Movie mosaic tells cinematic story of Manitoba

It is appropriate that the key film at this year’s Gimli Film Festival is: a) a mosaic of hundreds of images culled from radically different viewpoints over more than a century and b) budget-wise, cheap as borscht.

What could be more Manitoban than that?

What We’ve Pulled Off… So Far is a documentary about the history of Manitoba film by Kevin Nikkel.

The Winnipeg-based Nikkel, 51, has made all kinds of films in the past few decades, but has settled into documentary for most of his career. A filmmaker with the heart of an archivist, Nikkel has often explored our history as it ties into cinema in films such as On the Trail of the Far Fur Country (2014), an epic retracing of a 1919 film crew expedition into Canada’s Far North.

More recently, Nikkel co-directed (with Dave Barber) Tales from the Winnipeg Film Group (2017), a richly entertaining warts-and-all history of one of the province’s most storied cultural institutions.

“I am very interested in history and I’m very interested in archives,” says Nikkel. “I found myself increasingly in archives looking for footage to supplement some of the stories that I’d like to tell.”

The creation of this new film incorporates one of his later works, he says.

“A couple of years ago, the local chapter of the Documentary Organization of Canada asked me to do a presentation at the Gimme Some Truth Film Festival. They asked me to do a history of Manitoba documentary filmmaking.”

The project was kind of a lecture with film clips.

Provincial Archives of Manitoba</p><p>A still from Welcome to Winnipeg, a 1967 Pan Am Games documentary, is featured in What We’ve Pulled Off… So Far.</p></p>

Provincial Archives of Manitoba

A still from Welcome to Winnipeg, a 1967 Pan Am Games documentary, is featured in What We’ve Pulled Off… So Far.

“That was my first assembling of footage towards a kind of historical chronology,” Nikkel says, adding Gimli Film Festival director Aaron Zeghers was in the audience that night.

“A year later, they were projecting what should they do for (the 2020) Gimli Film Festival and Aaron said: ‘I’d like to commission you to do a broader project where you do the Manitoba story, not just docs, but all film,’” Nikkel says.

“So I took the material that I had already kind of accumulated before that first presentation and then just went deeper into the archives looking for more material to fill in the story, in terms of drama, animation, and things like that.”

The material from the Winnipeg Film Group project with Barber, which dovetailed perfectly with the broader documentary project, was already on his hard drive.

Of course, COVID-19 hijacked the plans of filmmakers and film festival programmers. And on a budget of around $5,000, Nikkel had to forgo the usual talking-heads style documentary, presenting clips and narrating it all himself.

Five Door Films</p><p>A nitrate reel of film, from 1919 HBC film The Romance of the Far Fur Country, now in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives.</p>

Five Door Films

A nitrate reel of film, from 1919 HBC film The Romance of the Far Fur Country, now in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives.

Yet the end product is impressively cumulative, incorporating some fascinating tidbits, such as the fact that Canada’s first film was shot in 1897 in Brandon, just two years after the Lumière Brothers made the first film ever. While Nikkel’s doc doesn’t spend much time with “offshore” productions, in which the province is used as a location by larger studios, we can be grateful to see some of the first: location footage used in Michael Powell’s 1941 film about Nazi spies lurking in the province in 49th Parallel (with one scene taking place in front of the Winnipeg Free Press building, no less).

Nikkel says his movie acknowledges the achievements of the past while celebrating the wealth of new voices coming into Manitoba filmmaking from hitherto underrepresented communities, such as BIPOC and LGBTTQ+ filmmakers coming up.

“Our cinematic forefathers had to, in many cases, invent gear to be able to achieve the sort of footage they needed to make the films they had in mind,” Nikkel says.

“I’m hoping that people can watch this film for context, for an establishing shot of the terrain and where they are in relationship to what’s come before,” he says. “To see the independent spirit, the creativity and the ingenuity that has come up again and again in Manitoba.

“I think that is pretty inspirational for the next generation,” he says. “The title really is a reference to our resilience as filmmakers in the face of the otherwise daunting odds of making film and video here in Manitoba — and how this really is just the start of our story, one that will continue.”

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

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