Film and Video

True confession

True confession: Before I saw his recent feature film Stryker at the Ontario College Of Art And Design earlier this year, I didn’t know a lot about Noam Gonick. After interviewing him by phone-me at a sweltering, heat wave—cramped desk in Toronto and he in Guy Maddin’s air-conditioned purple bathroom in Winnipeg–I don’t know if I’m any closer to understanding this complicated film maker. But like Harriet the Spy jacked up on iced coffee, cold beer and a leaky air con, I do have some clues.

Clue 1: Noam Gonick’s work mixes an interesting blend of the cerebral and the sexual. In his first film, an 8-minute short entitled 1919, he creates the Winnipeg general strike as experienced through the windows of a Chinese bathhouse. Compare, say, 9 1/2 Weeks, or even 2004 critical darling Kinsey. No contest on who’s got the hottest, biggest, wettest brains there.

Clue 2: Noam Gonick is not afraid to piss people off. His second film, Hey, Happy!, was set in a post-apocalyptic Winnipeg with a male protagonist who’s looking to make it with 2,000 men in a short period of time. Let’s not conjecture what Canada’s many W.O. Mitchell and MennoLit fans would have to say about that one.

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Clue 3: Since Gonick is more Jew boy than Ojibway, this threw some non native commentators into a tail-spin–and, interestingly, garnered him some great reviews in the native press, a strong reception at Cannes, a screening at New York’s MoMA and a partnership with Rebecca Belmore, Canada’s representative for the 2005 Venice Biennale.

So just what does Noam Gonick have to say for himself that his films don’t say already? Here’s what our conversation yielded.

RS First, a general question. What do you love?

NG [Silence] Um, how do you mean? Well, I love lots of people. I’m one of those people who loves too much. I don’t have a lover right now, if that’s what you mean.

RS Well, maybe more like, what are you loving right now? Like wall art and decor?

NG Oh, you know who I love, I just saw the re-release of The Battle of Algiers, by Pontecorvo, a very, very political Italian filmmaker from the 60s. I’d read a lot about the film but didn’t see it until last week, so I like that. It’s shot in the city of Algiers with a lot of the people who were in the Algerian revolution. He went in there as an Italian and recreated the Battle of Algiers on film.

I’m loving Feist, just like everybody else. And I’m loving the new singer Annie, her single is called “Heartbeat,” she’s from Scandinavia. I was just in San Francisco and I heard it, her new album is called Anniemal. Yeah. Hmmm, and I’m still loving the Indian Posse, that hasn’t waned in quite a few years from researching and filming. And I’m still loving Winnipeg.

RS What is your favourite thing about Winnipeg?

NG I was just thinking about that as I was driving in from the beach. When you drive in that way you go through the area where we filmed Hey, Happy! We drove right down the back street where we shot a scene in the film; I hadn’t been back since then. In the film, you see all these derelict junkyards in all directions, but driving along there again, I saw all these parks and schools. And I realized I must have only shot when things looked degraded in the background and omitted the rest.

Basically, it’s so easy to make the city look like an apocalyptic nowheresland, and it’s not hard to discover. In Winnipeg it always feels like our entire society is on the verge of collapse and Toronto feels more like bedrock, like a foundation. In Winnipeg it still feels like you’re on the frontier.

RS Does it ever feel too small there?

NG Yes, when you premiere a film and there’s a full page in the daffy newspaper on why you’re evil, then it feels too small. Then again, I did have a character kick a Winnipeg Free Press box in Stryker, so I guess it was coming to me. And I guess you’re always hated and loved in your own hometown.

RS Was part of that “evil” coverage related at all to problems people had with you representing native people in Stryker?

NG It’s funny. In the native papers, I actually had some really nice reviews. Rebecca Belmore loved it so much she had me direct her Venice Biennale piece. Some non native people had problems with it. Sometimes these normative critics just fall back on identity politics, like “I don’t feel like I want to tease out what he’s trying to say by doing this or making me feel this way. So I’ll just call him on identity politics and that’s it.”

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