CONTROVERSIES is a 17 minute long archival-documentary directed by the Winnipeg-born and Montreal-based film director Ryan McKenna. It was featured at Cannes film festival, the MOMA, Hotdocs Film Fest, and Montreal’s International Documentary Festival (RIDM), where it won a whole bunch of well-deserved prizes. We talked to the director about the story behind CONTROVERSIES’ creation, which turns out to be just as intriguing as the documentary itself.
The project was born as an unexpected deviation from a documentary McKenna was working on at the time, about the life of the eccentric pioneer of Winnipeg’s Indie film production, Greg Klymkiw (Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Archangel, Careful). Klymikiw devised a marketing campaign that brought Manitoban post-modernist cinema to the world by fabricating an entire mythological hype around it, and directed almost every major production out of Winnipeg in the 80’s including several of Guy Maddin’s films. He also wrote and produced the cable cult classic “Survival,” which he starred in from behind a mask-to prevent his parents from recognizing him on-screen. Tracking down some of Klymikiw’s colorful antics brought McKenna to the archives of Peter Warren’s popular 1980’s radio talk show “Action Line,” which Klymikiw had prank-called on several occasions with absurd ramblings executed in a fake Ukrainian accent.
What McKenna found instead was a goldmine of strange, right-wing gripes and options on current affairs of the day. In this pre-Google era, Peter Warren’s talk show became the arena for blue-collar Manitobans to call in and vocalize all types of concerns, ranging from their two-cents about the daily news to questions about how to file their taxes and the price of postage stamps. The cultural world that unfolds is funny, bizarre and strangely nostalgic. There is a sense that the entire community is participating in a collective drama, with Peter Warren acting as the all-knowing voice of God, calmly responding to individual anxieties, queries and frustrations. The voices, with their local narratives and strong regional accents, provide a fascinating sociological portrait of a very specific time and place: small town Winnipeg between 1983 and 1991.
McKenna narrowed the 50 hours of archival audio down to 45 minutes and then further trimmed it to 17 minutes, which he described as the most difficult part of the entire creative process. To provide these recordings with a visual supplement, he headed back to Winnipeg with Becca Blackwood (the film’s art director), and contacted every quaint-sounding name in Blackwood’s mother’s old phone book. The characters he unearthed were delightfully characteristic of those who would have listened to the show at the time. Filmed with old Russian analogue lenses, McKenna and Blackwood collected 70 monochromatic video portraits; old women stroking their cats on floral-print upholstery, middle-aged housewives smoking cigarettes in the kitchen, staring listlessly into empty space, talking on the phone…. The portraits recreate, in an exaggeratedly fixed, synthetic fashion, the imagined appearance of the callers of the time.
The juxtaposition of the audio and the video imagery results in a humorous contrast between the mundane household environments of the listeners and the outrageous, far-fetched events reported on the radio. The gossip-infused excitement of the Action Line narratives overlays a dramatic soundtrack onto otherwise monotonous day-to-day scenarios. Some of the shots linger on the exterior facades of buildings, inspiring the viewer to construct a mental image of the caller inside the building, the voice drifting out from the windows. CONTROVERSIES manages, by focusing in on very individual and subjective psychologies, to consequentially paint a much larger ethnographic portrait. Not only of its localized Winnipeg context, but also of the general dissonance between real life and the dazzling dramas portrayed by the media, which in many ways creep into our personal space and become intertwined with our everyday existence.
CONTROVERSIES will be made accessible online shortly, after finishing its journey though the film festival circuit. In the meantime, you can request a copy via the Winnipeg Film Group.
Also, keep an eye out for McKenna’s new film, a French fiction feature starring Marie Brassard, Francis la Haye and the amazing Amadou et Mariam. It should be out by Christmas-time and we’re all super excited to see it.
17 minutes | Canada | Documentary | Black & White | Stereo Mix | 2:35 Scope | 2014
Directed By: Ryan McKenna
Produced By: Becca Blackwood and Ryan McKenna
HOT DOCS – 2014 | DOXA – 2014 | DMZ – 2014 | RIDM – 2014 |
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: NSOT – 2014 | Doc Fortnight MoMA 2015