Showcasing the absurd

Promising slate of Winnipeg filmmakers head to VIFF

Ryan Steel’s short film Late Summer is one of the Winnipeg films making waves at the Vancouver International Film Festival. (Supplied photo)

In the cinematic imaginary, Winnipeg is largely defined by Guy Maddin’s award-winning My Winnipeg (2007), which portrays the city as a remote absurd oddity characterized by a combination of horror, mysticism and sentimentality.

This year, attendees of the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) will see the strange qualities of this upside-down place and its artists reflected in two Manitoban shorts: Milos Mitrovic and Fabian Velasco’s Horse Brothers and Ryan Steel’s Late Summer.

Horse Brothers, which was screened at SXSW and the Melbourne International Film Festival, is a surrealist horror comedy that depicts a used-phone salesman who is convinced to kill his brother by a malevolent horse voiced by Maddin. Velasco says the work is largely influenced by genre films, as well as Italian cinema, which he became interested in during the first few weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Mitrovic and Velasco’s film Tapeworm premiered at VIFF in 2018. Mitrovic credits Curtis Woloschuk, the festival’s director of programming, with VIFF’s success.

Woloschuk “is the most approachable film-loving person ... this guy really wants to help out all filmmakers and wants to put the best movies into his film festival,” Mitrovic says. “As long as (Woloschuk) is at VIFF, that festival is going to be amazing.”

While he remains excited to attend VIFF, Velasco expressed a broader dissatisfaction with the festival-going process. “

Festivals are maybe losing that excitement and feeling of discovery,” Velasco says. “(The films) I end up seeing are really dull and just feel like they’re making content instead of having that really exciting energy you want from independent films.”

Mitrovic echoes this dissatisfaction and believes many festivals are often unwilling to take a chance on films by artists from outside Canada’s larger cities. VIFF, however, is an exception.

VIFF “really respects Winnipeg and Manitoba generally, and (its organizers) think that something good is coming out of Manitoba,” he says.

Mitrovic and Velasco consider Winnipeg’s influence on their work as mostly a product of experiencing the place rather than a conscious choice.

In contrast, Steel’s Late Summer, which is “a summer camp epic about crushes, first loves, broken hearts and ghosts filmed on 16mm film,” is largely influenced by the city, which Steel calls his “muse.”

His love for this place and its cinematic history is vividly seen in the film’s constructed, Manitoba Museum-esque aesthetic, as well as a final sequence influenced by Steel’s nightmares involving Manitoba’s historical figures.

Steel feels that “Winnipeg has a pretty great reputation in the international film scene.” He’s currently studying at York University, and Torontonians label him as “the weird Winnipeg guy.”

There are “lots of Winnipeg film references in Late Summer that people who are aware of the city’s regional cinema will catch,” Steel says.

The veins of strangeness that run through the city have a large influence on each director’s artistic output. Both Horse Brothers and Late Summer will be screened as part of the VIFF Short Forum, which runs from Oct. 1 to 5.

Published in Volume 77, Number 04 of The Uniter (September 29, 2022)

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