The WFG at 40

Essay by Andrew Burke

The story of the Winnipeg Film Group (WFG), like so many of its productions, refuses any simple synopsis. Told in its most conventional way, the story would begin with the group’s formation in 1974, chart its development through its initial productions of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and then celebrate the WFG’s efflorescence in the 1980s and 1990s. This is when its key figures garnered recognition, first on the national and then on the global cinematic stage. This story would conclude by asserting the WFG’s ongoing importance in a digital age dramatically different from the analogue world into which it was born.

Yet, as largely truthful, arguably accurate and deeply satisfying as this kind of conventional narrative arc may be, it nevertheless fails to convey both the complexities of the group’s history and the sheer range and invention of the films made under its auspices. As much as “there’s only one Winnipeg Film Group!” is true in the sense that the conditions and characters that produced the films over its history are utterly irreproducible, the exact opposite, “there are many Winnipeg Film Groups!” is true as well. There are as many different histories of the WFG as there are people who picked up its cameras, sat at its editing tables, or simply watched its films. To assess the mythologies and meanings of the WFG is to confront the paradox of this singular plurality.

The letter of incorporation, dated December 27, 1974, that officially marks the formation of the WFG is a blandly bureaucratic document, yet it is a momentous one that would dramatically transform the Manitoban and Canadian film landscape. Among the signatories are the legendary Canadian animators Richard Condie and Brad Caslor, whose presence points to the importance of animation to the WFG, as well as Leon Johnson, whose experimental documentaries inaugurated another important strand of WFG production. These early years of the WFG are often unjustly forgotten, but this also makes them ripe for rediscovery. The films themselves, from the collaborative Rabbit Pie (1976) that sets everything in motion to Johnson’s Le Metif Enragé (1983), a key document of Franco-Manitoban culture, evoke the joy of filmmaking and the possibilities of local, independent filmmaking. And beyond the films, the story of the WFG is fascinating for the way it encapsulates a specific historical moment for the development of the arts in Canada: the development of an independent sector, grounded in the local, and driven by the enthusiasm of a group of individuals rather than guided by the demands of commerce.

For those outside Winnipeg, the WFG remains inextricably associated with the work of John Paizs and Guy Maddin. Paizs’ Crime Wave (1985), only now becoming widely available after years of legal wrangling, infrequent screenings, and the underground circulation of prized copies on videocassette, forms a key part of both Winnipeg and WFG mythology. The film’s inventive re-use of older cinematic forms and styles would shape many WFG productions in the years and decades that followed, while its failure to attract a wide audience -- despite its critical celebration and striking originality -- further fuelled the Winnipeg cinematic tendency towards self-deprecation and the celebration of isolation.

Since his 1985 WFG debut, The Dead Father, Maddin has become one of the key figures of world cinema. He has done so by delving more deeply into the city rather than drifting away from it. His early work consolidated outside visions of the WFG as a hotbed of a still-alive surrealism where fiction and reality could scarcely be distinguished, the unconscious ruled supreme, history weighed heavy on the heads of the living, and everyday life oscillated between dream and nightmare. This self-reflexive and often self-lacerating civic mythopoeisis forms one tributary that cuts through the WFG’s flood plain, from its source in Maddin down through the work of Noam Gonick, Deco Dawson, and Matthew Rankin.

But, by the 1990s, prairie postmodernism was by no means the only game in town. The films of Jeffrey Erbach form part of what Solomon Nagler terms the “Winnipeg Secession.” Erbach’s films stray from the pastiche that characterizes work by Paizs and Maddin in order to craft alluring allegories of adolescence. His short film Soft Like Me (1996) and feature-length The Nature of Nicholas (2002) are both distinguished by their keen exploitation of the flat expansiveness of the prairie landscape, which he uses not in the service of a stultifying realism but to evoke an erotic sensuousness.

If the transgressive tales of Erbach represent one kind of secession, the work of Sean Garrity represents another. While Inertia (2001) and Lucid (2003) might be more narratively conventional than the work generally associated with the WFG, they are certainly no less cinematically sophisticated. From his features, you might conclude that Garrity’s strength resides primarily in the representation of milieu and the minutiae of relationships, but his short films, such as the moving and melancholic Buenos Aires Souvenir (2001) also reveal an energetic, experimental impulse and a sharp sense of the different shapes and forms a narrative can take.

