Maddin’s family films not for Disney crowd

On Wednesday, just before this interview, Canadian film auteur Guy Maddin had just wrapped up a conversation with his mom.

On Wednesday, just before this interview, Canadian film auteur Guy Maddin had just wrapped up a conversation with his mom.

Thursday was his 52nd birthday, and the pair were hammering out details for his birthday supper.

“As long as you got your dear old mom to make your favourite stew and birthday cake, things are cool,” said Maddin.

The personal — family, childhood memories — figures prominently in Maddin’s films, even the more fantastical, esoteric cinematic fare.

Two of his films have characters named Guy Maddin and his latest feature, the documentary — or “docu-fantasia” — My Winnipeg has actors portraying his family in childhood flashbacks.

“I don’t see any other way of making movies that matter to me,” said Maddin.

Maddin will appear and screen several of his films at the Available Light Film Festival, which runs in Whitehorse March 4 to 9.

My Winnipeg blurs fact and fiction and is more of a straightforward narrative than previous films.

But the stories are true, said Maddin.

That includes If Day, when city officials staged a Nazi invasion.

Even his hometown citizens have trouble believing the stories he tells.

Winnipeggers, like most Canadians, are lousy self-mythologizers, said Maddin.

“Sitting here against the imposing country of the greatest self-mythologizers in the world, America, we feel obliged to present stories as life-sized rather than bigger-than-life and thus removing them of all interest,” he said.

Directing actors portraying family members was a strange experiment, and the emotional experience resonated long after filming finished.

“Watching the movie, I vacillate between mischievous delight and agony caused by a tear in my soul,” said Maddin.

“I walked around with a grin (during filming) and it would be wiped off by a shocking surge of emotion that would come from deep in some forgotten corner of my memory.”

His father died in 1977 and his older brother died when Maddin was young.

“Sometimes I found it hard to talk to the actors. It didn’t leave me thinking more clearly — not therapeutic at all,” he said.

“It’s left with me with a Chekhovian quandary — you live for awhile, things get miserable and you die.”

Born in Winnipeg, where he divides his time with Toronto, Maddin has been making films for more than two decades.

His movies include The Saddest Music in the World, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and Cowards Bend the Knee.

His whimsical, inventive narrative mixed with personal history and idiosyncratic visual style inspired by silent films and the early talkies creates stunning films.

Maddin is a Canadian icon, said festival director Andrew Connnors.

“We’re really fortunate to have his presence at the festival,” he said.

Maddin will present several shorts and features, including The Heart of the World, Brand Upon the Brain! and My Winnipeg.

Maddin is like the lone inventor, experimenting in his basement away from convention and the mainstream.

Brand Upon the Brain!, a feature-length film, required live music (usually an orchestra), narration and sound effects when played at film festivals.

Maddin’s international reputation as a filmmaker is solid, but some still wonder if he’s underappreciated in his home country.

New York Times film critic A. O. Scott calls Maddin an “uncompromising avant-gardist (and) also a sly and exuberant entertainer.”

Maddin is admired throughout the world, said Connors.

“He’s a bit of film royalty when he’s in New York,” he said.

“I don’t think in Canada he gets the recognition he deserves. But I don’t think any Canadian film gets the recognition.”

That problem stems from not owning enough screens in Canada or dedicating screen time to showcase homegrown talent, said Connors.

“People don’t get to the see the films,” he added.

“Whitehorse is a good example. Can you count how many Canadian films have screened here as a regular run? None. Not even Easter Promises (a David Cronenberg film).”

The low profile at home is actually comforting for Maddin when he returns from the glitz of international film festivals in New York or Berlin.

“It feels good to come home and live in an unenchanted state,” he said.

“These forays aboard are enchanting, but you wouldn’t want to in the state all the time — you wouldn’t be able to make anything. It’d be too weird. It’s nice to come home and get the same bad service in your favourite restaurant.”

Reputation is not an idea that concerns him, but his daydreams do run into what happens after he dies.

“I just want to keep making movies, but I’d like them to be remembered for a generation or two after I die,” he said.

“You have to be dead before you memory is treated specially. I wouldn’t mind waiting a little while longer for that to happen.”

Just like most cinemaphiles, Maddin heads to the theatre for the latest summer blockbusters and Hollywood schlock.

It’s not all obscure silent films.

“I love nothing better than a Will Ferrell picture,” he said.

“People think I dress up in a silk bathrobe and monocle and just watch a video of an iceberg melting.”

A populist in taste, his own films aren’t as accessible as Transformers, or even Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar-winning There Will be Blood.

“I try to make films accessible, but I’ve just missed the mark many times,” he said.

“I make movies I care about and I try to convey that enthusiasm to the viewers. I’m getting better at it, but I’ve always striven for it.

“I always want people to reach the movies — on my terms — but I want them to understand it. I feel the improvement and it feels great.”

This year’s festival is a strong mix of drama, comedy and documentary, with a combination of popular and demanding films from Canada and abroad.

A panel discussion with Maddin will ask the question, “Are Canadians poised to break out as internal film, television and media storytellers everywhere but in our own backyard?”

The films and panel discussions should appeal to everyone, said Connors.

“To encourage people to experience film, you need to appeal to them in one way where they enjoy a film, and then get them to step outside of their comfort zone with another film,” said Connors.

Available Light runs March 4 to 9 at the Yukon Arts Centre and Qwanlin Cinema. Single tickets are $9 and a five-show pass costs $40.

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