Doc of the Day: My Winnipeg Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: My Winnipeg

Posted in Days of Docs by - May 10, 2012

 An autobiography of a man and the city he loves.

Dir. Guy Maddin, 2008, 79 min

Excepting The Juche Idea, My Winnipeg stretches the definition of a documentary further than any film I’ve watched for this blog so far (Juche Idea is outright fiction disguised as a doc). Most of the movie is archival footage or staged action that was shot specifically for it. But despite this artifice, it’s still non-fiction. This film consists of director Guy Maddin’s thoughts on his life and the city he grew up in. So what if he dresses it up with fakery? It’s like a visualized memoir.

Of course, Maddin layers in fiction with his nonfiction. He claims that Winnipeg has ten times as many sleepwalkers as the average city, which is untrue, but it conveys the way he feels about the city. The entire film, shot to look like it’s from the 1940’s, feels like a dream, and multiple anecdotes that Maddin digs up about the city’s past are so whimsical and strange that they feel like they could have sprung from a dream.

To whit: the city government staged a Nazi invasion during World War II to scare residents into buying war bonds. That actually happened. In the world Maddin conjures, Winnipeg is a city built of layers of secrets and oddness. There are secret streets, many instances of paranormal activity, and a bridge originally meant to span the Nile River, among many other things.

This oddness filtered into Maddin’s home life growing up, or at least it does the way he relates it here. He gathers actors to portray his family, including the legendary Ann Savage as his mother. Besides the offbeat nature of the memories he has these actors reenact, the viewer’s sense of balance is thrown off further by how Maddin willfully reminds you of how unreal it all is. We see Savage practicing her lines, and he mentions how dissatisfied he is with the job she does. This doc will discombobulate you utterly if you aren’t careful.

Maddin is exploring how we process memory here. The movie itself is structured as if he is dreaming all these things while sitting on a train. He’s picking apart what has happened to him to shape what he, as well as the larger culture that surrounded him during those times. He’s diving into the web that connects everything within a community, and writhing around in it, getting lost in the impossibly complicated tangles.

This is a great film. It’s funny and incredibly, sometimes awkwardly, personal. Maddin’s willingness to turn inward in his musings reveals strange Oedipal and psychosexual urges. Or maybe he’s just playing with those ideas, and winking at us. His narration, a poetic slurry of stream-of-consciousness, enraptures the audience in its lyricism. A soliloquy on how ice catalogues your footprints during the winter would work beautifully as a stand-alone piece. This could have been a tonal mess of a film, but these disparate musings, reminisces, and historical tidbits all click together wonderfully.

My Winnipeg is the kind of art film that people who don’t watch art films generally think of when they think of art films. There are even split-second title cards of words like “blasphemy!” interspersed throughout. But this isn’t an inaccessible movie at all. Even though it’s about “the coldest city on Earth,” it’s warm and pleasant and inviting. And no matter how true or untrue the film is, it’s right there in the title that this is Maddin’s Winnipeg, not an objective depiction of the city. And it transports you to that strange place in a way you can’t forget.

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Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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