On the eve of the Winnipeg Film Group’s 50th anniversary, as a new cycle of public mythologization will invariably soon start making the rounds, let this be your reminder to question everything you’re being told.
I’ve never spoken publicly about my decade-plus long tenure as Executive Director of the Winnipeg Film Group / Winnipeg Cinematheque. I’ve been asked to, but I’ve always declined. I’m most especially not interested in speaking through white male gate-keepers, whatever their self-perception of their intention is, because even the most well-intended among them has little-to-no comprehension of the complexity of maintaining a relationship with the Winnipeg Film Group when you are not a white man. Even those who have a sense that they’re missing something in their understanding, literally cannot see what is invisible to them.
I was the longest-tenured Executive Director – by far – of the Winnipeg Film Group. A woman, a refugee, a Chilean, and an emerging filmmaker and curator at the time, I was tapped in 2006 to pull the organization out of the kind of catastrophic internal implosion that artist-run centres in Canada experience from time to time. In the Winnipeg Film Group’s case, it was a perfect storm of a lack of clarity of purpose, a lack of leadership, a lack of inclusion and a lack of comprehension of financial management all intersecting at the same time.
Logistically, the challenge of resolving the organization’s problems was very straightforward. I’ve been blessed in life with a very complex understanding of numbers, and so oftentimes I’m able to do in a very short period of time what others within organizations have been unable to do over years. The logistics of fixing the Winnipeg Film Group was not difficult unto itself; the difficulty came from the ongoing resistance of the inner ring of the community who consider themselves to be the philosophical owners of the organization. Members of this group remain off staff for the most part, and always outside of leadership positions, and only periodically step onto the board of directors for short durations, remaining officially unaccountable. Their focus has never been to do any meaningful community work – they leave the heavy lifting to others – instead, they focus squarely on retaining firm control of the story of the organization.
The narrative of the Winnipeg Film Group is the mythological public story of the organization that centralizes, lionizes and fictionalizes the role of the white men within it, to the point of not only erasing anything that poses a challenge to this narrative, but also liberally re-assigning credit for the work of the others to white men who are, or were, at best peripheral to the organization. And the crafting of this story has a political purpose within the local film community.
The narration of the Winnipeg Film Group and who is allowed to control its story is an incredibly fascinating phenomenon to observe, for the discrepancy between the benign nature of the carefully crafted origin story of the Winnipeg Film Group and the often complex and incredibly uncomfortable, and at times dangerous, place it is to be within the orbit of the organization. The Winnipeg Film Group was born out of patriarchal white supremacy and to this day this value remains at the foundational core of the inner ring that applies unaccountable pressure onto the organization. This, in spite of some very valiant efforts by individual staff and board volunteers over the years, some of who are or have been very influential to the organization’s philosophical expansion to greater inclusion, in spite of the need to move mountains to do so. The narrative of the Winnipeg Film Group is the mythological public story of the organization that centralizes, lionizes and fictionalizes the role of the white men within it, to the point of not only erasing anything that poses a challenge to this narrative, but also liberally re-assigning credit for the work of the others to white men who are, or were, at best peripheral to the organization. And the crafting of this story has a political purpose within the local film community.
One of the most publicly-visible examples of this ongoing male/white-washing of the organization was a 2015 Globe and Mail article about the Winnipeg Film Group on the occasion of its 40th anniversary celebrations. As the organization’s Executive Director, I was interviewed extensively for this article and stressed that the success of the prior decade was the rise of Indigenous filmmakers. Making room for Indigenous filmmakers was a special focus of my work for the organization. The disparity of access was staggering: in a province where Indigenous peoples make up nearly 20% of the population, there were just two emerging Indigenous filmmakers loosely connected to the organization prior to the start of my tenure. But the Globe and Mail writer was not interested in my perspective as the organization’s leader by then for nearly a decade. She also presumed (?) that I did not know anything about analogue or experimental filmmaking myself, in spite of the fact that I am one of the most accomplished analogue and experimental filmmakers in Manitoba and that the Winnipeg Film Group’s expansion of analogue capacity during my tenure was the direct result of my own abilities in analogue film. One only has to see the near-collapse of the analogue holdings at the Winnipeg Film Group immediately following my departure as evidence that its analogue ability is not a structural given of the organization, as nothing functional could be found in the years following my departure, except for the fleet of Super8 cameras, due to the WNDX festival’s ongoing need of them.