There are many other ways that one can cut through the WFG catalogue and generate a different understanding of both its past and present. Alongside the cinematic surrealism, sensationalism and storytelling represented by the above works, there is also a rich vein of observational works that document the ordinary. Elise Swerhone’s remarkable Havakeen Lunch (1979) travels beyond the city's Perimeter to capture the deeply moving final days of a family’s ownership of a rural restaurant; Barry Lank’s It’s a Hobby for Harvey (1980) follows its whistling champ lawyer around the city and to a competition in Las Vegas; and Shereen Jerrett’s Dog Stories (1991) explores the bond between canine and human companion with deft emotional precision.

Animation similarly punctuates the catalogue, from Ed Ackerman and Greg Zbitnew’s fun with the WFG photocopier in 5¢ a Copy (1980) to Mike Maryniuk’s distinctive and delirious shorts. Maryniuk’s work is a vortex of WFG techniques and obsessions. Combining scratch animation, found footage manipulation and a whole host of other materials, methods and practices, Maryniuk’s work points to the influence of Solomon Nagler’s hand-processing workshops in the early 2000s, but also to the way in which the WFG of that era especially was a hands-on experimental film laboratory. This low budget, exploratory cinematic adventurousness expanded on the inventiveness and industriousness of the WFG’s earliest days, but also set the tone for the digital experiments that would follow.

As much as documentary and animation offer alternative ways to understand and assess the WFG’s achievements, scattered throughout the catalogue there are also unique figures who might also be thought of as central to a reimagined collective history. Perhaps most important is the work of Winston Washington Moxam, whose 11 short films and two features are all the more precious as a consequence of his tragically premature death in 2011. Moxam’s films are not simply an important contribution to the history of Black Canadian cinema, but demand a rethinking of Canadian film more generally that fully recognizes its elisions and exclusions.

The WFG itself is by no means exempt from this demand. Its commitment to independence has meant that it has long produced and presented films from a wider variety of perspectives than can be found on commercial screens. Nevertheless, the effort to enrich and expand WFG offerings invariably caused tensions and necessitated struggle. Women filmmakers have been fundamental to the WFG from its very beginnings to the present day, from Norma Bailey’s deeply moving character studies to Carole O’Brien’s absolute command of both tone and technique to Danishka Esterhazy’s evocative restagings and estrangings of fairy tale narratives. Yet, despite these successes, the effort to encourage and promote young, female filmmakers remains, as it does elsewhere in the film industry, frustratingly partial and incomplete.

As it enters its fifth decade, perhaps the strongest initiative and boldest push for the WFG is to foster and support Indigenous filmmakers. In the 2000s, Darryl Nepinak directed a number of shorts that are as sharply comedic as they are incisively political. Caroline Monnet’s boldly experimental work bridges the gap between projection and installation and continues the close connection between filmmakers and the visual arts community that threads through the WFG’s history. Finally, Kevin Lee Burton’s Meskanahk (My Path) (2005) is a powerful, personal meditation that traces Burton’s own journey from God’s Lake First Narrows through Winnipeg and on to Vancouver. Burton’s video narrative captures the alienation and anxiety experienced by contemporary Indigenous youth, but also deftly reveals the threat to First Nations languages and culture that is the deep legacy of colonial racism. As Winnipeg wakes up to the inequities and injustices that structure everyday life in the city, the WFG has worked in concert with Indigenous groups to find new modes of representations and new models of production and distribution that amplify rather than elide Indigenous voices.

The historical force and continuing strength of the WFG resides in the way that it lives up to its own name. The Winnipeg Film Group is a collection of practitioners committed to cinematic independence and dedicated to the development of new talent. The Winnipeg Film Group maintains a fascination with, and an attachment to, the materiality of film itself but has not shied away from the digital possibilities that open up with its disappearance. Finally, the Winnipeg Film Group remains grounded in a landscape and a locale, not shying away from the failures and shortcomings of the city itself, but open to its idiosyncrasies, invested in its mythologies, and hopeful for its future transformations.

Bio: Andrew Burke is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Winnipeg where he teaches critical theory and screen studies. His work has appeared in journals such as Screen, Popular Music and Society, and English Studies in Canada and has covered a wide array of topics, including the film essays of Patrick Keiller, the music and films of the pop group Saint Etienne, and the gallery work of Douglas Coupland. His current book project is on film, cultural memory and the Canadian 60s, 70s, and 80s.