We were very sad to hear this week that Winnipeg Film Group‘s legendary Dave Barber has passed away. We never had the chance to meet Dave in real life, but his documentary Tales from the Winnipeg Film Group featured in our Tales from Winnipeg online programme last year and we were delighted to have his participation in the event. His enthusiasm for WFG, the film-makers and their work was evident and we enjoyed and valued the back and forth we had with Dave before the event and afterwards.
We were also delighted when Dave agreed to write an article on WFG and his documentary for our accompanying zine, which we are publishing online for the first time, below. Our post-screening Q&A with Dave and co-director Kevin Nikkel is also embedded after the article. Winnipeg Film Group are accepting donations in efforts to establish a filmmaking fund in Dave’s name. Donations can be made here.
When I started working at the Winnipeg Film Group in 1983, little did I realise what I was getting into. Hired on to organise a film screening programme called the Cinematheque, I had no idea that I would be a front row witness to so much great, subversive original filmmaking. This nonprofit collective of independent filmmakers had just moved from an old historic block called the Bate Building in downtown Winnipeg into a red brick home called the “Kelly House”, first built in the 1880s.
It was bare bones. I had no chair and no lamp, so I brought them from home along with my dad’s typewriter. My office was upstairs on the second floor with a moose head on the wall and an old fridge. It didn’t take me long to realise that many filmmakers were outlaws at heart, completely dedicated to creating films and pushing everything else out of the way. They would stop at nothing to realise their vision. More than once over the years, a filmmaker would ask if they could grab a prop that was hanging on the wall or in the corner of the room. My chair wound up in a science fiction short. My typewriter wound up in John Paizs’s Crime Wave. Somebody borrowed the moose head and we never saw it again. Our newsletter was christened The Moose.
In the next 35 years I witnessed some of the best independent filmmaking in the world, survived endless stormy personality disputes, staff turnovers, a bleeding ulcer (a near nervous breakdown) two basement office floods, a revolution in the technology of making, distributing and exhibition of movies, and now a pandemic. In some ways, it was a miracle the organisation survived…deficits and staff turnover prompted much soul searching and fund raising. But those that took the high road always pulled the organisation out of the fire.
The Winnipeg Film Group was formed in 1974 by a collective of independent filmmakers who had a dream. To create a place where they could get filmmaking equipment to rent for cheap. They received a grant from the national arts funding body the Canada Council and, with this seed money, the organisation grew. They bought more and better 16mm filmmaking equipment. With the rise in filmmaking activity, there were more films on the shelf and an increasingly important distribution department. Many films went on to win awards and accolades at film festivals around the world. John Paizs’s wildly irreverent feature Crime Wave put the organisation on the map. Nobody had ever seen anything like this before.
I spoke to a filmmaker in Chicago so excited by the scene he heard that was happening in Winnipeg that he wanted to move here and make films. Another woman actually did show up but after ten days of thirty-five-below weather she left town and said, “You people are all crazy.” And she’s right. A crazy obsession is what drives filmmakers to create films in Winnipeg – long cold winter nights and a city far from major centres of influence has led to a body of great artistic work that has won awards at film festivals around the world. What is it about Winnipeg? This sleepy prairie town with a population of just over 700,000 is in the middle of nowhere. A strong visual arts scene, progressive arts council funding and endless cold winters all fuel the seeds of creativity.
When the Winnipeg Film Group moved yet again in 1986 into the Artspace Building, this time they had an equipment room much larger than the broom closet at Kelly House and a large empty space which became a studio. (re-named The Black Lodge) Hundreds of films have been shot in that space. If you set up a camera on a pedestal and filmed the room in stop motion over the years you would see a blur of sets being built and dismantled including a locomotive train for Guy Maddin’s Odilon Redon.
New emerging filmmakers walk in the door all the time. Every six years, there are radical changes in what filmmakers are creating. More recently there is a rise of the Indigenous Filmmakers Association and many significant women filmmakers creating great new work nurtured by the Winnipeg Film Group commission program Mosaic Women’s project.
Kevin Nikkel and I faced a challenging task in making this documentary Tales From the Winnipeg Film Group. For years, many filmmakers talked about creating a documentary about the organisation but the idea was too daunting. How do you tell 40 years of history with its endless sea of changes?
What is the story? Is there any archival footage or photographs? Who should you interview? In many ways, the Winnipeg Film Group is like the great Kurosawa movie Rashomon. Everyone sees their own version of the truth. We received an invaluable commissioning grant from TV producer Cam Bennett in the MTS Stories from Home and drew up a list of over 100 filmmakers, former staff and board members. Kevin travelled to Los Angeles, London, England and Washington, DC with his family and, while there, interviewed some filmmakers who had moved away. We drew a graph chart on the wall and listed high points in WFG history. The birth of the group, from discussions at the Film Symposium at the University of Manitoba. The move into the Kelly House at 88 Adelaide Street. The endless wrangling over the direction of the group. The rise of various filmmaking movements. Some people didn’t want to be interviewed and some were just way too busy making films. It was very tough finding archival footage and photographs. A visiting German filmmaker Sissy Schneider made a great short documentary film in the 1990s called Guys without an Attitude and generously allowed us to include a short except. Another German filmmaker, Alexander Bohr, made a documentary on Canadian filmmakers in 1992 and allowed us to use part of a segment on the Winnipeg Film Group shot inside our production offices in the Artspace Building.
Cam generously allowed us an extension on the deadline to do more research and interview more people. But the clock was ticking and we soon realised we had to stop as the funding strand was collapsing. We wrestled hard in the editing room and the tone of the film changed direction several times. But the filmmaking continued. And it always will. Because it is all that matters.