Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg is a surreal mix of fact and fantasy in the form of a documentary. It follows writer/director Maddin’s bizarre decision to reenact his childhood in Winnipeg, a place he claims to have never left. He states at the beginning of the picture that his goal is to move on and finally leave Winnipeg. Easier said than done, it seems, as we see him on a never ending train ride out of town throughout the film. He has hired actors to play his family. His two brothers, one who would die at 16, his sister, his mother and even his chihuahua (now replaced with his girlfriend’s pug). Oddly, in the film, he claims the actress playing his mother is actually his mom who agreed to do the project, but it is an actress by the name of Ann Savage. This is the type of deception you are subjected to during My Winnipeg. Maddin, who narrates nearly the entire 80 minutes, spins stories of his youth as well as Winnipeg’s. The tricky thing is, sometimes the stories seem a little far-fetched, while some stories are very believable and in fact true. It becomes obvious he is embellishing or perhaps completely making things up. However, it doesn’t matter that some things are fact and others are fiction, because they’re all true. What do I mean? That’s as hard to explain as the movie itself.
The type of stories you’ll hear are how, after a stable fire at a racetrack, horses fled into a river and froze to death, with their heads above the ice. The townspeople would visit the dead horses for romantic walks and picnics. Or how Maddin himself, was born in the dressing room at the Winnipeg arena during a hockey game. Whether he was actually born there during the game isn’t the point, he was born with hockey coursing through his veins.
I have to mention that this is the first and only Guy Maddin film I have seen. More specifically, all in one day, I discovered who he was, that he has made great films, that My Winnipeg was playing downtown and now I’m writing this review. I am now compelled to seek out all his previous work, in the hope of finding the same originality and flare evident here. My Winnipeg is such a fantastic breath of fresh air to enjoy amongst summer blockbusters. A reminder that convention is the enemy and that artistry and depth are to be valued more than explosions and one-liners. That success isn’t always making a movie that people want but making a movie the film maker is driven to make. Maddin shoots his film in black and white, with a silent film era-like nostalgia, and mixes it with historical archive footage. The result is a very unified, potent look that makes for one of the most memorable visual experiences to be had in a movie theatre this year.
Guy Maddin’s narration is pitch-perfect. His voice is commanding but gentle, and he weaves in and out of dreamlike prose in a hypnotizing manner. He makes sure to repeat himself. “Winnipeg…Winnipeg…Winnipeg”. He describes Winnipeg as a sleepy place. “…It has 10 times the sleepwalking rate of any other city”. As he repeats this, we see him dozing on the train. We become mesmerized. It is clear he has issues with family. The portrayal of his mother is sometimes frightening. This is a very personal work, but strangely it feels universal. He guides us through his history and we relate and recall our own.
My Winnipeg is very much a meditation on memory. Maddin describes his unique childhood home to us, but admits it always changes shape and size in his dreams. However, it’s still his home. The whole fact vs. fiction thing is very much a recurring theme. The film is also an examination of how where we come from shapes the person we will become. This is a thought I had previously dismissed, but this movie has caused to me to reconsider. It isn’t necessarily the specific location that affects us, although it is a factor, but rather the idiosyncrasies that subtly creep into our essence. Everything in this film is somehow relevant to Maddin’s self. Even though the history of Winnipeg recounted here is occasionally before his time, it is in his blood.
My Winnipeg reminds me of last year’s I’m Not There (the Bob Dylan bio-pic) in that they are both unorthodox deconstructions of a human being. This is a much better movie though. It is very, very funny, particularly in the early-going. By the end it is also cold, lonely and sad. It is also some of the finest film making I’ve seen this or in any recent year.