A tale of alienation, dehumanisation and exploitation in “Upload:U”

Samuel E Mac, “Upload:U” (2017)

A creepy little short made in very sparing minimalist style, “Upload:U” may be viewed as a metaphor expressing the alienation and dehumanisation of people living isolated existences highly dependent on cyber-technology for social interactions. Disillusioned by her cubicle job at work, unable to connect with a male employee she fancies and cut off from her family, Jane (Lee Marshall) increasingly relies on her recreational virtual reality console, connected to the AI system in her flat, for entertainment and solace. One night, her avatar takes her to a bar where she meets a man – or a few men – and has sex with him (or them). She wakes up in the morning in pain, wounded and bloodied between her legs. A strange light glows white and red within her abdomen.

Reminiscent of the cult sci-fi horror film “Demon Seed” in which a scientist’s wife is held prisoner, raped and impregnated by a computer, this short can be distressing to watch as Jane, trying to get help through her AI which deliberately misunderstands her instructions, weakens and finally dies. At no time at all does Jane appear to realise that the AI has fooled and manipulated her, and in my view this is the film’s downfall. At the very least Jane could have asked or argued with the AI what it had done to her and why. At the very least Jane could have attempted to regain control over her life, perhaps even tried to damage the AI, and this would have given viewers a better indication of her character. As it is, Jane comes across as superficial, passive and undeserving of audience sympathy. The conclusion is predictable but is cut off very quickly so viewers get no idea of the AI’s reaction to the birth of the offspring.

While the film’s visual style is light, clear and minimalist, obscuring the horror of its plot, and its cinematography is very good and uses a cheap budget well through the use of unusual angles and points of view, the film overall is let down by a poor story and sketchy characterisation. To get something out of this film, viewers need to bring their own knowledge of human alienation gained from experience or philosophical study. Young viewers without such knowledge, at whom the film targets, are likely to find this film confusing. Viewing “Upload:U” as a metaphor for human alienation, as a first step towards dehumanising people and exploiting them as machines, may be helpful in understanding the film and its flaws.

Metta Via: a story of personal transformation with a strange power and attraction

Warren Flanagan, “Metta Via” (2017)

Visually stunning and ambitious in its concept, this Canadian short work is possessed of unusual power. Superficially it lacks an obvious plot and for all I know it may actually be a proof-of-concept work for a movie inspired by existential themes. In a temple-like spacecraft, a young woman, Evelyn (Stacey Armstrong), awakens as if having been birthed in an artificial womb. Around her, strange machines with flashing coloured disks that may reference the concept of chakras (focal points of energy in the human body in Tantra Buddhism or Hinduism) communicate with one another in an equally odd alien language. These machines clearly expect something of this young woman; they detach the life support systems that have sustained her and push her gasping onto the floor. Apparent memories flash in front of her and for a short while, her earliest memory – of living on a farm in picture-postcard-perfect Switzerland as a small girl, being beckoned by a white-clad figure (Armstrong again) to follow while all around spaceships bearing the symbols of the machines that have kept Evelyn alive hover in the sky – holds her spellbound. Presumably other memories come to the fore, stay a while and flash back into her unconscious mind. Evelyn seems to come to a decision and strides towards a blinding white light, her physical body falling away and the life-force that maintained it becoming pure energy. As she enters through the Blankness, the machines behind her roar approvingly and ask her if she is still present within. Evelyn affirms that she is, and moreover there are others like her within.

The plot is so vague that many meanings and interpretations can be placed upon it. The woman may be in a grey zone between incarnations and her entry into the white Blankness may be her passing into a new universe where she will take up her new body. Only her consciousness will retain anything of past lives in previous universes. Alternately Evelyn may be ascending to another level within the current universe: a level we humans cannot understand, but one where Evelyn and others who have ascended before may look back or look down on us, and perhaps try to intercede to shape a particular direction to global cultures so we humans don’t destroy the planet through our foolish and thoughtless actions. At the very least, a personal transformation is taking place, one from which a person cannot return to a previous state of existence.

