danishka Esterhazy’s shifting impression of what the Film Group offered. On her first visit “it was like a smelly old dog. It just seemed very surly and difficult to engage. Now I would say it is like a ladder.” That mixed metaphor is a classic filmgroupian device.

As the film moves towards its conclusion, the chain of short comments that was used to tell us what the Film Group was in the beginning is used to tell us what it needs to be in the future. There is a consensus that it had to move beyond being a boy’s club, that it should become more diversified by opening up to Indigenous and immigrant filmmakers, and that it should declare a new method of filmmaking, abandoning what Nagler describes as an approach focused on “the rockstar man with a camera.”

The film suggests those changes are happening and includes praise for the younger demographic of the newest members, the conscious adoption of a more poetic and hands-on aesthetic approach, and the issuing of declarations that envision a different kind of filmmaking, like the Horizontalist and Brutalist manifestos. As stated, Winnipeg Brutalism is unforgiving and very strict. It is an “urban nightmare, a cinema of winter and darkness,” and every film made under its code must include one unfaked blizzard. The message is clear: don’t put away your snow boots.

But some things remain the same. Deco Dawson argues that Winnipeg’s history “is one of inconsistencies, of things looking grainy and embracing the sprockets that show up on the side of the film, or a burnout at the end of a roll. The criticism that you’d get from a roomful of Winnipeg filmmakers is that something looks too normal.” Curtis Wiebe celebrates the exciting predicament of “being challenged by limitations”; John Kozak argues that the Film Group should always be a place “where you can make a crappy film”; Ryan McKenna is emulating Winnipeg’s community spirit of making films in Montreal where he now lives; and Caroline Monnet remembers her immediate connection to “the gritty underground scene” that she found at the Film Group.

The film gives the last words to Métis filmmaker Rhayne Vermette. “I feel that Canadian cinema is up for grabs,” she says. In each of her appearances, she has been at work making a new film by splicing together slivers and scratching negatives from old films. “So let’s be innovative, let’s be courageous.” Those words speak the same language that was being used 43 years ago when the Winnipeg Film Group was founded. The same things, differently. The myth continues.

Volume 38, Number 2

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #150, published June 2019.

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