Guy Maddin‘s ‘My Winnipeg’ is one of the most touching and absorbing films I have ever seen. The film is a surrealist revisitation of the director’s childhood seen through a lens of his early life succumbed to his controlling mother and the overwhelming, sedating effect of the forever-winterly Winnipeg lying the very heart of the American continent. The genre of the film was quite rightfully branded as ‘docu-fantasia’. ‘Winnipeg, my Winnipeg’ is a repetitive cry of Guy Maddin’s reminiscences as he attempts to escape the city of sleepwalking and sleepliving, where the homeless sleep on the roofs of skyscrapers, buildings are torn, and life itself seems to disappear in the almost hypnotic spell of the city.
This is Guy Maddin’s director statement for ‘My Winnipeg’:
In 1888, William Cornelius Van Horne, the great railway man who against long odds built the Canadian Pacific Railroad across our vast nation, established in Winnipeg a tradition that survives to this day. That year, on the first day of winter, Van Horne held a city-wide scavenger hunt. Every one of the young town’s residents was given a treasure map and invited to participate. First prize was a one-way ticket on the next train out of town. The secret hope behind this contest was that after a long day spent combing through the city’s nooks and crannies, Winnipeggers would discover that the real treasure was here all along, that it was Winnipeg itself. And for the longest time, Horne’s trick worked – especially on me.
As a filmmaker who has spent his entire fifty years in Winnipeg, I’ve been enchanted, intoxicated and benighted by the city of my birth – it’s been my muse since long before I ever picked up a camera. I’ve fallen in love with the place, not only for what it was while I loved it, but for what it used to be and for what it could be again!!! Like a heedless, irrational suitor I have invested all my hopes for the future in it, only to be left heartbroken by the cold-bloodedly “progressive” course it insists on taking as it navigates itself inexorably away from the enchantment I once knew into the bland oblivion and mediocrity it craves for itself. With my hopes mutinied I have grown bitterly disillusioned with my home town.
But before I flee, I must review for my own nostalgic delectation all that has so sweetly mattered to me about this once-beguiling wonderland, for no more curious a place exists in all of North America, or anywhere else! I will revisit for one last time the streets of Winnipeg – my Winnipeg – and locate for the viewer the magic spots that I cherish, where one can merely point a finger and the past will come springing up like so much artesian well water. There’s something strange, something dreamy going on here, where pedestrians would rather use back lanes than front streets; where our homeless hide en masse on the rooftops of abandoned skyscrapers; and where a strange civic law requires you to admit for a night any former owner or resident of your current home.
By winding my way though the very birthplaces of my personal mythologies, by attempting to understand the very nature of memory even while it fabricates what turns out to be an illusory Winnipeg for itself, and by facing down, in a series of singular domestic experiments, the possessive power of my own family, perhaps I can unlock the mysterious forces which occultly bind many a human heart to the past. Perhaps I can finally define for myself the true meaning of “home” and make the shackles which bind me here simply fall away.
Many-a-qualities attract me in this film. The dream-like reality of the stretched days and seasons reminds me of my final days in the snowy Krakow and the endless dark journeys I used to take on the city’s tramlines. The cold skies, the chronic lack of sunlight and the white city lights are just about all I can remember from that overly long winter that drove me away. ‘My Winnipeg’ is a semi-silent film, but the moments of Guy Maddin’s monologue are a great treat – the language falls somewhere close to Bruno Schulz’s writings and their hyper-poetic descriptiveness.