The spacecraft settings are lavish yet at the same time rather alien-looking, eerie and reminiscent of ancient pagan temples where animals might be sacrificed and their various organs offered to the gods or used in a divination ritual. A debt is owed to past inspirational films like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”. Actor Stacey Armstrong, having no monologue or dialogue to express, conveys all the wonder, the surprise, the fear and the determination her character needs in undergoing what might be a traumatic birth or rebirth, or simply coming out of a long period of aestivation, into another state of existence. The animation and special effects are impressive, and one does get the feeling of a mighty alien space civilisation capturing human children, somehow bringing them up and maturing them into adults, and then once those adults have become conscious and aware, using that conscious force for its own ends. Do the machines that bring Evelyn awake have an altruistic agenda in doing so? Or are they planning to use Evelyn and any abilities she may have to persuade her fellow human beings to submit to their power?

Perhaps it is the film’s capacity to be all interpretations while not favouring any one in particular that gives it its power and attraction.



Iteration 1: a dystopian human future equivalent to a maze teaching flatworms to learn from experience

Jesse Lupini, “Iteration 1” (2016)

Made for a Canadian film festival in which the objective was to shoot a film and complete its post-production in the space of 8 days, “Iteration 1” is a very good-looking work that perhaps mirrors how AI bots learn or how flatworms are trained to find their way through a maze. In a dystopian future where she might be a prisoner, Anna (Katherine Isabelle) gets up out of bed and has 60 seconds to find her way out of her minimalist-styled prison or get zapped dead if she makes a mistake or time runs out. The next time she is born, she has to go through the whole process of escaping her prison within 60 seconds again. Viewers can see where this is going so there is no point of trying to count the number of times Anna becomes aware and being zapped before she is eventually able to escape her bedroom prison, only to enter another prison where she is surrounded by balloons of which she must break one to find a key that will allow her to escape the second prison … into a third prison where there is a huge tree and a small axe. Each time she wakes up, her attitude changes (indicating that she is learning from past experiences) and previous incarnations assist her so perhaps yes, Anna is indeed some kind of AI bot. In every incarnation, Anna is warned by an unseen supervisor (France Perras) speaking to her through some sort of PA system whenever she makes a mistake.

Viewers may think there is no plot or story, and certainly there appears to be no ending, but the plot itself is a series of endless repetitions which might symbolise the journey of life for individual humans or humanity as a collective … the purpose of humankind, individually and collectively, is to achieve and overcome obstacles, and learn from such experiences, to advance the species and enable its survival. What the end goal from such a series of quests is, remains elusive.

For a film quickly put together, the sets are very good, the acting is impressive without being excessive and the special effects are also spot-on and well done.

Hybrids: a hybrid short film of too many cliches and stereotypes

Patrick Kalyn, “Hybrids” (2013)

This sci-fi live action short seems to have been made as a proof-of-concept film to promote an idea for a television series to film studio executives. In six minutes, a devoted mother (Daniella Evangelista), stunned to discover her daughter Abby (Kaitlyn Bernard) mutilated to death by mysterious strangers only moments after the girl kissed Mum goodbye in their garden, has become a vigilante soldier dedicated to wiping out the horde of insectoid critters responsible for the child’s death in a post-apocalyptic urban environment. Most of the film is taken up by the mother being attacked by and beating the living daylights out of the monsters with a variety of weapons. Using some ingenious hologram technology, the mother tricks a swarm of creatures into attacking her image and blows them up. She knows however that there are far, far more of those monsters where they came from and the next day will be like the previous day: she will continue hunting them and killing them until one day they will all be dead.

For a short film, the special effects and the cinematography are quite good, and what acting does appear looks adequate for the task. The music is the usual cliched Hollywood orchestral schmaltz so the less said about it, the better. Unfortunately the narrative is very stereotyped and derivative: Mum is clearly modelled on the Sarah Connor character made famous by Linda Hamilton in The Terminator series of movies. How the mother came to be such a mighty warrior skilled in handling a variety of firearms, throwing knives and swords, and karate-chopping her enemies isn’t explained very well. The monsters don’t seem very intelligent: they are looking for a “key” that is possessed only by humans and which appears to be part of their genetic make-up so they insist on killing humans to extract what they need. If one assumes the monsters came from outer space, they surely would have the intelligence (or at least the intelligence that enabled them to build the spacecraft to travel to Earth) to try to co-operate with humans to identify the “key” and try to reproduce it themselves.

