You may have never heard of Guy Maddin. He’s one of those filmmakers who has crept round the edges of the establishment for years, delighting audiences at film festivals and building a sophisticated cult following. Heavily influenced by the filmmaking techniques of the 1920’s and 1930’s, his work is dreamy poetry, touching sensuous melodrama that’s quirky, humorous and utterly absorbing. His early work includes short films like The Pomps of Satan – about a crippled spinster who gambles herself away to a fried chicken trader, and his first feature Tales from Gimli Hospital – a surrealist drama that floats between the present, the past, and the legends behind a small Canadian town and its original Icelandic settlers.
My Winnipeg – as the title suggests – is Maddin’s most personal project to date – and his most accessible work – a dreamumentary (or “docufantasia” as Maddin himself calls it) about his own childhood and his endearing fascination with the cold northern town where he grew up and still lives. In it he explores the ancient and recent history of the town, trying to understand why it’s impossible to leave, why its inhabitants are so sleepy, and recreating his own childhood with actors he hires and rehearses to play key events in his own life – searching for clues about his own obsession with the town. In the voice-over narration – from Maddin himself – he muses “what if I film my way out of here?” He tries hard – but the forces of his own imagination seem stacked against him.
In an interview, Maddin – a youngest child with three much older siblings and ageing parents – explained some of the obsessions behind the film. “My parents were so spent out that they dropped me in front of a brand new television that they brought home the same day I came back from the hospital after being born. I spent a lot of time watching black and white television and looking through a photo album that showed my younger parents and my older siblings when they were young, as well as my hand-me-down toys before they were destroyed and our dog when it was clever and didn’t sleep all the time. Everything seemed better in this two dimensional representation of my family. Even though it was only a few years before my birth, that pre- history seemed immense.”
It’s a visually stunning film, very funny, very warm and familiarly strange, combining old footage with new made to look old, and edited in Maddin’s now well-known style – trying to recreate the way that memory works with its looping flashbacks and blurry connections between thoughts. Maddin claims the content is “one third hard fact, one third legend, and one third wishful thinking and therefore true”. And despite the dreamy expressionistic style, it’s a carefully structured and captivating story about a town, a boy, his mother and the snow that seems to ensnare everyone in Winnipeg. It’ll stay with you and haunt you – in the best possible way – long after you left the cinema.