Tales from the Winnipeg Film Group
(Canada, 80 min.)
Dir. Kevin Nikkel and Dave Barber
When the delirious, gnarled tale of Canada’s quixotic film history is properly told, much of its telling should be devoted to the film co-operative movement that swept across the country in the mid-1970s. From St. John’s to Vancouver, local collectives of people wanting to get their hands on the apparatus of cinema would come to embody the independent DIY collaborative spirit of Canadian cinematic expression. This movement also established essential training grounds and creative hothouse environments for some of the most important film artists in our history. Put simply, contemporary Canadian cinema is unimaginable without film co-operatives. Surprisingly, there is a paucity of material, scholarly or otherwise, on these organizations and the crucial roles they played in the development of Canadian films and filmmakers.
Thankfully, that absence has been at least partially addressed in a recent feature documentary about the Winnipeg Film Group, arguably the most famous co-op of them all. Tales From The Winnipeg Film Group, directed by Kevin Nikkel and Dave Barber, offers an engaging and richly illuminating history of the Group over its more than four decades of tumultuous existence. It chronicles the co-op’s astonishing evolution since its founding in 1974, which happened immediately in the wake of the Canadian Film Symposium discussions that prompted the Canada Council of the Arts, spearheaded by Françoyse Picard, to fund local artist-run film production centres across Canada. Since then, the range of work created by the Winnipeg Film Group filmmakers (generously presented in dozens of excerpts in the documentary) is prolific, whether in animation, documentary, short drama, feature drama, or experimental modes.
Nikkel and Barber trace the Group’s history from its first work, Rabbit Pie (dir. Alan Kroeker, 1975) up to The Goose (dir. Mike Maryniuk, 2017), weaving excerpts and interviews with filmmakers, all of whom stress the importance of the co-op enabling them to create, experiment, fail, try again and, as Samuel Beckett writes, ‘fail better’ in the process of what Guy Maddin calls “…the foolhardy dream of becoming a filmmaker.” Along the way there are several low-budget feature films produced (some very successful; some not at all), markedly increased film festival participation by the Group’s successive generations of talented filmmakers, considerable media attention, the emergence of Maddin as an international arthouse cinema star, and, internally, often divisive debates at the staff and board levels about the direction of the organization itself. Moreover, there are acknowledgements and critiques of the Group’s predominantly white and male culture, which has recently shifted to include a far more diverse membership of women, visible minorities, and indigenous artists. To its credit, Tales also does not conceal contentiousness, chaos, and competitiveness within the organization over the decades; this contributes to the richness of its portrait of the Group as a creative collective fuelled by varying degrees of ambition and imagination.
What ambition! What imagination! Many of the films that have come out of the Winnipeg Film Group are some of Canadian cinema’s most daring and formally freewheeling. As many filmmakers note, the Group enabled them to dream, invent, and play with the medium, given that there was no sense of filmmaking as a commercial enterprise. Commercial filmmaking happened elsewhere, not in remote, isolated Winnipeg. As Matthew Rankin observes, the Group ethos was very much about “…making art removed from the centres of power.” Whatever the explanation, from the early 1980s onward Winnipeg Film Group films distinguished themselves as eccentric, adventurous, fearlessly hybridized cinematic excursions into the realms of psychological obsession, anarchic humour, absurdism, and irrational passion. Described famously by Toronto critic Geoff Pevere (who also appears in Tales) as “prairie postmodernism,” the films of the Group gathered to form, as Mike Hoolboom states metaphorically, “…a perfume that drifted across the country.” From Alan Kroeker to John Kozak; from John Paizs to Jeffrey Erbach; from Guy Maddin to Deco Dawson; from Shereen Jerrett to Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan; from Noam Gonick to Leslie Supnet; from Sol Nagler to Rhayne Vermette: the filmography of the Group is bold, strange, heterogenous, and decidedly distinctive. More importantly, collectively this work constitutes a history of the Winnipeg imagination, a cinematic phantasmagoria of pragmatism and fabulism, defiance and humility, pride and self-abnegation, blindness and vision.
With Tales From The Winnipeg Film Group, Kevin Nikkel and Dave Barber have produced a valuable chronological record of a prolific and internationally influential Canadian production centre that redefined the very meaning of ‘centre,’ at least as it is understood in Canadian moving image sphere. Far from Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, the Winnipeg Film Group spoke in its own inventive, eccentric, subversive film language. Beyond the example of this remarkable co-op, Nikkel and Barber’s film also registers the extraordinary contributions of such organizations to the development of Canadian cinema generally. The decentralization and democratization of film production at co-operatives across the country has created, in just under five decades, not only some of the most significant films and filmmakers in Canada, but also a vast, flickering history of the idiosyncratic Canadian cinematic imagination. In that sense, let’s hope that more films about Canada’s other impressive film co-operatives will be forthcoming.
Tales from the Winnipeg Film Group screens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on Wed, Feb. 27.