The final shot of the film presents an ambiguity: some of the monsters are clearly working with humans and at this point, the realisation dawns on this viewer that the monsters already contain some human genetic material combined with other non-human genetic material. Whether the female soldier is allied with these monsters and armed humans or not remains unknown. The whole film though presents an idea that is not at all original, relies too much on physical conflict and violence, and the special effects to make this happen, and uses a plot filled with cliches about family, revenge and survival in a quarantined city. The notion of humans and extraterrestrial creatures working in tandem to eliminate other humans – perhaps because those humans don’t wish to serve as slaves to an elite in a hierarchical society – is also not original. There are too many tired stereotypes and recycled ideas in this film short and the concept it promotes most likely needs retiring.

Borderless: European refugee / migrant crisis harbours a sinister agenda

Caolan Robertson and George Llewellyn-John, “Borderless” (2019)

Lauren Southern is a political activist and independent journalist notorious for expressing views considered to be white-nationalist and borderline racist / xenophobic. However this documentary on the European refugee and immigration crisis is free of ideology and criticism, and Southern (together with her 2-person camera crew) interviews as many people involved in the crisis as possible to get an understanding of the scale of the crisis: these people include refugees and migrants in camps in Morocco, and in Lesvos and other parts of Greece; a homeless migrant from Mali in Paris; EU citizens including a Greek farmer whose farm was overrun by people traffickers and smugglers; people working for NGOs (non-government organisations) in refugee camps supposedly assisting refugees; vigilante militia members in Bulgaria on the lookout for illegal migrants; and an Irish investigative journalist who speaks frankly about the profits that smuggling networks can earn from illegal migration for the people who control them. Southern’s work takes her and her crew across southern Europe and northwest Africa, and to Ireland and Paris.

Initially the film is slow and appears quite amateurish as Southern waits late at night for refugees and migrants to arrive at a beach in northwestern Turkey where people smugglers will take them on a possibly hazardous voyage in flimsy dinghy boats to Lesvos island. After that episode, when the film cuts to Morocco, the pace picks up and the film has more focus and direction, though the unnecessarily dramatic music is intrusive and jarring. From this point on, viewers begin to get a sense of what Southern is working towards: that the refugee and migration crisis, in which huge numbers of people are forced to move from war-torn and/or impoverished areas in the Middle East, western Asia and sub-Saharan Africa into a Europe struggling with its own problems of austerity economics, high unemployment, excessive property speculation and homelessness, appears to be part of a sinister plan created and engineered by an unseen cabal of people who actually profit financially and otherwise (such as perhaps stealing vacated land sitting atop natural gas and oil deposits) by huge shifts of populations, with no regard for how different groups of people with very different histories, cultures, values and traditions can live and work together in crowded conditions and with limited resources.

Alarming moments abound through the documentary: in northern Greece, migrants from as far away as Afghanistan tell of daily fights and violence in their camp and one man says that ISIS fighters have infiltrated the camp by pretending to be refugees and are on the lookout for him (he is an atheist) and others like Christians or Kurdish people who refuse to submit to their Wahhabi brand of Islam; members of NGOs funded by the UN or the EU admit teaching migrants how to fudge their personal details and commit fraud in order to enter Europe, and how they themselves benefit financially from aiding and abetting the human trafficking; African refugees and migrants in Morocco pour out their hopes and dreams of work and success in the European countries they strive to enter; and several migrants in camps in Greece and Morocco admit that they wished they had stayed home. Where migrants find the thousands of euros or their equivalent to pay smugglers to take them abroad is never mentioned but from the way some migrants speak and the way they try to dress and comport themselves, one suspects they may have come from middle class backgrounds or pulled some strings. One odd thing about the migrants that might strike viewers is how very few women, children and elderly people there are in the camps; another odd thing is that some migrants have come from as far away as Afghanistan.

