Manitoba: Resilience on the Prairies

Manitoba: Resilience on the Prairies

12 mins read

The Indigenous people who dwelled on the land that we call Manitoba knew it was full of life-sustaining riches, despite the reactions from explorers that saw a seemingly barren prairie. While situated at the centre of Canada, we Manitobans are more likely to be dismissed by eastern centres of power. Despite this, or maybe because of it, artists from here have evolved a unique aesthetic and political attitude. Remoteness, extreme weather and population size contribute to our work ethic, our resolve and our creative sensibilities. Mutual accommodation with First Nations and Métis is integral to how we define and refine ourselves. Likewise, Manitobans inherit a left-wing legacy, informed by wave upon wave of immigrants fleeing their home countries for new beginnings in a region advertised to have available land, even if it was at the expense of those here first. Our mythology harkens back to seminal events like Louis Riel’s stand at Red River, the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, the suffrage movement led by Winnipegger Nelly McClung, and Elijah Harper’s opposition to the Meech Lake Accord. This is a rich heritage available for documentary filmmaking, an art form for social change.


The first factual film from Manitoba was by James Freer in 1897. Ten Years in Manitoba, a travelogue film about the Canadian Prairies, toured in the years following by the Canadian Pacific Railway. Freer, a filmmaker and farmer from Brandon, Manitoba, is arguably the first Canadian filmmaker on record.

The most notable early Winnipeg documentary was the National Film Board (NFB) short Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman (1953) by Roman Kroitor. Kroitor grew up in Winnipeg before heading east to work with the NFB. His film plays on the stereotypical Winnipeg winter, while the film’s voiceover is in the early NFB house style. It was a strong early film for Kroitor, before he and Wolf Koenig moved on to cinema verité at the end of the decade.

The next landmark documentary from Winnipeg was Main Street Soldier (1972) by Leonard Yakir. The doc is the gritty portrait of a World War II veteran struggling with alcoholism on Winnipeg’s Main Street strip. The film is important not just on account of Yakir’s use of verité, but also because it was made at all. At the time, there was no infrastructure for independent filmmakers in Manitoba.

Creation of the Winnipeg Film Group

Joining the national film co-op movement, Winnipeg filmmakers banded together in 1974 to form the Winnipeg Film Group (WFG). The group was motivated by regional autonomy and asserted its loyalty to Manitoba. The work of its enthusiastic members could not be confined to a particular genre or aesthetic, but what they shared was the attitude of independence and resilience that inspires the spirit of local filmmaking to this day. Influenced by the NFB’s Challenge for Change programme, early WFG documentaries were coloured by social realism, as seen in Havakeen Lunch (1979) by Elise Swerhone, Le Metif Enragé (1984) by Leon Johnson, and Muskeg Special (shot in 1979, released in 2007) by Gregory Zbitnew.

Arrival of the NFB

The opening of the NFB’s Winnipeg production centre in the late 1970s had a dramatic effect on the film community. Finally, there was a means to find paid work as a filmmaker. As the first generation of WFG members migrated to the NFB, they were replaced by directors such as John Paizs and, later, Guy Maddin. Select Winnipeg titles released by the NFB from these early years include Robert Lower’s MacIntyre Block (1977), Barry Lank’s Muscle (1983), Norma Bailey’s Nose and Tina (1980), John Paskievich’s Ted Baryluk’s Grocery (1982) and Elise Swerhone’s Tommy Douglas: Keeper of the Flame (1986). Robert Lower’s doc about a famous Montreal brain surgeon, Something Hidden (1981), proved that Winnipeggers could tell other peoples’ stories just as well as they could tell their own.

While the Gatekeepers Weren’t Looking

While the NFB made cautious producing decisions, something altogether different evolved at the local artist-run co-op. At the WFG, cheap equipment coupled with arts grants spawned quirky auteur-driven films unlikely to get the green light from more conservative broadcasters. Documentary filmmakers from the group took water from the same source as dramatic filmmakers Paizs and Maddin, and what followed were docs like Shereen Jarret’s Dog Stories (1992), Barry Gibson’s Question of Reality (1997), and Halya Kuchmij’s Strongest Man in the World (1980). Eventually, even Winnipeg’s alpha filmmaker Guy Maddin would produce the seminal documentary My Winnipeg (2007). In the years before cheap DV gear, the WFG was the way forward.

