Guy Maddin is not a liar. He’s a self proclaimed ‘mythologizer’. The difference is crucial, and at the heart of My Winnipeg, a docu-(melo)drama dedicated to his “snowy, sleepwalking” hometown and another exercise in family exorcism according to the precepts of Freudian daydreaming. At 54, Maddin is not just the world’s most famous Winnipegger – he’s also Canada’s best living filmmaker (Cronenberg, Egoyan are not in competition any longer) and this magazine’s favourite avant-garde Kino genius.
Is My Winnipeg really a documentary?
I like things that mix together and it doesn’t really matter if it’s a documentary or piece of fiction. What really inspired me were the writings of W.G. Sebald. When I first started thinking about making a film about Winnipeg, I started daydreaming about it while walking with my dog, and Sebald was always out walking around, going on little digressions, little daydreams, back and forth.
In this film, ‘Home’ is a fuzzy notion in which your city and family blend into one comfy ‘motherland’. Your mum towers over this story…
The city is the coldest in the world, but I guess my mother feels her job is to make herself into a giant dome over the city, to try to keep it warm with the hell-fires she stokes from her lap or something like that.
Your mother definitely seems to be a strong woman…
She’s a strong one. I could probably make something longer than Berlin Alexanderplatz just featuring my mom talking on various subjects, most of them sexual. She has very strong opinions about how to decode evil sexual thoughts from the most harmless activities. She can really read sexual hieroglyphs.
Although it’s a bit unclear, your mum is actually played by cult actress Ann Savage. Was it a fantasy of yours to have a former film noir femme fatale as mother?
She’s the star of my favourite film noir, this ‘poverty row’ picture by Edgar G. Ulmer called Detour where she plays the most savage film noir femme fatale in the history of cinema. She had been retired for 51 years or so and I was really thrilled that I could convince her to play my film. Part of me really wanted to fool people that she was my mother, but another part of me wanted people to see that I had Anne Savage, this wonderful demi-goddess, in my project…
Are you comfortable describing your films as melodramas?
I taught a course at university called: ‘You show me your melodrama, I’ll show you mine.’ You know the philosophical dictum, ‘Everything tastes like chicken.’ [Well] every movie is more or less a melodrama.
The genre is often discredited under the chick flick label – can it be a subversive art form?
A good melodrama shows you your own life uninhibited; they allow us to commit murders when what we’re really doing is just acting on the kind of feelings we all have, like when we hate someone or get mad at somebody. Melodrama just takes it a bit further, allows things to get most expressive, more hysterical – all in the name of better displaying the truth. If you start looking at some of the melodramas we consider chick flicks as ‘uninhibitions’ rather than corny old boilerplates, they do start to seem more subversive. A good melodrama is like a criminal wet dream…
Judging by your films, your life seems to be full of grand melodramatic moments…
Well, my life has been melodramatic, just by coincidence. Certain episodes just seem so mythic, almost romantic, like Icelandic sagas. I sort of understand my own story as a Bible story or a cave painting. It sometimes seems like just a few primitive brushstrokes from the past, and other times it seems like a Douglas Sirk chick flick. Like my brother didn’t just take his own life, he took it on the grave of his girlfriend, or maybe someone who wasn’t his girlfriend – maybe someone who loved someone else. Like Werther or Kleist or something. Everything seems ‘German romantic’ even though it was just ‘Icelandic Canadian’.
Are Winnipeggers great romantics?
No they’re just brooders… My brother was pretty temperamental. Maybe he was destined for a sad end, even without the death of his girlfriend. But the family definitely spinned something romantic out of his death: “He got to be in heaven with his true love.” Whenever we met the girl’s family we would treat them like in-laws, as if there actually had been a wedding in heaven.
My Winnipeg is also a homage to your hometown. Are you a proud Winnipegger?
I’ve become one. I found out that Winnipeg has a history which is every bit as fascinating as every other place’s history and maybe even more so, because no one’s even really remembered it. We’re a bunch of amnesiacs and sleepwalkers here in this fantastic city, which is full of eerie things which somehow fit together like a puzzle. I’m always shocked at how few people have heard of any of these stories.
Like that amazing archive footage of those horses frozen in the river – it seems more surreal, Buñuel-like, than real…
Most Winnipeggers don’t even believe it happened. But it did! It’s incredible. Was the Nazi invasion also true??? It is! In 1942, halfway through the war, there was a nationwide bond-selling campaign and some Winnipeggers got the idea, “Why don’t we just stage a pretend invasion of the city? We’ll get all the radio stations and all the politicians to go along too. And we’ll just frighten people with what it would be like for one day to be under the thumb of Adolf Hitler.” Actors put on Nazi costumes and took over the city. They arrested kindergarten teachers and bullied people etc. Everybody was warned about it in the best way possible, but much like Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, there were a lot of people who didn’t catch on it was fake. They must have been terrified.
So, did it work out?
It really worked and Winnipeg really overshot its goal for bond purchases by far! But that’s the one episode that people doubt the most. Everyone remembers where they were when Kennedy was shot, or when the Twin Towers went down. You’d think Winnipeggers would all remember where they were when the Nazis took over the city. But no one talks about it. They don’t even believe it happened. It’s cultural amnesia.
Fleeing Winnipeg – ‘Get out of there’ is a leitmotiv of your film. So, are you ready to leave?
I think if I start crawling now, out of Winnipeg, out of my Canadian skin, I can be buried just across the border somewhere. I’d better head north to some disputed territory that doesn’t belong to any country and just be buried there in some frozen hole in the ground. I’ll have to change my will – I’ve had it ordained that I’ll be cremated and that my ashes run over with a lawnmower in my beloved front yard.
My Winnipeg | FSK, Segitzdamm 2, Kreuzberg, U-Bahn Kottbusser Tor/Moritzplatz. Opens November 4.