The first time Kevin Nikkel walked into a Winnipeg Film Group workshop, he was a little intimidated. An introvert, he preferred to look at the world from a distance, but on that day in 1998 or 1999, he found himself in a whirlwind of creative talent.
“There were all these high expectations,” says Nikkel, a filmmaker, teacher and author. “In the early stages of creation, it’s almost like a bunch of puppies in the pet store and they’re all tripping over themselves.”
He was soon hooked. And if he wore a collar, his ID might read: “If found: please return to Winnipeg Film Group.”
Over the next 25 years, Nikkel fell in love with and became absorbed in the history of the film group, which upon its founding in 1974 became the epicenter of the city’s independent film movement. Arriving too late to have seen the group’s early days, which were spent in the McDermot Avenue warehouse known as the Bate Building, or in a strange house on Adelaide Street, Nikkel took his background’s training and eye and set his sights on fixed in the past.
After agreeing to direct a project during a backyard barbecue, Nikkel teamed up with the late ideologist and Cinematheque developer Dave Barber to produce the documentary Stories from the Winnipeg film crewa play in Tales from Gimli Hospital, a 1988 feature by Guy Maddin produced by the group – a litmus test for local film history. The 2017 documentary, with a jazzy freedom, moves through the early days of the film crew and into the present.
But Nikkel and Barber felt there was more meat on the bones. “It’s always been frustrating for me to sit down and do a nice interview with someone, but then I end up only using a handful of clips,” Nikkel says during a Zoom interview, knowing full well that the same thing will happen to him. . “It bothers me a lot. Oh man, if people could just see the whole conversation, because there are beautiful arcs where it starts, and then we kind of go down that path and come back.”
So Nikkel, often accompanied by Barber, set to work conducting and compiling interviews with several important figures from every era in the history of the Winnipeg Film Group. The resulting work, Establishing Shots: An Oral History of the Winnipeg Film Groupis an important document not only of Winnipeg’s film history, but also of the city’s enduring reputation as an artistic and creative haven.
The 437-page book, read on or off, shows the ways in which the film crew has had to adapt to changing times and how, despite the passage of nearly 50 years, it has maintained its fundamentally independent spirit. (The screening will take place on April 12 at the Dave Barber Cinematheque.)
In 33 conversations with early WFG directors like Maddin, Elise Swerhone, and Allan Kroeker, administrators like Merit Jensen and Leon Johnson, and other alums like Shawna Dempsey, Lorri Millan, Danishka Esterhazy, and Scott Fitzpatrick, Nikkel lets his curiosity to ask him. benefit of the reader. At times academic and technical, the book’s ultimate raison d’être is that there was no other like it.
In his introduction, Nikkel breaks down the film group’s history by its bases, including its inaugural home, the Bate Building in McDermot. Gene Walz, an American who was hired to teach film studies at the University of Manitoba in 1974 and decided to stay, describes his first visit to the building this way in his interview with Nikkel.
“A lovely building with a beautiful wrought iron elevator. There were usually prostitutes at the door that we had to fight to get up to the meetings. It was not a suitable place for meetings. The rooms were small and crowded and noisy.” Humble beginnings.
Once the film crew started making movies, however, the effect began to make the setting of these meetings irrelevant. Early works, like 1976 Rabbit pieand John Paizs’ 1985 film Crime wave he foresaw the types of films the group would excel at making: collaborative, quirky, and free-spirited projects that simultaneously served as training grounds for its members, who would then continue to take those lessons as they worked on films made on the road.
What emerged from those somewhat chaotic but still chalky days was a distinctly Winnipeg-style approach to filmmaking. In his introduction, Nikkel quotes Lucy Lippard, a writer from New York who said that, in art, localism was not a limitation, but an asset.
Cinematographer Rhayne Vermette, whose Ste. Anna appeared at both the Berlin and Toronto international film festivals, tells Nikkel, “Because we’re Winnipeg and we’re not Toronto or Vancouver… nobody really cares what we’re doing, so we might as well do what we want. We can find freedom and liberation and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
“I think a lot of Winnipeggers and Winnipeg artists are trying to make peace with this idea of where we’re from,” Nikkel says. “The whole idea of regionalism is very important to get more confidence and I think there’s been a shift in the last couple of decades where people recognize the value of community.
“I think one of the key things we’re dealing with is the size of our city. The possibility of cross-generational and cross-media collaboration can happen here because there are fewer people. The pond is smaller.” Ripples are therefore much more noticeable.
Nikkel aptly sums up the film crew’s story in his introduction as “less a story about waves and more like a river, ever widening as it reaches the sea.”
The waters were treacherous at times. A crisis, long averted, came when, by mistake, the film group lost its charitable status and could no longer give tax receipts to donors. Meanwhile, the film crew was never immune to social barriers and prejudices.
Interviews with filmmakers like Dempsey and Millan, who made queer and feminist films like We’re talking Vulva, touch on the fact that for many years, the film team had a reputation as a boys’ club. “I’ve always been one of the few women making movies, with so many white men,” director Shereen Jerrett tells Nikkel. “Anyone who was a woman, a visible minority, indigenous — they were struggling. It was so hard to get in. (Winnipeg producer) Winston Maxham (the late African Canadian director of films such as Barbara James, interviewed by Nikkel) would say the same thing if he were around.”
As these issues began to be tackled more head-on, the pandemic brought another challenging period. Along with lockdowns that limited theater attendance, the film team was rocked in 2021 when executive director Greg Klymkiw, who is interviewed in Nikkel’s book, was removed from his position amid allegations of a toxic work environment. Klymkiw has been replaced by Leslie Supnet, who was interviewed for the book in 2015, several years before she returned from Toronto.
Klymkiw’s exit was also followed by the sudden death of Barber, who for nearly 40 years was the film team’s beloved senior programmer.
Last year, the film team’s theater was officially renamed the Dave Barber Cinematheque, and the workshops are well attended. Meanwhile, developers Jaimz Asmundson and Olivia Norquay have done a good job of steering the ship, Nikkel says.
To close out his Supnet interview, Nikkel asks her what the future holds. It gives a rather prophetic, pro-pandemic answer.
“Well, the future is generally kind of bleak. Haha!” he begins, later adding that “the future is so big. That’s why I keep making stuff. It’s a really useful antidote to the coming apocalypse depression.”
And thanks to Nikkel’s book, whoever takes the wheel will have a handy guide to help them navigate what’s next.
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