TORONTO—Guy Maddin has won awards at several film festivals and is considered by some international critics to be Canada’s most innovative filmmaker. After 20 years of acclaim, he can take his movies almost anywhere and be assured that he’ll be treated the same as filmmakers who are household names in their own countries. Since he has made two dozen feature-length and short films and is still far from being a famous name in this country, he doesn’t have to worry about staying grounded when he’s in Canada. It’s even less of a concern in his hometown.
“Film festivals really are evil, enchanted times,” he said in a hotel room during last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. “They are not great for anyone’s mental health. You are overstressed or over-fluffed. You really shouldn’t be as stroked as you get or as beat up at times. It is unreal. Luckily, I get to go home to Winnipeg and be real again. And Winnipeg will ground you, because everyone is a skeptic. They aren’t buying nothin’.”
Maddin gets to tell how he really feels about the city he grew up in through a docudrama called My Winnipeg that opens on Friday (July 25). The film, like most of Maddin’s movies, is shot in black and white and has a grainy look that makes even the more modern scenes seem like they come from the silent-film era.
He tells some truths (he did grow up above the family hair salon and his father was involved with Winnipeg hockey teams) and many lies (the film shows his mother starring in a TV show called Ledge Man in which her character talks the same actor out of committing suicide in every episode over the course of 50 years).
He said that the process of making the film began with the smells of the city, which awakened his memory. From there, he looked for ways to bring together his personal experiences and a history of the city in ways that would work on film, even if both drifted between fact and fantasy.
“I spent a lot of time with my dog walking through Winnipeg, and I realized there is this smell of certain things, and I had time to question why those things would matter. Those smells are connected to something even more universal, like your family or your hopes for the future. I kept surprising myself that just by daydreaming and thinking about it, I could interconnect things back to the family. So I just felt that to do a portrait of my city, I had to bring in my family and my home, and it was all vertically integrated.”
Maddin learned a lot about what he could and couldn’t do with his movie when he went looking for funding for his film from the Documentary Channel. An executive told him his original drafts didn’t fit the traditional documentary model but that if he could find a way to make it more reality-based and personal, it might work. “He wanted to make sure there was documentary-style truth in it because the initial drafts were far more fantastic and full of fiction than the end result. I didn’t know how to make a documentary, and my default position is to go autobiographical. He also told me I should narrate it, because he felt that while a professional voice might sound better, it wouldn’t be as honest as if I did it.
“I was still trying to figure out what I had made when I finished, because it is a real what-not. It’s a combination of reenactments of my family and animated sequences and actual footage. In fact, I was wondering out loud to my daughter one day. I said, ”˜Some of the journalists have been quite adversarial, saying that this is not a doc at all,’ and she said, ”˜It is a documentary, but it is not sure what its exact subject is. It is at least a documentary about you.’ I think she is right, but it is also about the city.”
It’s a city he has thought about leaving on several occasions. Thus far, he hasn’t gotten around to moving on. “I haven’t come that close, although it [leaving Winnipeg] might be right now. My daughter who lives in Toronto is making me a grandfather in a couple of weeks. I don’t have much keeping me in Winnipeg. As a filmmaker, I have the freedom to go back there any time I want. I might make a film there or in Seattle, where I made a film recently. But then I got this job at one semester a year at the University of Manitoba, so that will keep me there for a while. That and the ghosts.”