In Brussels, MEPs Southern interviews admit that the EU wastes huge amounts of money in driving an agenda that forces open border policies on EU member nations with no thought for how individual countries cope with housing migrants, feeding them and giving them work at the same time that many of their own citizens are homeless, suffer food insecurity and cannot find work in conditions already strained by austerity policies that have shrunk economic and business activity. Southern travels to Wicklow, a rural town in Ireland, which is trying to cope with an influx of asylum seekers holed up in a hotel. The Wicklow locals lament the irreversible changes forced on them by a local government council that refuses to listen to them, and the asylum seekers themselves see the homelessness, the lack of work, the despair and the suspicion surrounding them.

While the film’s conclusion is an untidy mix of images from previous parts of the documentary accompanied by the tiresome muzak soundtrack, Southern’s address to the audience, in which she admits her astonishment at the scale and complexiy of the crisis and the greed, manipulation and criminality involved in what is virtually a giant global human-trafficking operation, on par with (and superseding) the trans-Atlantic slave trade from Ireland and Africa during the 17th to 19th centuries, and her realisation that refugees, migrants and the peoples of the host nations alike have been deceived and played for fools by a small group of what she calls “evil men” (in reality, governments and their puppet masters), is remarkable in its stark honesty. Southern herself has come a long way in her own research and discoveries, and while she may still express views considered antithetical to the bland and shallow values under the Identity Politics / Diversity umbrella, at least these views are informed by reality on the ground.

Cynicism and citizenship for sale in “Operation Mr Chen: The Hidden Face of Quebec’s Golden Visas”

Francis Plourde, “Operation Mr Chen: The Hidden Face of Quebec’s Golden Visas” (Enquete, September 2018)

In 1986 the Canadian federal government and the Quebec provincial government pioneered investment programs encouraging wealthy migrants with at least $2 million in assets to settle in Canada and Quebec province respectively, provided that, among other conditions they had to meet as immigrants, they invested a minimum amount of $1.2 million (as a loan to the respective governments) into the country or province to generate business, revenues and jobs. Since 1986, thousands of immigrants have gained permanent residency in Canada through these programs. In 2014, the federal program shut down over concerns about its effectiveness but the Quebec Immigrant Investor Program (hereafter QIIP) continues. An investigation by Radio-Canada’s current affairs program Enquete in 2018 reveals that QIIP has degenerated into a financial scam that encourages tax evasion, money laundering and the Canadian economy’s dependence on money – much of it from China and Hong Kong – sloshing through banks and other financial institutions to prop up excessive property speculation in Vancouver and other major cities.

The Enquete investigation takes a multi-pronged approach to covering all aspects of this investment scheme and its consequences for Canada’s economy including hiring a Hong Kong man to pose as wealthy prospective businessman investor Mr Chen, with plenty of money and a shady history of businesses and tax evasion to match his wealth, who approaches an immigration consultancy to inquire about obtaining permanent residency in Quebec and a Canadian passport. What journalist Francis Plourde discovers through “Mr Chen” and his “secretary” using hidden cameras is that immigration consultants and lawyers connected with QIIP are prepared to overlook the huge gaps in the would-be migrant’s business and tax affairs and even suggest that he change his name to “Bruce Lee” (ha!) and acquire citizenship in a dodgy Caribbean tax haven place to evade both Canadian and Chinese tax authorities by establishing a trust fund based there.

Interviews with Quebec government public servants who worked in Hong Kong dealing with QIIP applications and the immigrant consultants and lawyers who represented or were asked to vet wealthy clients wanting permanent residency status in Canada reveal the extent of the corruption involved; the undercover operation using the fake investor Mr Chen confirms the sloppy way in which applications were processed and how consultants turned a blind eye to applicants’ shady financial pasts. The officials who worked in Hong Kong speak of not having enough time to do full due diligence work on applicants’ documents and of being pressed by the Quebec government to accept applicants in spite of not having the time or the resources to check and authenticate their papers.

