Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Shining a light on Folklorama

Reviewing 'Peg cultural festival can be bitter and sweet

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The stages are dressed and the steam tables are steaming, the costumes are pressed and the beer? Yeah, it's flowing.

Now that July has sped by, the summer's final big festival is starting its engine -- and here at the Free Press, our stable of reviewers are gearing up to go full-throttle Folklorama. There are 43 pavilions for the festival's 43rd edition this year, including the innovative new Indigenous Mardi Gras party, and we'll be scouring every one to suss out where to drink, where to eat and where to clap along with the beat.

It's tough work, as they say, but someone's got to do it.

Actually, in a way it is a tough gig, at least as far as review jobs are concerned. Folklorama relies almost entirely on eager volunteers, and the things they share are carried close to the heart: culture, identity, family memories. This is what makes the festival beautiful, sometimes. But it also makes it a challenge to hold the festival up to the light and observe its more unlovely parts.

Consider this: in my first year reviewing Folklorama, a review template led me to believe we were required to make at least one critique about each and every pavilion. What I didn't know was the other reviewers interpreted that review subsection -- called "Culture Shock" -- as a place to share curious information about a nation.

So when the reviews were published, most marvelled at the number of islands in the Philippines and other fun facts. But mine stood alone, calling out a parade of little flaws: an awkward exit hallway, a lifeless stage show, a slightly burned treat. The feedback came in furious and often clashing waves.

From my editor: "I love it."

From one reader: "You're a b -." (Nothing says "diversity" like gendered insults.)

Somewhere in the mess of angry letters, I decided that if I was going to leave a legacy as the Folklorama B -, then I may as well leave it all on the field. In 2010, I penned an article for the Free Press observing some of the places where Folklorama has worn down and worn thin after 40 years. It was hardly a scathing critique -- "raging snark" is not my typical style -- but it was a call for renewal.

To my surprise, the response to that longer and more expansive piece was remarkably positive; I still, occasionally, get emails and see comments about it today. I am under no illusions about the longevity of most of my work; the fact it struck a chord with folks pushed me to consider how our city relates to what is, perhaps, the most unique of our many summer festivals.

Why do we review Folklorama when it's changed so little?

On the surface, we review to help our readers navigate the myriad pavilions that arise in some of Winnipeg's less-familiar corners. We nibble all the noodles and scan all the handicrafts so that would-be festivalgoers can get a sense of what to expect.

But it's more than that: we review Folklorama because we want to keep it high in the dialogue. It's a special sort of festival and we'd like to see it thrive. True, some of its quirks have fallen out of step with the cultural times, and some pavilions could benefit from new voices and new visions of what the experience could be. But unless we -- all of us -- tell them what we see, how are they to know?

See you out in the pavilions.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 5, 2012 A4

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