People can be extremely protective about the definition of a documentary. There are some purist that insist that the only real documentaries are cinema vérité, where the camera is a mere fly on the wall and the directors do absolutely nothing to obstruct real life from happening. Of course people have been testing that definition for nearly 100 years. Robert Flaherty is famous for casting actors and staging the action, yet his documentaries like Nanook of the North and Man of Aran are seen as revolutionary.
While many have stayed true to the essence of the documentary, the envelope has continually been pushed over the years. Errol Morris broke a major rule by actually reconstructing real events for The Thin Blue Line. Today the definition of a documentary has been stretched even further. With My Winnipeg, Guy Maddin did not so much as push the envelope, but tore it up into little pieces, ate it up, and regurgitated it. And it is magnificent.
First, let me get a disclaimer out of the way. Guy Maddin is not for everyone. I had seen two of his films previously, The Heart of the World and The Saddest Music in the World. In both I recognized the talented craft of a filmmaker who had studied his film history, especially black and white silent film. These films were a mixture of silent film with David Lynch. I preferred “Heart” over “Saddest”, respected both and loved neither. They were intriguing experiments and not much more. Despite the accolades, I skipped My Winnipeg until now.
Another disclaimer, I love documentary and could care less about the purity. I love Flaherty, especially Morris, Steve James, Berlinger & Sinofsky (R.I.P.), and everyone in between. If someone wants to experiment with form in order to make a point, whether for the purpose of art or revealing a truth, then I say go for it. One of my favorite documentaries of the last several years is Exit Through the Gift Shop, which may be a complete farce. It has some truths, because it talks about graffiti artists whose work exists, but we ultimately do not know what is truthful. We may be the subjects just as much as those on screen. The same could be said with Guy Maddin’s documentary.
My Winnipeg is both a love letter and hate letter to Maddin’s home town. Ultimately it is a little bit of both. He loves the uniqueness, the absurdity, yet hates the cold, the monotony, and how it reminds him of the symbolism of his childhood, such as the furs, the forks, and the lap. Don’t worry if that last sentence doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make too much sense in the film either.
The film is rooted in Maddin’s own life. He recreates his childhood using actors to play his mother, his dead brother, and even his dog. They stage much of it at his recreated childhood home at 800 Ellis. Since his father died, they pretend that his body was exhumed and buried in the living room.
Maddin provides the narration, which begins with him riding a train through Winnipeg, and the voice is his own reflection of the city. As he narrates in his monotone voice, he intersperses archival footage, maps, quick shots of furs, laps and forks, with scenes of him trying to stay awake on the train. In this manner, the style is similar to the other Maddin films, with nods to silent films (weird title cards), quick dissolves between different types of footage, grainy film, shaky camera work, and the scenes cut back and forth from the train to his home, to the stories of his childhood and of the city. This is not like any other documentary.
It is immediately apparent that Maddin is playing with the truth, not just of his own life, but the entire city. He states some facts, one of which is that Winnipeg has 10x the sleepwalking rate of any other city. Of course that cannot be true. How is it even measurable? Yet this “fact” plays into his train-riding reflections of the city that in many respects resembles a dream world. He also claims that Winnipeg is the coldest city in North America. This is partially true depending on how you measure. It is the coldest large city. There are a few towns in Nunavut that would blow Winnipeg doors off. Maddin’s intention, however, it is not presenting an absolutely factual representation of the city. How much fun would that be anyway?
As he ventures away from his own history, he looks deeper into the city. “Winnipeg!” he says, as he introduces another absurdity, like not being allowed to keep any old signage. All the old signage is kept in the signage graveyard. He talks about a TV show called Ledgeman, where every episode has someone standing at the edge of a ledge, and every show ends with a suicide. Is that real? You can easily Google it to find out. If not real, then what is Maddin trying to say about his city? The TV show is not real, and I think this is part of the hate letter to his city, the fact that people would be entertained by people leaving their city in one of the most gruesome ways imaginable.
There are other tidbits of “facts,” some more absurd than the last. He talks about the MTS Centre, or the MT Centre with the S flickering on and off so that it really says “empty center.” This was the hockey arena, but has become a betrayal because Winnipeg’s market could not sustain an NHL hockey team, so it was demolished yet stilled fielded a team called “The Black Tuesdays” that consisted of former players aged 70 or older, who played hockey amid the wreckage, sometimes with the wrecking ball actively destroying the arena. Maddin also claims that he was born and raised in the Centre. He was nursed in the wives room, and loaned out to visiting teams as a stick boy.
