Sunday, December 12, 2021

My Winnipeg


My Winnipeg Poster

(2008) Written and directed by Guy Maddin; Dialogue written by George Toles; Starring: Ann Savage, Darcy Fehr and Louis Negin; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: **** 

“I had long been dreaming about my city, Winnipeg, that it didn’t seem to have a place in anyone’s mythology, not even in Winnipeggers… To me, by mythologizing, I don’t mean lying or telling the truth, or exaggerating or anything. I just meant embedding the stories of this city in emulsion, that’s all. And that to me meant, once something was in emulsion, it was mythologized.” – Guy Maddin (from 2014 interview with Robert Enright)

Guy Maddin's "Family"

What makes a documentary a documentary? Is it recording a moment in time or recollection, relying on strict adherence to facts? Or is it searching for another kind of truth? Guy Maddin’s unconventional documentary, My Winnipeg, consisting of part fact, part fabrication, is at once a love letter and condemnation of his home town, touted by the filmmaker as the coldest city on earth.* The mostly black and white film combines archival footage with modern reconstructions of events, seamlessly blending history, autobiography, and fantasy, into one poetic stew. Instead of a stuffy account of past events, filled with creaky talking head interviews, Maddin lets the imagery lead the way. The director, himself, provides the film’s droll narration, lending a sense of scope and grandeur to his city. With his authoritative, yet congenial tone, we get the sense that he’s winking at us at every turn. 

* Fun Fact #1: While Winnipeg has been known to reach some truly frigid temperatures, it’s not quite the coldest major city on earth. Those honors go to Yakutsk, in Russia.

Winnipeg Railroad Yard

A recurrent theme is the confluence of things, natural and artificial. Within the heart of Winnipeg lies a junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers known as The Forks, which he equates with his mother’s lap. Beneath these rivers, according to a First Nations myth, reside two subterranean rivers, which meet in a similar fashion. Maddin compares these junctions to the city’s great railroad yard, a transportation hub for Canada’s trains. Likewise, a complex network of unofficial back streets crisscross the city (allegedly a source of dispute among two rival taxi companies). The metaphor of worlds within worlds is taken a step further, with the Sherbrook public pool, and its three distinct levels.* 

* Fun Fact #2: According to Maddin, "In the movie, I dreamed there are actually three levels to Sherbrook Pool – that's how deeply I felt that facility rooted itself in our city's collective memory." (excerpted from 2013 Winnipeg Free Press article, “Many Woes at Sherbrook Pool,” by Jen Skerritt)

Ledge Man

In one of the film’s more audacious elements, actors portray members of Maddin’s family, notably including Ann Savage* as his elderly mother. Younger actors were cast to play Maddin’s siblings, circa 1963, so they could re-enact events embedded in his memory. Maddin’s deceased father plays a small part, albeit a silent one. In a morbidly absurd touch, he claims that his father’s body was exhumed and re-buried under the floor, now present as a lump under the rug. Even his long-dead family dog has a stand-in, played by his girlfriend’s pug, Sparky. My Winnipeg is filled with hilarious interludes, presented as fact, such as the alleged long-running television show, Ledge Man, supposedly the only show produced in Winnipeg, typified by melodrama and hammy acting. His mother (the fictional one) stars in the production, which has run for the past fifty years, talking the titular ledge man down every episode. 

* Fun Fact #3: Film noir fans may recognize Savage as Al Roberts’s (Tom Neal) surly traveling companion Vera, in Detour (1945). Her scenes were shot in Los Angeles. Sadly, it proved to be her final role, as she died from complications due to a stroke, shortly after filming.

If Day

Somehow, Maddin manages to make real events seem like fiction, and fake events appear like fact. His description of “If Day” demonstrates how a real event, from an outsider’s perspective, might look like fiction. In 1942, the city shut down for a mock invasion by the Nazis (actually thousands of Rotary Club volunteers in borrowed Hollywood costumes), to simulate their town besieged by hostile invaders. We learn that the entire charade was ultimately a ploy to sell war bonds. As an adjunct to “If Day,” Maddin opines that “What if?” becomes a driving question that preoccupies Winnipeg residents. Another story that might be true, but is too steeped in urban legend to be certain, concerns the 100-year-old Arlington Bridge, originally designed by a British firm to span the Nile River in Egypt. Allegedly built to the wrong specifications, it was sold to the city of Winnipeg for a bargain price. Maddin describes how the bridge dreams of spanning the Nile, occasionally popping a girder now and then, in petulant defiance of its adopted home. His beloved Winnipeg Arena, former home of the Winnipeg Jets, and the Maroons before them, now destined for the wrecking ball, becomes the stuff of fact and fiction. He claims to have been born in the changing room, and later served as a towel boy, admiring the players’ bodies from the visiting Soviet team. He describes an underground team of elderly ex-professional hockey players, who stage matches in the dilapidated arena. In another flight of fancy, he describes an incident, many decades ago, when a herd of horses became trapped in the icy waters of one of the rivers. Young lovers stroll through the macabre display of frozen horse heads – a weird sort of aphrodisiac, presented as a possible catalyst for the city’s baby boom. 

Strolling Among the Frozen Horse Heads

Throughout the film, an actor portraying a younger version of Maddin (Darcy Fehr) rides an imaginary train leaving town. We’re never sure if he leaves, and in the end, it doesn’t matter. The point is that wherever we go, we ultimately carry our home town with us. Instead of slavish dedication to the facts, Maddin injects artful embellishments for his tale to reach mythological proportions. It’s not quite the truth, nor is it complete fabrication, but something in between. Anyone who’s lived sufficiently long enough in their respective home town can appreciate Maddin’s My Winnipeg. It’s a playfully ambivalent relationship, born of frustration and deep affection. 


  1. Bravo!

    You managed to capture the film, which is difficult to describe without making it sound like something else (I know; I've tried) and even left my favorite bits for the viewer to discover.

    1. Thank you! It's a tricky beast to describe to anyone, but I tried my best. :)

  2. Fun fact #4) I went to college in a town less than two hours from Winnipeg. Yakutsk, Schmakutsk...I'm here to tell you that when it comes to cold, anything below -40 C is a distinction without a difference. It's just f**king cold.

    Fun Fact #5) The day you posted this, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers won their 2nd straight Grey Cup (the Canadian Football League championship). Maybe you're a good luck charm

    1. I would agree that there's probably little to no distinction between the cities, temperature-wise. If I ever visit Winnipeg, it'll be in the spring or summer. And wow, that's impressive news! I'd like to hope I had some effect. ;)

  3. I'm not familiar with My Winnipeg. Mind you, I've also never been to Winnipeg or even the province of Manitoba. So I wouldn't be able to distinguish the fact from the fantasy. Not entirely sure how I feel about that. It sounds entertaining but I do worry about the propagation of misinformation. We've got the Internet for that.

    (I realized I'm sadly behind on my Cinematic Catharsis reading. I'm, slowly, correcting that.)

    1. No worries! Glad you were able to stop by. The entire film is done in such a tongue-in-cheek manner, that I think it would be difficult to confuse this with a traditional documentary. The whole thing is basically one big wink to the audience. I haven't been to Winnipeg either, but I suspect it's at once a little bit like the city depicted in the film, and nothing like it at all.