The investigation also examines whether the QIIP program has delivered economic benefits to Quebec in the generation of new business and jobs in that province. While bureaucrats and new small to medium-sized firms in Quebec are enthusiastic about government programs that fund their growth and development, what the investigators found that the money loaned by investors (interest-free, for five years) to Quebec was placed with Investissement Quebec (hereafter IQ) which invested the money in funds at market rates. The interest earned would be invested in actual businesses. Further investigation with an economist found that the number of jobs generated by investment by IQ was far less than IQ itself claims. On top of this, the revenue earned from IQ’s investments has been low due to very low interest rates over the past decade (2008 – 2018). If this were not enough, much of the revenue has to be paid to immigration consultants in commissions for referring prospective immigrants to QIIP so the amount invested in new businesses is much, much less than it could be.

A further consequence of QIIP is that most Chinese immigrants – they make up the majority of the QIIP immigrants – end up in cities like Vancouver and Toronto where they drive up the prices of properties and help create property speculation bubbles. Many immigrants commute between Canada, China and Hong Kong, and rarely or even never set foot in Quebec. They pay very little income tax in Canada – indeed, buying property is itself a form of tax evasion – while Vancouver suffers from an overheated property market in which local people are effectively barred from buying their own homes, and Vancouver city authorities suffer the burden of supplying education and health services to foreign families that contribute very little to Canada.

In effect, the whole QIIP project has created a financial monster in which the main beneficiaries are financial institutions and people gaming the project as if it were a giant casino. The program has created opportunities for money laundering and taxation evasion. It appears that neither the Canadian nor the Quebec government seems to care very much about the adverse economic and social consequences that QIIP creates for communities in Vancouver and other cities where wealthy immigrants have flocked to buy up mansions and expensive apartments and to educate their children in private schools, as long as money is flowing into the country. In the process, an elite transnational class of people dependent on rentier income derived from property speculation and with no concept of national loyalty is created.

Above all, the notion that citizenship can be bought at a price, and the conditions attached to the purchase of citizenship can be disregarded, as long as the buyer brings plenty of money, is cynical and says quite a bit about the grubby motivations and aims of the people who dreamt up the idea of fast-tracking residency status and citizenship on the basis of material wealth.

Real-life horror movie treatment of patients in “Brainwashed: The Secret CIA Experiments in Canada” which the Canadian government refuses to acknowledge and apologise for

Harvey Cashore, “Brainwashed: The Secret CIA Experiments in Canada” (The Fifth Estate, December 2017)

As The Fifth Estate’s website post on this documentary says, the scenario might be straight out of a Hollywood B-grade horror movie plot: patients in a psychiatric hospital subjected to electro-shock treatment, rounds of drug treatment including hallucinatory drugs like LSD to induce comas lasting weeks, even months on end, hypnotic suggestion and sensory deprivation, all supposedly to cure them of mental conditions like anxiety, depression and paranoia. Yet these patients end up behaving like infants and their memories are almost destroyed. Incredibly this scene was the reality for hundreds of Canadians being treated by medical personnel under the supervision of Dr Donald Ewen Cameron at the Allan Memorial Institute in the 1950s and 60s as part of the notorious MK ULTRA project directed by the CIA and supported by the Canadian government. These experiments, aimed at breaking down people’s negative mental structures and patterns causing their problems, were ultimately recognised as failures and the program at the institute was shut down in 1965, yet the demands by patients and their families for compensation from Ottawa went ignored or were obfuscated for years. The Canadian government has never apologised for supporting and funding Dr Cameron’s experiments which caused such suffering and injury to patients and which affected their families as well, and continues to deny responsibility for its part in the experiments despite grudgingly paying compensation to some (but not all) patients who brought law suits against it.