When you look at the Globe and Mail article, you can see how the writer goes out of her way to erase everybody who isn’t a white man out of the narrative; it’s not the women leading the projects who are quoted about their initiatives, but instead any white man connected somehow, no matter how on the periphery they were. It must have been back-breaking work to systematically-exclude every woman-identified filmmaker in the province, every Indigenous filmmaker, every woman on staff and so many others from the narrative of the organization. While excluding absolutely every other demographic from the narrative of the Winnipeg Film Group, seven white men are quoted in the article. The only woman to be given a voice, the only other, was somebody from the UK.
These two articles represent the disparity of experiences within the Winnipeg Film Group in more ways than one, where not only is the narrative of the privileged white male class never questioned, but where the organization’s work towards equity is always left to be undertaken by the very people who have been the victims of the organization’s historic (and – keeping it real – legendary) inequity. The idea of reparative work has never been on the table.
I watched the invisibility of the core problem of this article go on for many years with amazement, much like observing a science experiment in the wild. Not one person quoted in the article distanced themselves from it or apologized for being in such a blatant act of male/white-washing and historical revisionism. Certainly, they could not have known when they were being interviewed what they were contributing to, but when they saw the result, they could have commented on it. Instead, one woman on staff whose own work the Globe and Mail writer had assigned to a white man by insinuation, was left to independently find allies to pitch a rebuttal-style story to the Winnipeg Free Press, whose Jen Zoratti was more than up for the cause. These two articles represent the disparity of experiences within the Winnipeg Film Group in more ways than one, where not only is the narrative of the privileged white male class never questioned, but where the organization’s work towards equity is always left to be undertaken by the very people who have been the victims of the organization’s historic (and – keeping it real – legendary) inequity. The idea of reparative work has never been on the table.
When I first entered into the offices of the Winnipeg Film Group as its Executive Director in 2006, I was met with a wall of photos and posters of films by white men. When I asked the staff and volunteer responsible for managing that historical photo wall about the very obvious omissions, I was told that it wasn’t their fault that “nobody else makes good films.” These are the very people who are careful to portray separate, progressive personas to the public world, so you know the behaviour is intentional. When I developed the Mosaic Women’s Film Project to try to start to correct some of the inequities of funding outcomes within the organization I was asked by a white man “where are the special funding programs for men?” There was never one inch towards equity that was made by the organization that wasn’t fought tooth and nail in the most hostile and toxic way by some of the historic beneficiaries of the organization’s resources. Sure, “not all (white) men.” But to be clear, there’s a difference between remaining so-called “neutral” to an environment of inequity that privileges you, versus acting as an ally to work to dismantle the systemic inequity that has placed you in a position of unmerited privilege at the same time as it has resulted in more egregious inequities.
For many years, I felt I would be putting myself in danger for speaking publicly about my time at the organization – professional danger, without a doubt, but also personal and physical danger.
For many years, I felt I would be putting myself in danger for speaking publicly about my time at the organization – professional danger, without a doubt, but also personal and physical danger. I recall attending one organizational meeting where one white man was so physically menacing towards me that two male staff members instinctively positioned themselves in between us; and yet the meeting went on, the gravity of what had just happened having been completely invisible to the room of mostly white men. I was later told of a group of white men who had created an official club with regular meetings and minutes taken, with the sole purpose of “bringing me down” – to collectively work together on funding juries to ensure my production applications remained unfunded and to do whatever it could to manufacture reasons to get me fired from the Winnipeg Film Group. While the existence of this club sounds absurd, even unfathomable, its existence and the names of its membership were confirmed to me by people who were invited to participate but declined. The existence of this club is a well-known public secret within certain circles of the community and is certainly not a new revelation, even if initiatives like these remain outside of the official narrative of the organization. This club even recruited a couple of women to participate in its aims, which also taught me a lot about how women can often facilitate misogyny and protect patriarchal systems at the same time as being victims of these behaviours themselves. I contemplated calling the police more than once on several individuals whose behaviours went far beyond any reasonable professional critique into extreme personal obsession and stalking, and after receiving a death threat. I could continue on with more specific examples in a similar vein, for this was an ongoing effort from the very first day I stepped into the job until the very last day when I left (and even spilling into the year after I left), but you get the idea.
