In his past films, documentary filmmaker John Paskievich staked out a specialty in cultural disconnects. If Only I Were an Indian (1996) is about a group of people in the Czech Republic intent on living a lifestyle modelled on North American aboriginals. The Old Believers (1988) is about an ultra-fundamentalist sect of the Russian Orthodox church living in northeast Alberta. His most personal film, Unspeakable (2006) was about stutterers, like Paskievich himself, coping with a specifically social disability.
Paskievich's new doc is about a disconnectedness within a single character. Ed Ackerman is himself a filmmaker-animator (Primitii Too Taa) who has made headlines in the past few years for reasons other than artistic achievement.
Since 2009, Ackerman lost three different properties in Winnipeg's core area to demolition crews after he failed to obey compliance orders requiring work be done to the decrepit properties.
Special Ed tells Ackerman's side of the story, but Paskievich doesn't necessarily take his side. Indeed, while Paskievich dutifully captured Ackerman's battles with city hall, he "broke the documentary rule" when it came to non-involvement.
"I kept telling him, 'Ed, you're not going to win.'"
"I own a house. I've got to follow a building code," Paskievich says during a phone interview.
"But he has this idealistic idea that poor people should be able to own a house and fix it at their own speed, using their own materials."
Paskievich says Ackerman's quixotic attempt to renovate the properties were tied into personal issues having to do with his three children and multiple failed marriages/relationships.
"He was so invested in the idea that he was going to leave his kids an inheritance," Paskievich says. "He was working things through... his past bad relationships with his wives, and the estrangement he had with his kids. So nobody could touch these houses."
Curiously, this was not the film Paskievich thought he was making when he started recording footage of Ackerman four years ago.
"After he was fired by the (National Film Board), he had this idea to raise money in China to teach Chinese kids to read and write.
"The idea of going to China with Ed could be fun," Paskievich says. "But he never went to China."
Instead, Ackerman embarked on a more baffling journey encompassing bureaucracy, familial reconciliation and highly unconventional home renovation. Paskievich stuck with him throughout this process over years.
"People think it was a hard film to do but it wasn't that hard," Paskievich says. "I live in Wolseley and Ed lives just downtown and I would pop by and check on him from time to time.
"He was always doing something. And it was actually enjoyable. And then things started going bad. And they started becoming weird."
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John Paskievich debuted Special Ed earlier this year at the Hot Docs documentary film festival in Toronto alongside Ackerman. When asked if seeing the film gave Ackerman a fresh perspective on himself, Paskievich expresses doubt.
"After the screening, Ed got on the stage, and started talking about how he won't watch the film because he's working on his own film about the same story."
"So he hasn't seen the film," Paskievich says.
And does he think Ackerman will get that film made?
"It'll never happen," Paskievich bluntly opines. "Ed never finishes anything. Unfortunately. He's a talented guy."
Horror and admiration
AT times, John Paskievich's documentary Special Ed may yield the same responses as a horror movie.
After painstakingly eliciting sympathy for the film's protagonist, Paskievich may compel audiences to shout at the screen: "Don't do that!" "No, that's a mistake." "Oh, God, no, don't go in there!"
Sometimes we're yelling at the film's subject, eccentric local artist Ed Ackerman. Sometimes we're warning those who fall into his orbit, including his son Brandon, who puts his own inheritance into a project to renovate three houses in Winnipeg's core area.
Winnipeggers who read or watch the news may know how that story turned out.
But even that does not necessarily diminish some degree of admiration for Ackerman, who enters into the project with the best intentions. Early in the film, he shares with the camera his belief that "Winnipeg is a place where you can start from nothing."
That faith is sorely tested as he plans the renovations on three derelict properties he acquired on the cheap, with the intention of transforming them into both residences and a film studio where he can finish a life's work about the alphabet. They would also serve as a legacy to Ackerman's three children. They would be three houses that would not be employed for sordid criminal purposes. All good.
Unfortunately, Ackerman's methods occupy a spectrum between misguided (employing his car to drag a steel foundation girder on the city's streets) and flat-out delusional.
One can't count Paskievich as one of those sucked into Ackerman's wobbly orbit.
If Ackerman seems to be under the impression he is living a David-vs.-Goliath story, Paskievich maintains a sturdy viewpoint of the animator's own foibles, adding lots of eccentric local colour in the bargain. (There is a priceless shot of Ackerman asking a man in a Batman suit to sign a nomination petition for his mayoral run, only to be asked: "What's your stance on crime?")
On different levels, Special Ed satisfies the dictum that all good stories are built on conflict. It is a story about man vs. man (Ackerman vs. city officials) and man vs. nature (Ackerman offers insight into the healthful benefits of living through a Winnipeg winter in a house without heat).
But Paskievich never loses sight of the fact that this is primarily a story about Ed Ackerman vs. himself.