Some of the above paragraph is true, some embellished, and some outright lies.
Finally we get to the horses, the lovely and beautiful horses. I am not going to delve into this story because it is such a terrific scene and needs to be seen without description. This scene also has a little bit of truth, a little bit of embellishment, and of course, some lies.
Some events seem to be absurdist revisionist history, but are absolutely true. That’s part of what is gorgeous about this documentary. Not only is it engaging and fascinating, but it is a mystery. One could spend hours trying to fact check the documentary, and some probably have, and still could not tell the entire truth from the lies.
There is one telling line near the beginning of the film. “Everything that happens in Winnipeg is a euphemism.” Of course this is not literally true. Plenty of true things happen every day. Perhaps everything that happens in My Winnipeg is a euphemism.
Sometimes strange is truthier than fiction. I loved this movie.
Film Rating: 9/10
Cine-Essays: These are a series of short essays that Maddin refers to as little “points” that when finished point by point, will encompass Winnipeg. The topics are puberty, colours, elms, and cold. They are, very much like the film, indescribable and inexplicable, but just as much fun.
Guy Maddin and Robert Enright – This is a 52 minute conversation from 2014. He talks about the evolution of the project, and of course, about the factuality of the piece.
The documentary was commissions by Michael Burns for the Documentary Channel. Maddin was fascinated by trains and wanted to use this as the basis to show that Winnipeg is the “frozen hellhole” that we know it is.
He describes the mythologizing as “embedding the stories in emulsion.” It has been called Auto-Fantasia. The debate whether something is really documentary was mostly settled. He cites Herzog who presented “ecstatic truth.” Truth uninhibited is different than truth exaggerated, and that’s how he feels about My Winnipeg.
Even history is flawed because it is the victor’s viewpoint. If they look at the other side, it gets romanticized.
He cites influences, notably Chris Marker, although he does not want to compare himself to Marker. He was also inspired by Fellini’s I Vitelloni. He also references Detour because he cast leading lady Ann Savage as his mother. He does not make the connection, but one could connect the unreliable narrator of Detour with Maddin himself in My Winnipeg. He may be the least reliable narrator in any film.
Of course he does talk about which parts are real and fake, yet in a playful manner. He jokes that he would always get asked the same questions at festivals and screenings, so he challenged himself to always give a different answer. He does tell of some things that were real and embellished, but you can tell that he is answering carefully and could be giving different answers. Even as an interview subject, he is not the most reliable narrator.
”My Winnipeg:” Live in Toronto – This bit shows a screening at the Royal Cinema in Toronto with Maddin providing live narration. He felt nervous. He was told it is normal to feel terrible before and great during. He was surprised how he got big laughter during certain scenes.
Spanky: To the Pier and Back (2008)
This is a film about his dog Spanky, the same one he used as a replacement in the film for his childhood dog. Sadly, this turned out to be his last walk with the dog, as he died shortly afterword. What’s odd is that Maddin calls it an artless film, but I have to call him out on that statement. This is the most interesting dog walk to a pier and back that I’ve seen. Like his feature films, he uses a lot of quick cuts, and frenetic, sweeping camera motions. 8/10
This is a film that would be incomprehensible without the intro. Maddin was angry about some political, racist issues in Canada. Bryan Sinclair was an Indian, but had a treatable condition and was in the hospital, only to be found dead later. This film is the perspective of Sinclair in the waiting room. 5/10
Only Dream Things, 2012
This was developed for the Winnipeg Art Creative. He recreated the bedroom where he lived and used sounds that he remembers. The movie was dreamlike, with the typical Maddin style, only in color. The dreams themselves are more vivid, alternates between foggy dream state. In a way this film reminded me of someone who goes crazy with Photoshop filters or Instagram. 3/10
The Hall Runner, 2014 – This was one he was hoping to make into a feature but he did not get it off the ground. The film follows hall runner rugs with Maddin narrating. 5/10
Louis Riel for Dinner, 2014
Riel was a politician, and one of the founders of Manitoba. This was an animated short in which Louis Riel was a duck that could not be eaten. This one cannot be described and must be seen, and is probably my favorite short on the disc. 8/10
This was a treasure trove of riches and a nice, recent discovery for me. I expect this will be one of my favorite releases by the end of the year.
Criterion Rating: 9.5/10