Using a mix of archived materials, dramatisations and interviews with former patients of Dr Cameron, narrator and writer Bob McKeown builds a compelling story of how the experiments began as a response to the return of US and Canadian soldiers from the Korean War who had been held as POWs by the North Korean government and who supported its Communist ideology. Determining without apparent evidence that the North Koreans, Russians and Chinese were using mind-altering methods on prisoners, the CIA decided to research the use of drugs that could counter such brain-washing and influence captives from Communist nations to support capitalist ideology. At the same time, at the Allan Memorial Institute in McGill University in Montreal, Dr Cameron was investigating ways of treating and curing schizophrenia by erasing memories and deprogramming then reprogramming the brain and psyche. The CIA recruited Cameron into its MK ULTRA and related projects and paid him through a front organisation called the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology. From there the documentary follows the paths of two former patients and what they suffered, and it details the profound effects of Cameron’s experiments on these patients and their families, and on other families.

Rather than admit its role in financing and encouraging the brain-washing experiments, Ottawa persecutes the victims of the experiments by denying compensation, subjecting former patients to eligibility requirements for compensation, placing gag orders on people and forcing people to pursue justice through the legal system.

Although the two female patients interviewed by McKeown were fortunate indeed to survive their treatments, the documentary makes no mention of those not so lucky and who continue to suffer long-term ill health (or have even died) as a result of the experiments. The documentary’s narrow focus on selected Canadian victims means that the wider ramifications of the experiments, especially for the CIA renditioning programs in the Middle East and western Asia which often involved torture and the use of mind-altering drugs on prisoners, must go ignored.

A Tale of Two Traitors: short documentary on two double agents is short on answers as to why spies turn traitor

Ronna Syed, “A Tale of Two Traitors” (Fifth Estate, March 2018)

In the wake of the recent incident in the UK concerning a suspected poisoning of a Russian double agent and his daughter, and their continued incarceration in a small general hospital while the official account of how they were poisoned and what they were poisoned with continues to change from one week to the next, the Canadian investigative news documentary series The Fifth Estate revisited Canada’s own answer to Sergei Skripal, a KGB spy codenamed Gideon. In the early 1950s, Gideon was posted to Ottawa where he fell in love with the wife of a soldier and was persuaded by her to spy for Canada. Gideon apparently gave much valuable information about the Soviets to his new masters in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Surprisingly, an RCMP employee, James Morrison, was spying for the Soviets at the same time and revealed to his masters that Gideon had betrayed his country. In 1955, Gideon was recalled back to the Soviet Union and the Canadians presumed that he would be executed. In 1982, James Morrison spoke to The Fifth Estate and admitted having betrayed Gideon to the USSR. For his betrayal, Morrison was arrested, tried and convicted, and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

In 1992, after the downfall of the Soviet Union, a former security officer, Don Mahar, received a phone call advising him that a man had appeared at the British embassy in Lithuania claiming to be Gideon. After interrogating the man with questions that only Gideon knew the answers to, Mahar was satisfied that the man in Vilnius was indeed Gideon. Gideon was brought back to Canada. The news that Gideon was still alive and moreover safe in Canada brought relief to James Morrison and his lawyer Peter Cronin, and to investigative reporter John Sawadski who had been following the story for several years. Morrison died and was buried in an unmarked common grave in 2001 with no eulogy and few people in attendance. Gideon died in 2009, having never tried to re-establish contact with the woman he fell in love with and who had encouraged him to turn traitor.

The nature of what Gideon gave to the Canadians, that was apparently so serious that when he returned to the Soviet Union he was presumed to be going to an early grave as a traitor, is not revealed in this short report. The fact that the Canadian security services were so sure that Gideon had been executed for treason that they considered his survival a miracle might say more about their prejudices about the KGB and the Soviet Union, than about the Soviets themselves – but the program does not inquire into this angle as its focus is narrow and extends no further than exploring the shenanigans of two double agents. (The Canadians do not consider the possibility that the Soviets might have regarded Gideon so beneath contempt for betraying his country that execution would have been too good for him, and career and social ostracism would be judged a more fitting punishment.) On the other hand, the report does not go into much detail as to why Gideon and Morrison decided to betray their countries for selfish and quite trivial personal reasons: Gideon’s romance with another man’s wife must have turned out a short-lived fling and Morrison betrayed Gideon for a small sum of money. For such short-lived thrills, the consequences of what these men did stuck to them, millstone-like, for the rest of their lives. Morrison died in disgrace as well.