All of this for my posing a paradoxical challenge to the organization, for being the exact opposite of everything it represented – a powerful person because of my innate skills and actual merit, in spite of not belonging to the privileged class. And perhaps for this reason, I may have been the only one to save the organization from itself in the moment when I came on as Executive Director. My success, particularly within the Winnipeg Film Group, enraged many white men, who at the same time repeatedly, and often menacingly, insisted that my proper role was to be their servant – to do the work of elevating their personal profiles and their personal careers. I was never once allowed to forget that I was not one of them and that my perspective would never be as valuable as theirs, regardless of me having been the organization’s staff leader by then for a quarter of the organization’s entire existence. Diversity was fine and desirable if it meant more resources for the organization, but not to the point where it could translate to actual equity in the truest sense of the word. It was restricted to cross off funding check boxes and for performative tokenistic inclusions, and most certainly was not to be permitted to get to the point where there could be the risk of an equitable re-division of resources that were historically almost all directed to white men.
I’ve often been asked how I managed to survive so long within an organization that was at times so incredibly dangerous to me, leaving it on my own timeframe and my own terms. What this question does not consider, however, is that the Winnipeg Film Group is only an extension of the larger society that surrounds it. I can therefore either shrink all of the potential I innately have and separate myself off completely from society, or I can navigate through the societal riptide whose purpose is to drown me, by having learnt that safe passage often means swimming not against the current, but through it.
I’m not interested in correcting the many significant errors and omissions in the narrative of the Winnipeg Film Group, or the political softening within this narrative of how the organization’s well-known inequities came to be.
I haven’t been interested in speaking about the Winnipeg Film Group since I stopped being paid to do so, for many reasons – among them that I have significantly more important work to do as an artist, curator and community organizer, and my efforts truly are best directed elsewhere. I’m not interested in correcting the many significant errors and omissions in the narrative of the Winnipeg Film Group, or the political softening within this narrative of how the organization’s well-known inequities came to be. I do believe, however, that my unwillingness to speak on the record, and most especially filtered through the privileged white male lens, speaks volumes unto itself given I was its longest-serving Executive Director and oversaw a period widely recognized as the most expansive time in the organization’s history. But to those who have not registered the full meaning of my silence – and to those who decline to mention in their narrations that I’ve consciously chosen not to participate – I’ll add more explicitly that what the Winnipeg Film Group does not need more of is the doubling down of the white male lens filtering the examination of its history, prettying up the impact of patriarchal white supremacy as benign omissions, as opposed to being conscious acts done by those whose purpose has been to retain an exclusive privileged class.
Even the so-called “neutral” white men among those who have positioned themselves as gatekeepers of the organization’s narrative – the ones who have been able to craft the persona of niceness as the direct result of not having to deal with the daily, hourly and minute-by-minute micro-aggressions and worse that other demographics have to deal with regularly when entering into the orbit of the Winnipeg Film Group – are a product of this white supremacy, for being seen as the only ones qualified to filter through the organization’s history is the direct result of belonging to the protected class. And whether they accept this perspective or not, access to this gatekeeping function is only possible for what exists on the other side of the notion of the others and the repeated idea by the self-styled “neutral” ones that “there are good people on both sides.”
On the eve of the Winnipeg Film Group’s 50th anniversary, as a new cycle of public mythologization will invariably soon start making the rounds, let this be your reminder to question everything you’re being told. When an officially-sanctioned history is so heavily guarded and gate-kept, to the point where many people would feel they would be putting themselves in danger for speaking frankly about it, the only reasonable response is to question everything about it.