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Provincial passion

Filmmaker finds and focuses on intriguing characters in Manitoba history

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Twenty years ago, Paula Kelly walked into the Winnipeg Film Group (WFG) with a vague notion of channelling her background in history and literature into screenwriting.

The grassroots production co-operative was so welcoming to the "complete newbie," it soon gave Kelly a first-film grant to try writing and directing a 10-minute drama.


"That's where I got my start," says Kelly, now 49. "I found myself in the middle of a community of people that were willing to help me figure it out. I never looked back."

This weekend, the WFG's Cinematheque is honouring Kelly's career achievements by screening -- with free admission -- a two-part retrospective of her films from the past decade.

Kelly has just received the inaugural Manitoba Film Hothouse Award for Creative Development. The annual award, designed to recognize and support a local director through the development stages of filmmaking, includes $10,000 cash from the province and $5,000 in production services from the WFG. It replaces the award the WFG formerly gave to an emerging filmmaker.

"It is an incredible gesture of support, which really was unexpected," says the director, who is now shooting a 20-minute documentary called Art and Stone: The Story of the Winnipeg Art Gallery for the MTS Winnipeg On Demand TV channel.

She also created her previous short, Blog Winnipeg (about our love-hate relationship with the city), for the digital channel.

Kelly is both a documentary and a dramatic filmmaker, often blending the two. The retrospective, she says, has forced her to contemplate her films as a body of work. While others might immediately see common threads of Manitoba history and strong women, she sees a preoccupation with rich, intriguing characters.

"My films always seem to hinge on a character. With Souvenirs (a 2008 trio of shorts about local history, made during a residency at the City of Winnipeg Archives), the city is a character. With Art and Stone, the WAG building is a character."

Kelly, the daughter of visual artist Jo'Anne Kelly, grew up surrounded by art. But it was her research for her 2006 docudrama Appassionata, about local composer Sonia Eckhardt-Gramatté, that led her to tell the WAG story.

Ferdinand Eckhardt, who was married to the composer and led the WAG from 1953 to 1974, proved to be as fascinating as his wife in his relentless drive to see a world-class home built for the gallery -- a dream that was realized in 1971.

The WAG doc will air on TV sometime between October and January. With the gallery marking its centennial in 2012, Kelly hopes there will eventually be a screening at the gallery.

Meanwhile, she will use the Hothouse Award to continue developing several dramatic features that are at various stages. The Emancipation of Emily Blake tells the story of a Brandon servant girl who had an affair with her employer and was charged with murdering his wife in 1899.

The Crest, a futuristic short drama Kelly will shoot this August or September, is set circa 2050. It's about the last farm family in Manitoba facing a catastrophic flood.

Phantom Love is a Winnipeg story about a 15-year-old girl. It's set in the "gritty, grimy" winter of 1975, when the city -- including Kelly herself -- embraced the horror-musical movie Phantom of the Paradise with a fervor unique in the world. Kelly believes it was our bleak surroundings that compelled us to escape into Phantom's "glittery glam-rock world."

The Kelly films screening Friday are The Notorious Mrs. Armstrong (about Winnipeg General Strike organizer Helen Armstrong), plus Souvenirs and Blog Winnipeg.

Saturday, Appassionata screens, preceded by a live violin performance by Oleg Pokhanovski of a piece by Eckhardt-Gramatté. Kelly will introduce her films on both nights.

"I was interviewing Ivan Eyre, the artist, yesterday (for the WAG documentary)," she says. "One thing he said that struck me was that the value of a solo exhibition, for him, lies in the relationship of one painting to another....

"I guess the same thing can be said for a retrospective of films. I've never had a chance to see them screened together like this. It will be interesting to see what kind of overlapping resonance there is between the films."

Film Preview

Sifting History: The Work of Paula Kelly

Cinematheque, Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m.

Admission free

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 10, 2010 D3

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