One brutal city!

Local filmmaker Ryan McKenna makes his feature-length debut with The First Winter

Rob Vilar portrays a Portuguese DJ who travels to Winnipeg in The First Winter.
Scenes from The First Winter.
Scenes from The First Winter.

Although he now splits his time between Winnipeg and Montreal, filmmaker Ryan McKenna’s heart is in Winnipeg.

Born, raised and educated here, his films all have a markedly local bend to them, and tell a uniquely local story.

His first feature-length film, The First Winter, portrays the journey of a Portuguese DJ named Rob (played by local Portuguese DJ/actor Rob Vilar) who travels to Winnipeg after receiving a phone call from a Canadian tourist he has allegedly impregnated.

His arrival finds him facing a chilly reception, from both the land itself and his prospective baby mama.

It is a brutally deadpan homage to the trials and tribulations of life, love and the blizzards all Winnipegers know so well.

The Uniter sat down with McKenna to discuss films and our weird, brutal and beloved hometown.

The Uniter: For this movie, you wrote what I took to be a satirical manifesto on Winnipeg Brutalism, a term used to describe your film’s genre. (“Stark and austere, it is like a Québec cinema, but with jokes,” McKenna writes on the film’s website, What was the thought behind that?

Ryan McKenna: It’s born of a real place, but there is that satirical edge to it - in the sense that I had lived in the North End in winter and kind of felt the weight of winter.

I’ll give you a background of where the idea comes from: I was feeling kind of down, it was a long cold winter, I had a bit of winter depression, and I thought it would be interesting to make a film that contrasts it - the isolation and the alienation and the coldness of winter with someplace really warm and hot and vibrant.

And when I was editing the film, my editor and friend, Matthew Rankin, kept saying to me, “Oh, this film is so brutal, it’s so awful,” so I thought we should write a Brutalist Manifesto, a how-to guide on how to make your film really brutal.

Do you think our city has a motif that is particularly attractive to artists? That it lends itself to stories?

Yeah. It’s easy to mythologize, because it is so strange and unique.

I think it’s becoming less strange and less unique all the time, I feel like there’s an effort to make it more mainstream, and I think to a degree, they’re succeeding.

I think, a lot of these really interesting restaurants and venues are closing, so maybe the films that come out of Winnipeg will be totally different in the next 10 years. But the Winnipeg that I know and fell in love with is really strange and weird and unique.

It’s also very cinematic.

There’s a lot of poverty and desolation in my film, and while you do get that in big American cities, and it’ll look almost exactly the same, you don’t have it with that Arctic feel, and it really is something that is unique to Canada - particularly Winnipeg - because it is a big industrial town. And I just think it’s very interesting, photographically.

The First Winter plays Friday, Jan. 11 to Sunday, Jan. 13, as well as Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 7 p.m. at Cinematheque. Visit

Published in Volume 67, Number 15 of The Uniter (January 10, 2013)

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