Opportunities and Harsh Realities

Opportunities grew, as did the local film culture. University and college programmes emerged, and Winnipeg developed another artist-run centre called Video Pool in 1983. Institutions like Film Training Manitoba, On Screen Manitoba and the National Screen Institute (NSI) emerged to support filmmakers and develop crew. Much like elsewhere, the Manitoba film tax credits came online in 1987, administered by Manitoba Film & Music. There was a boom of offshore productions, mostly movies-of-the week, taking advantage of film tax credits. For factual filmmakers, there were local opportunities through CTV’s Manitoba Moments. For more work, producers flew to Toronto for the $500 cup of coffee. The tallest trees in the forest of local production companies were Credo Group, Frantic Films, Buffalo Gals, Merit Motion Pictures and the Francophone company Rivard.

Despite these years of growth, there was a string of setbacks that should have had a more devastating effect: the departure of the Winnipeg Jets, the collapse of Credo Group, the downsizing of the NFB’s production centre to a satellite office and the closure of NSI’s annual FilmExchange Film Festival. But from these losses emerged new life. The Gimli Film FestivalWNDX Festival of Moving Image and Gimme Some Truth documentary fest were created. Filmmakers responded to counteract the psychological insecurities of these years. We celebrated Maddin’s My Winnipeg, and the filmmaker collective Atelier National du Manitoba created Death by Popcorn (2007). Both mythologised Winnipeg’s identity crisis.

Diversity & Margins

While broadcaster efforts like the WTN (now in Toronto) and the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) originated in Winnipeg, support for our diversity has deeper roots. The WFG is strategic in connecting and promoting emerging and under-represented filmmakers. First Nations artist Caroline Monnet, with her short documentaries Ikwe (2009) and Tashina (2010), is a great example. Prospects for other Métis and First Nations filmmakers have never been stronger, thanks to local programs and networking opportunities through the WFGNSI and NFB.

Just as Winnipeg itself is an outsider, so we find docs that champion stories from the margins: Janelle Wookey’s Mémère Métisse (2008); Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky’s Sundance winner Indie Game: The Movie (2012); John Paskievich’s Special Ed (2013); and this river (2016) by Erica MacPherson & Katherena Vermette.

Stories from Home

Over the last 10 years Manitoba has experienced a mini golden age of documentaries thanks to local broadcaster MTS TV’s Stories From Home. An early adopter of video on demand, the broadcaster specialises in local stories from all levels of filmmakers, producing docs that mainstream broadcasters wouldn’t touch. Like the fertile soil of the WFG, access to MTS TV funding perpetuates the tradition of experimentation, evident in Mike Maryniuk’s playful fusion of animation and documentary in Packing up the Wagon (2013) and No Cultural Value (2016), both of which premiered at Hot Docs. Broadcast opportunities like this provide crucial practice for filmmakers to develop their voice, or move from shorts to features. The dozens of docs commissioned annually foster the growth of owner-operator film companies and strengthen our local chapter of the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC).


In Jeff McKay’s 2016 documentary Call of the Forest, the central narrator explains how the health of a single tree is dependent on the diversity of the trees of the forest where it resides. This is a great metaphor for the film community that has grown in Manitoba. Our context and history make fertile ground for documentary filmmaking. It matters that Manitoba is far away from centres of power, just as the unique challenges of being from here contribute to our resilience and independent spirit. Opportunities for artists through institutions like the WFG and independent-minded broadcasters like MTS TV have a dramatic effect on our ecosystem. It also makes a difference that Guy Maddin is our most famous filmmaker, a cinematic forefather inspiring independent filmmaking.

For more stops on the POV cross Canada documentary road trip, visit: British ColumbiaAlbertaSaskatchewanOntarioQuebecAtlantic Canada, and the North.

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