I’d have liked to know more about how and why agents turn traitor, and why they would betray their countries for often superficial and not well thought-out reasons, or small amounts of money, when surely they would know that doing this would jeopardise their lives and the lives of their families back home, and bring public condemnation on themselves that will last the rest of their lives. The program can viewed at this link.

 

My Winnipeg: an intriguing blend of memoir, documentary and surreal dark fantasy in a paean to a little city on the prairie

Guy Maddin, “My Winnipeg” (2007)

An unusual blend of memoir, documentary and dark fantasy, Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg” probably does more to promote his home city, out on the prairies in the middle of Canada and the entire North American continent, than a hundred thousand travel agency brochures could do. Instead of presenting an overgrown railway transportation hub town that freezes over five months a year (although the city is also surprisingly one of Canada’s sunniest places), Maddin gives us a Winnipeg as an unlikely chthonic deity with a darkly magnetic sexual energy and an occult, even sinister personality. At the same time, Winnipeg is a universal city, suffering from the same problems that large cities the world over are blighted with: underhand and corrupt city politics, the demolition of beloved landmarks like the ice hockey stadium or an old elm tree, and conflicts between the city’s political and economic elites and the factory workers they exploit. This presentation runs in parallel with Maddin’s exploration of his past, in particular his complicated relationship with his mother (played by Ann Savage) and his equally complicated sexuality, as a way of coming to terms with the environment that made him what he is.

The film’s plot structure is ingenious: it takes the form of Guy Maddin (played by Darcy Fehr, with Maddin providing voice-over narration) on a train leaving Winnipeg to where he possibly knows not, lying on a bed in his compartment and wrestling with the problem of what he needs to do to be able to escape Winnipeg, where he has lived all his life. He decides to film a fantasy documentary recounting events from his life in Winnipeg and from the city’s own history as a way of coming to terms with Winnipeg and his own family history so he can leave. Hence the reason for the film already scrolling before our very eyes. From here on in, the road-movie theme encompasses a series of episodes that leap from the personal and family experiences to the greater experiences of the city and back again. ot

To be honest I found Guy Maddin’s recollections of past incidents involving family members not all that interesting, not to mention suspect in their veracity in case readers are wondering; these “remembered” incidents only appear to underline the sexual links, real or imagined, between family members (especially Mom) and Winnipeg, and the hold they have over Maddin. The incidents in Winnipeg’s history, real or not, are far more intriguing, bizarre or eccentric: a fire at a racetrack panics horses in nearby stables and they rush out into the cold wintry night and plunge into a river, only to freeze to death, their frozen heads above the icy surface of the waters the only evidence of their deaths when they are found the following morning. (The incident is relayed with animation and still shots in such a way as to suggest there was something predetermined about this tragedy, that the horses – themselves often symbolic of sexuality and sexual control in dreams – were following a script laid out for them even before their births.) A determined attempt by elderly matriarchs to save an elm tree from being destroyed to make way for a city development ends when the tree is attacked by a gang of thugs during the night. In the 1930s a spiritualist craze spreads like fever to the highest echelons of Winnipeg city council. Such a quirky selection of events in the city’s history makes Winnipeg seem more alive and vibrant than a coach tour of its museums, art galleries, restaurants and cafes does.

For the most part the film is shot in black-and-white which helps give the blurry cinematography a mysteriously shadowy Gothic style. Historical film of actual events (whether relayed accurately or not), acted scenes of past family dramas and animated sections are united by Maddin’s voice-over narration which lends the movie a faux-documentary sheen. In lesser hands the film could have been laughably bombastic but Canadian self-deprecating humour ensures that Winnipeg, whether representative of all cities, an overgrown set of houses on the prairie or a network of layers of narratives of different cultures that combine to give this cow-town a richer tapestry than it could have hoped for, has a charm all its own. Even the fact that Winnipeg gets covered in snow for several months a year is treated in a way that induces a sense of wonder – and frequent still shots of black criss-crossed by white noise slash add to the mystery – rather than fright in potential tourists.

