Wholly Cinema Exclusive Interview with “Tales From The Winnipeg Film Group” filmmakers Dave Barber and Kevin Nikkel

Blog post by Ross Munro for Wholly Cinema.

All those unrelenting Winnipeg winters mixed with copious amounts of Tim Horton’s coffee was bound to unleash some kind of subversive and darkly stylized filmmaking- and that’s exactly what happened with the advent of the extremely influential DIY band of moviemakers straight outta the prairies known as the Winnipeg Film Group.

Having myself been a member back in the late 1980’s in my hockey-loving hometown, I fondly remember those heady days like they were yesterday: all night editing orgies, dancing naked in a field while your film was being negative cut…wait- maybe I’m getting a little fuzzy with my memories after all…

But now you don’t have to remember because filmmakers Dave Barber and Kevin Nikkel, who were nice enough to chat with us here at Wholly Cinema, have made a cool and comprehensive documentary about everything you’ve always wanted to know about the history of this cinematic enclave called “Tales From The Winnipeg Film Group”. Enjoy!

Wholly Cinema: What inspired you to make this doc? 

Dave Barber: It is an amazing story because there is so much history and Winnipeg has such fantastic independent filmmakers. They make great work on little money. I know because I have worked here since 1983 and I know the history very well and all the crazy things that have gone on…Many people have talked about making this film for years and I now understand why they never tackled it. It is a daunting, complex story because you are dealing with 40 years of history with a huge number of films and filmmakers and staff turnover…so it’s like… where do you begin?…Kevin and I talked about the idea  but when MTS Stories on Demand (a documentary commissioning program of Bell Media led by Cam Bennett) gave us the production money that was the real spark and the film had to be made. We owe Cam a lot.

Kevin Nikkel: I think one of the big reasons was the rich history of independent filmmaking the last several decades and the reality that the founding members were getting older.  Their stories needed to be captured before they disappear. We knew it was a great story.


WC: What is it about Winnipeg that produces so many filmmakers with such a unique vision?

Dave: It has a very strong arts community full of creative artists in all fields – film and video, photography, visual art, music with very supportive arts funding from government arts councils which is much harder to find in some provinces. It is a long, barren, isolating winter with not much to do and people are forced to go into their imagination for ideas so the ideas that come out of that are imaginative. And filmmakers are inspired by all the great filmmakers who have created work out of Winnipeg. I remember when I first saw the early films of John Paizs and “Crime Wave” I thought you don’t need to be attached to a large studio to make great work…You just need to care about what is in the frame of your camera and that is open to anyone’s imagination.

Kevin: As the film explores, it is a rich intersection of factors. The isolation and distance from major centres like Toronto. The close community that allows for collaboration. Available resources through the artist run-centres. Fierce spirit of DIY creativity. Those are some reasons.

Dave Barber and Kevin Nikkel by Winnipeg sign Photo by Leif Norman
                            Filmmakers Dave Barber and Kevin Nikkel of the new documentary                   “Tales From The Winnipeg Film Group”  Photo by Leif Norman

CW: What was the most challenging aspect of making the film?

Dave: Several things – finding the story direction and asking ourselves what is it that carries your interest forward in this subject? We wrestled hard with this. The story tells itself in the early years but it gets tougher when dealing with the last ten years… Who should we interview…? There are hundreds so we made a list and worked our way through it. There are simply too many people! There were a few people we were not able to interview so alas we had to respect their decision.. Are there any archival film clips, photos? The WFG doesn’t always keep stuff but I kept a lot of clippings and things which helped. Not everyone said yes and we cut some people out of the film …including most of me. Kevin also flew to Los Angeles, Washington, DC and London, England to get some interviews. We also drove to  a small town in Saskatchewan where we found Jeff Erbach who turned out to be an important interview. Jeff made a controversial film called “Soft Like Me” that was commented on critically in the Village Voice of all places and tells some great stories.

Kevin: Finding people to interview. Finding B roll and photos to help explain the eras.

Dr Jolly in John Paizs's film Crime Wave
Dr Jolly in John Paizs’s film “Crime Wave”

WC: What has been the reaction from audiences when seeing your film and learning about the Winnipeg Film Group and its legacy?

Dave: Most people who have seen it love the film because it is honest and is packed with rare archival footage The reaction at a recent screening at the Canadian Film Institute was the best Q&A we have had with lots of questions. Two important people who worked at the Canada Council in the 1980’s Francoyse Picard (who is in the film) and David Poole showed up to see it as well as some filmmakers. Virtually everyone who sees it really likes the film and comments on how comprehensive and entertaining it is. The Winnipeg Film Group is like the great Japanese movie Rashomon….everyone has their own version of the truth.

Kevin: Positive. Curiosity.

Montrea gimli 1988
Filmmakers Greg Klymkiw and Guy Maddin

WC: As you’ve been entrenched in the front lines of film programming for several decades now, what are some of the changes in the programming landscape that you’ve noticed?

Dave: Huge change of technology and theatres and film distributors over the years. Some distributors fold and some larger ones gobble up others. There is a huge change in the technical exhibition format of the way films are seen – from 16mm and 35mm through all kinds of digital exhibition formats – ¾”, DVCAM, Betacam, and now digital files and DCP – It is kind of astonishing. The internet has a huge amount of film information so people could educate themselves if disciplined enough. And yet that being said, there is an important role for independent theatres and Cinematheques in educating the public.  

On the set of Rabbit Pie Photo courtesy of Brad Caslor
On the set of “Rabbit Pie”   Photo courtesy of Brad Caslor

WC: Are you working on any new projects?

Dave: Kevin and I are working on an idea about folk music but we are doing research on the story development.

Kevin: We’re developing something on the independent folk music scene of the 1970s. Early in the game on this.

Filmmaker Rhayne Vermette

WC: What are some of your favourite documentaries? Was there one in particular that influenced you in the making of this one?

Dave: I am a huge fan of Albert Maysles, Alan Zweig and Agnes Varda.

Kevin: Fans of the work of Les Blank. Also Peter Mettler, John Walker and Patricio Guzman. Not sure if anyone of them were an inspiration for “Tales From The Winnipeg Film Group”.

Pacific Cinematheque: Vancouver, June 18, 2019

CineCenta: Victoria, June 25, 2019


V i v a   l a   C i n e m a !