Described by Guy Maddin as a “docu-fantasia,” My Winnipeg defies categorization in its unorthodox attempt to blend fantasy with truth, fiction with fact, and the personal with the more broadly historic. It would seem that Maddin is an unlikely documentarian. Yet with My Winnipeg, commissioned by the Documentary Channel, he manipulates the structure, methods and historical veracity associated with the documentary form while also incorporating the fantastical stylizations of his previous fictional works. Maddin, who once worked in a Winnipeg archive to support his early film endeavours, appears to understand that a history which proclaims itself as anything but part fantasy is absurd. Maddin uses archival footage of Winnipeg, family photographs and staged re-enactments to compose a goodbye letter to the hometown that held him captive and captivated for over fifty years.
The director himself narrates the journey through both his childhood and the history of his hometown. The viewer is introduced to an adult Maddin, played by an alter-ego (Darcy Fehr), desperately attempting to flee the city on a train; however, the overpowering, domineering figure of his mother, played by 1940s B-movie icon Ann Savage, inhibits this exodus. Maddin, as though he were a tour guide for the city, takes the viewer through the streets, and more importantly, the back alleys of Winnipeg. He claims that Winnipeg is at times an absurd city of sleepwalkers, a city trapped within the bizarre confines of a snow globe that has lost its idyllic essence, a city which is at “the heart of the heart of the continent” but is for some reason slow to realize this.
Maddin injects his docu-fantasia with the same mode of narration and style for which he is well known. Intertitles, shadow puppets, early animation techniques, Soviet montage and baroque stylizations are all present in My Winnipeg. The objects or subjects that Maddin continually draws from are also there: the hockey and hair salons, the German expressionism co-existing with the Soviet agitprop, the influence of B-movies and 1950s melodrama, and of course, the all-seeing, all-knowing controlling mother. Not surprisingly, My Winnipeg is the director’s most personal film to date. It completes an unofficial trilogy of semi-autobiographical films, including Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) and Brand Upon the Brain! (2006). Although intensely personal, the memories that Maddin re-enacts could be viewed as almost collective. The fantasies surrounding the town’s all-girls private school, the brandishing of primitive adolescent testosterone in the change room of the public pool, and the patriotic worship of the city’s hockey heroes appear as pivotal moments in a Canadian boy’s upbringing. Even the erotic jiggle of orange Jell-O conjures up the childhood memories of multiple generations.
Key moments in Maddin’s childhood are juxtaposed with key moments in Winnipeg’s history, or at least those the director defines as key. Naturally, significant events such as the Winnipeg General Strike receive much attention. Still, it’s difficult to believe that much of the history being portrayed is even remotely true, and yet it is all backed up, albeit partly facetiously, with archival footage. Most memorable is an animation sequence showing race horses fleeing a fire coupled with archival footage of the flight’s end result. According to Maddin, the race horses became encased in a river of ice and stood as monuments to Winnipeg’s young lovers. The absurd and historical are further intermingled in depictions of the city’s 1920s séance craze, the destruction of a turn-of-the-century Winnipeg version of Coney Island’s Luna Park by a bison stampede, and a staged Nazi invasion of the city to promote the purchase of war bonds during the Second World War. With all these bizarre incidents, eventually the viewer stops questioning whether Maddin inhaled too many hairspray fumes from his Aunt Lil’s salon, and realizes that even if events didn’t happen exactly as the director suggests, they still somehow define the magic that Maddin sees in Winnipeg.
Undeniably, My Winnipeg is Maddin’s funniest film to date. The laughter the film elicits is of the guilty variety, the kind that escapes the audience against their will and which should be regretted but is not. According to writer George Toles, Maddin’s long-time collaborator, the key to creating this kind of humour is a completely deadpan delivery of dialogue, a delivery that Maddin associates with the brief period when silent filmmakers were still figuring out how to make the transition to sound and spoken dialogue. Re-enactments of dark and unsettling moments in Maddin’s family life, such as his mother’s accusation of his sister’s promiscuity or the literal sweeping of his father’s dead body under the living room rug, seem perversely laden with mirth; the same goes for tragic moments in Winnipeg’s history.
Maddin appears to link the dysfunction in his family with the dysfunction of his city. The relatively recent loss of the city’s Eaton’s department store and national-league hockey team, the Winnipeg Jets, figures heavily in the film, reminding the viewer that this is not simply a look back at long-ago decades but rather a true testament to what Maddin sees as the rapid decline of a place he has inhabited his entire life. He becomes most sombre when reflecting on the contemporary. The colour sequences of the historic Winnipeg hockey arena’s dramatic demolition betray a discernable sadness, and he is also critical of Winnipeg’s current political leaders; their inactivity and inability to preserve the uniqueness of the city is a tragedy in the filmmaker’s eyes. Although family dysfunction undoubtedly serves as a fifty-year catalyst to Maddin’s desire to escape Winnipeg, this final farewell to his hometown appears distinct from previous botched getaway attempts. The obliterating effect of a perpetual wrecking ball, an image on which Maddin frequently rests, leaves little for the director to call home, hence the return to his origins to re-enact and, certainly, reinvent his past.
My Winnipeg premiered as a Special Presentation at the thirty-second Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the Toronto-City Award for best Canadian feature film. The film then travelled throughout the international festival circuit, screening in the Tribeca Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival with Maddin providing live narration. My Winnipeg has gained wide international praise and promises to be one of the director’s most memorable works.
In the early stages of production, the film was titled Love Me, Love My Winnipeg, and truly this original title sums up how connected the director is to his birth city. It is significant that the viewer never sees Maddin accomplish his escape, and whether the film will ultimately be another unsuccessful flight remains uncertain. What is clear, however, is why so many of the director’s attempts have failed: Winnipeg is Maddin’s muse, and the film is only partly a goodbye letter – more so, it is a love letter and most importantly, a get-well-soon wish.