Filmmaker and educator Kevin Nikkel has built a career exploring local history. While his prolific portfolio also includes animation and drama, his primary focus is documentary filmmaking.
Through both feature docs (2014’s On the Trail of the Far Fur Country) and multiple series of shorts (2009’s Our Neon City and 2011’s Epilogues), Nikkel is a vital chronicler of local history.
“I did my undergrad in history and English,” Nikkel says. “I was trying to figure out what my creative outlet was going to be. When I began teaching, I was drawn to the visual medium of film. Documentaries are a great way to communicate. In the same way that I do as a teacher, I’m trying to communicate ideas, and video images are a great way to communicate what I’m thinking up here into (the viewer’s) mind.”
Nikkel says his approach to documenting history always comes from a storytelling-first perspective.
“The most compelling way to teach something, or to explore something and to appreciate it, is to look for the human element,” Nikkel says. “And the human element that we’re drawn to is story, because we’re story creatures.
“So when I do something like Our Neon City, it’s more than just, ‘OK, here’s a neon sign.’ How can I find the story behind that? Who are the people behind it?”
1) Sculpture “This is one of my favourite things. I picked it up in Cuba when I was doing some filming down there. It’s a metaphor of what I’m doing quite often. Here’s the guy carrying this massive thing. I didn’t picture it as a camera necessarily, but the process of filming. It’s a metaphor for the burden of all the books and the images and the story.”
2) Coal receipt “We found this between the staircase going downstairs. It’s the receipt for the coal being delivered to this house. It has the previous owner, the date from 1934 and the amount of coal that was delivered. I’m so glad we have this. We keep it right next to the heater.”
3) Piano “I used to play as a kid. My daughter is taking lessons now. I mostly play guitar. Quietly. Not publicly.”
4) Painting of the dining room “Our friend Patrick house sits for us when we’re away. We’ll be away for a month or so, and we come back to find whatever paintings he’s done. This one quite surprised us. We came back, saw our dining room on his easel and said, ‘We have to keep this.’”
5) Church model “I did a short film called The Tin Can Cathedral as part of the Epilogues series. It was a story about this crazy Orthodox priest in the North End of Winnipeg. He built this cathedral out of scrap metal and junk. He was ostracized and kicked out of the church because he was such a weird visionary. But he has this underdog spirit to him. I had a few photos of the church, but I needed more for the film. So I had a local props guy build this replica.”