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Pegging down 

Internationally, Winnipeg filmmakers like Guy Maddin and Sol Nagler are well-known for their alternative approaches to cinema.

What's the deal with Winnipeg?

Statistically it's the coldest city on earth, during the warm months the mosquitoes ravage bare skin, and it's geographically isolated from other major cities by several hours. Yet the arts scene—chilly as the weather may be—is one of the hottest in the country. Think The Weakerthans. Vanity Fair-approved artist Marcel Dzama and The Royal Art Lodge. Bordercrossings, undisputedly one of the country's best arts mags. Performance artists Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan. Popular author Miriam Toews. Film director Guy Maddin, whose wonderfully bizarre Brand Upon the Brain is the next AFCOOP Monday Night film, on October 15 at Park Lane.

Perhaps climatic adversity breeds creativity. But filmmaker and recently appointed NSCAD University professor of film production, Solomon Nagler, has a few theories of his own. As an academic, a curator and an active member of the community, Nagler investigates the uniqueness of Winnipeg filmmaking, and as part of the AFCOOP screening, is presenting a cross-section of six short films from the 'Peg called Prairie Dreaming.

"I wanted to put a spotlight on younger directors in Winnipeg," says Nagler, just before getting on a plane to head back for that city's WNDX Festival of Avant Garde and Underground Film last weekend.

And I wanted to show Halifax artists that this line between experimental and narrative doesn't really exist in Winnipeg. Take Guy Maddin for example, his stories are told in a very experimental way. And the films that I'm showing are the same thing—when we want to tell our stories we do it in an alternative experimental way, just like Guy does. There's never been a need to define experimental from narrative work."

Brand Upon the Brain, written by Maddin with long-time collaborator George Toles and shot in high-contrast black-and-white 8mm film, is a melodramatic tale about a house painter named Guy Maddin, who returns to his family's isolated island where he experiences disturbing flashbacks from his childhood and discovers odd-shaped wounds, or brands, on the back of all the children's heads. Funny, touching, bizarre and often demented, it's classic Maddin material. As the film toured festivals and major cities, it was accompanied by an 11-piece orchestra, foley artists who created live sound effects, a castrato (Maddin claims this is for real) and a narrator. In the film, Isabella Rossellini

—who also appeared in 2003's The Saddest Music in the World—narrates, but Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Cripsin Glover and TV on the Radio's Tunde Adepimpe have all performed in the role.

"Maddin was someone I always admired and who definitely influenced me a ton as I developed myself as a filmmaker. Whenever you make films in Winnipeg, you're always making work within this grand shadow of Guy Maddin," says Nagler. "It's really inspiring but really scary because here's this guy who makes films the way he wants to, totally uncompromising, who said, "Sure you come from this little town in the middle of nowhere, but your vision can still be significant.' He achieved a lot of what we wanted to do as filmmakers: He scared us and inspired us at the same time."

Even before Maddin, in the early 1980s, Nagler says, there was maverick director John Paizs, who left the city to become a director on Kids in the Hall. "Paizs was one of the first in Canada to create post-modern narratives so obviously fabricated they became almost surreal. The Kids played off it, especially in those kitschy 1950s scenes—that was a narrative he developed."

OK, so where does this city's radical nature come from? Nagler suspects it's been there since the beginning. "Historically it was the first place to hold a general strike. There's Louis Riel. It's a culture of left-wing cultural revolutional politics. Artists are militant and politically involved. That's what accounts for a lot of the discipline artists have. You can live in Winnipeg for next to nothing, be a professional artist and not have a job because you can have a studio downtown for next to nothing."

Recently Nagler had a retrospective of seven of his films in Paris. "People were saying "Winnipeg! Winnipeg!' In Paris! It's like Winnipeg has its own national cinema."

Brand Upon the Brain w/Prairie Dreaming, Monday, October 15, Park Lane, 7pm, $7-$9, 420-4572.

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