- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2008

Canadian auteur Guy Maddin is known as much for how his films look as for what they say. Most of his films, which include the Isabella Rossellini musical “The Saddest Music in the World,” look as if they were shot in the 1920s or ‘30s rather than the present day.

You might assume his visual style is carefully premeditated. The truth, however, is humbler.

“The images just seem to come out of the camera that way,” Mr. Maddin says. “I think it’s because I’m not a technologically clever person. I can’t even clean my cameras, but I don’t let anyone else do it. There’s gunk in there; I just leave it like that. I also don’t know how to read a light meter. I try to write scripts that fit in with that style.”

What’s become a trademark was simply an accident.

“Like so many other filmmakers, the written word has always come first for me. With my first few films, I never gave any thought to visual style,” he says. “My technical ineptitude came up with a lot of shadows.” He found this gave his films more atmosphere than the “bland” look that resulted when he hired a capable crew.

“I quickly banned people who knew anything from my set,” he says. “It enables you to work quickly and not get bogged down in mad, Kubrick-style obsessionism.”

You also might think that an auteur like Mr. Maddin, whose films are so singular, chooses his projects carefully, based solely on aesthetic considerations. Again, the truth is less romantic.

His new documentary “My Winnipeg,” about his beloved hometown, was commissioned by Michael Burns, former programming director of Canada’s Documentary Channel. “I heard a rumor he was going to ask me to make a documentary about Winnipeg,” Mr. Maddin recalls, speaking by telephone from New York. “I was so broke, I called to ask if there was truth to this rumor.”

Mr. Maddin can’t help but confound expectations - even his own.

“My Winnipeg,” opening Friday at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, follows a version of the 52-year-old filmmaker, played by an actor, who debates leaving the Canadian city in which he has always lived. Before doing so, he needs to confront his past, so he rents his childhood home and hires actors to wear his family’s clothes and re-enact painful moments. It’s a history of the city and a history of one family’s experience of it. How much of this “docu-fantasia,” as the writer-director calls it, is true?

“By coincidence, almost all of it,” he says. “It’s about 33 percent solid fact, 33 percent local legend, and 33 percent one man’s opinions and rants.”

Mr. Maddin says using actors enabled him to get closer to the truth. He decided not to use his own mother in the film, but instead have actress Ann Savage play her. “My mother would have inhibited herself,” he says. Miss Savage “nailed my mother more than my mother would have.”

In fact, that dramatically heightened portrayal is one reason why Mr. Maddin’s documentary about Canada’s seventh-largest city is, in many ways, a very un-Canadian work. “We don’t exaggerate; we don’t boast,” he reminds this reporter, a fellow Western Canadian.

Americans, he says, have a “massive mythology” that shapes their country, while Canadians “may be the only nationality in the entire world that’s too sheepish to self-mythologize.” That’s just what Mr. Maddin set out to do. He hopes that although he may not have always captured a literal truth in the process, he has given birth to a “poetic” or “psychological” one.

Canadians didn’t seem to mind: “My Winnipeg” won the Best Canadian Feature award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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