Only Guy Maddin would compose a surreal documentary (or more aptly, "docu-fantasia" as he calls it) on Winnipeg that is all set in the course of a narrated goodbye to the city. Forget odes and technicolor platitudes -- My Winnipeg is a self-mocking look at the cold city that lies in the heart of Canada. But it is one told with warmth -- a film that makes what would seem like a mundane documentary into a funny, charming, relatable and interesting exploration of Maddin's home.
"Winnipeg... Winnipeg... Winnipeg... Snowing, sleepwalking Winnipeg," Maddin describes, before likening the city's famous forks (the conjunction of the Assiniboine and Red rivers) to his mother's bare crotch (the lap). If you've seen his work before, you can probably imagine how this manifests on the screen. But this is only the beginning. In the shadows, mist and visual darkness, Maddin presents a laugh-heavy Winnipeg, whether you're a resident who recognizes the places on-screen and recalls the incidents he re-stages, or just someone who follows his warped and wonderful storytelling style.
My Winnipeg taps into his last film, the eerie and humorously-wonderful Brand Upon the Brain!, and merges personal experience with city history through silent film and narration. For each of TIFF's live performances, Guy will stand on-stage and perform the poetic, repetitive narration -- one that has the same tone and liveliness of Brand. The story is told within the context of a man (Guy as played by Darcy Fehr) tiredly sitting on a train, finally escaping the snowy clutches of Winnipeg. As he rides out of the city, Maddin's narration details Winnpeg's historic events, as well as recreations of his personal experiences -- right down to a faux dead father stored under the rug. These scenes are led by noir legend Ann Savage, who plays Guy's mother. Each scenario brings laughs, from the simple retelling of a daily ritual where the family tries to straighten the hall rug, to the strangely complex memory of his mother seeing beyond his sister's accident with a deer, and knowing she'd had sex.
Even when Maddin steps out of his own life and takes on quirky parts of Winnipeg's history, the mirth remains. Some of the historical scenarios seem utterly unbelievable -- especially the fire at Whittier Park, which led to a frozen lake of distressed horse heads. Others, however, tackle Canadian classics -- the fall of Eatons and the demolition of the building, Bay blankets and of course, Canada's loved sport -- hockey. Maddin describes growing up immersed in it, and sees the Winnipeg Arena as his parent. He revisits his memories while wryly commenting on the building's questionable replacement -- the MTS Centre -- which he aptly puns as "M-T" (empty).
If you're not into experimental and fantastical filmmaking, you might not like My Winnipeg, but it would be a terrible waste. Maddin has done something that is sorely lacking in documentary film -- he's used his humor to create a thoroughly funny and engaging journey that informs through entertainment, rather than verbose exposition. You won't leave with a travel book of facts, but you do get a personal feel for the strange and infamous city. Being a Maddin fan, it might seem that I am biased to his strange techniques and point of view, but the continuing, roaring laughter from those around me assured me that this is more than just a cult gem. It's a memorable blending of art, experience and history.