As to be expected with films by Guy Maddin, “My Winnipeg” defies convention and becomes a surreal dream-like paean to home, family, community and city, and the stories (real, depressing or fantastical) that they carry or threaten to carry.

The Sweet Hereafter: a fragmented film labouring under too many issues about loss and betrayal of children

Atom Egoyan, “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997)

It won quite a few Best Film and Director awards and was nominated for Best Director and Screenplay Oscars but I found Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” overly long and laboured for what it is and what it seeks to do. An ambulance-chasing lawyer, Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), lobs into a small rural community grieving over the loss of several children in a school-bus accident; Stephens aims to round up enough willing applicants to launch a class action litigation suit alleging negligence against the bus company and the school insurance board. He manages to rope in a few people but the lawsuit threatens to open raw emotions and other wounds afresh among the townsfolk and set them against one another. Two significant eye-witnesses, Billy (Bruce Greenwood) and Nicole (Sarah Polley), are unwilling to testify; Nicole in particular, despite her singer-songwriter career having been derailed by the accident, suffers from survivor guilt, resents her parents’ interest in a huge cash payout to compensate for her no longer being a money-pot, and refuses to have anything to do with the suit. While rounding up potential litigants, Stephens must also deal with his personal problems, most of which revolve around his guilt over the upbringing of his young daughter Zoe who as an adult has become a drug addict and who fears she has contracted an HIV infection after she is rejected as a blood donor.

The lonely and melancholy beauty of the harsh mountain landscape in winter, where the action takes place, provides an ideal setting for the tragedy that unfolds leisurely through flashback scenes interspersed among Stephens’ visits to the locals and his own narrative of loss, tragedy, despair and guilt. At the heart of the film is the issue of responsibility and blame, how people cope with loss, and how it has the potential to rend a community apart or bring people closer. One underlying theme is how people as individuals and as a collective and through their institutions have failed their children and themselves time and again; there is also a related theme of child sexual abuse that raises its ugly head at the film’s climax. Human institutions such as an adversarial legal system or organised religion can be dangers in this respect. Stephens, running away from his own guilt over Zoe, pours his anger at himself into posing as a crusader for social justice on behalf of the town but is ultimately thwarted by the young girl Nicole when she is called to give a witness statement.

The acting is good and restrained but I wonder if Egoyan errs on featuring too many close-ups of people about to break down and cry, as if seeing one or two almost weepy people isn’t enough to turn on viewers’ own lachrymal spigots. The blues-rock music soundtrack can be too intrusive at times, trying to stress the intense emotional aspects of the plot and the issues it raises. At one point the film appears to aspire to soap opera status by featuring two people having an affair that goes nowhere. For an otherwise low-key film, there is too much emotion and not enough questing as to how people should cope when a tragic accident that could be no-one and everyone’s fault occurs and whether it is right to apportion blame and responsibility arbitrarily and to pursue justice in a way that exploits and manipulates people’s emotions with the potential to create conflicts, grievances and problems that need never exist.

In the figure of Stephens himself, Egoyan could have raised issues about how running away from guilt and not confronting it directly but channelling it into other people’s affairs may cause friction and serious on-going conflict that escalates further. The structure of the film in which various narratives are interwoven and end up open-ended is problematic in that it offers very feeble hope with most characters left to fumble through personal demons. At the very least, we could have had some closure in which Stephens resolves (perhaps yet again after so many other failures of courage) to meet his daughter and get help and counselling for her. The climax of the film in which the lawsuit collapses due to an underlying incest issue that two family members keep hushed up jars horribly with the film’s ending in which one of the two appears as an angel of forgiveness and redemption … in a period before the bus accident!

Disappointingly the mountain landscape is a passive bystander in the film: its stunning vistas and the soft light of sun that glints on ice and snow could be the very thing that inspires hope in the community to do better by its children.