Dave Barber celebrated at Cinematheque, the movie house he built
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/10/2021 (338 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
At the Cinematheque on Tuesday night, one by one, they arrived to pay their respects to their film idol: not an arthouse director, a feted writer, a roguish leading man, a power broker, or an A-list celebrity. At least, not in the traditional sense.
They were there to celebrate the 68th birthday of Dave Barber, who until the day he died in July — exactly three months earlier — was all of those things and more to an ever-expanding circle of film enthusiasts, music lovers, downtown Winnipeg denizens, and film people around the world.
For nearly 40 years, Barber was the senior programmer of the Winnipeg Film Group whose key responsibility was to figure out who and what was shown at the organization’s independent movie house, where he was the mortar that held the bricks together: on Tuesday night, it was him on the big screen.
“Welcome to the Dave Barber Cinematheque for Dave Barber’s 68th Birthday,” said Jaimz Asmundson, the theatre’s programming director, greeting a crowd of 40 alongside interim executive director David Knipe, who was wearing a T-shirt of Barber’s along with his friend and mentor’s brown, corduroy jacket.
Since Barber’s death, Asmundson and Knipe, plus a dense orbit of Barber friends, were looking for a way to celebrate a man who preferred to celebrate others. They kept returning to the theatre, seeing Barber everywhere they looked: in the office, in the seats, his visage was smiling at them from promotional T-shirts.
Over nearly 40 years, Barber was programmer, showman, community liaison, media agent, and a proselytizer spreading the good word of Canadian film — a living mascot who never took his costume off.
Throughout September, the team at Cinematheque planned to celebrate Barber in a manner more direct, but no less meaningful, than they had in his lifetime: they dove into the archive of Barber’s life on screen and behind the camera, from his student films about inanimate objects coming to life to his defining role in Cinematheque video advertisements as a huckster gamely selling the public on independent film.
As fans entered, they passed a poster Barber had made during his days as a student at Kelvin High School that would presage his life’s work: “FILM CLUB PRESENTS: Six Free Films.” Over the sound system could be heard Barber’s self-made recordings on the mandolin and guitar, culled from his apartment by the film group’s Karen Remoto.
“Dave would have hated this fanfare,” Knipe admitted. “He might have even been a bit uncomfortable, but he would have had fun.”
”Dave would have hated this fanfare. He might have even been a bit uncomfortable, but he would have had fun.”–David Knipe
The lights went out, and onto the screen was projected an image of Barber —“For Dave” — and a silent poem, with text calling the man “the keeper of prairie secrets.” Then, his face emerged, grey goatee and all, as he plunks on his newly bought Casio keyboard, messing with the sound effects for the camera on his phone.
Then, the commercials. There’s Barber, standing on Portage Avenue, beseeching passersby to see Canadian film. Then, there he is as the voice of the animated Barbear, who tells patrons about the concessions but also asks if they have an emergency to tell an employee. On screen, as that line is read, Barbear successfully delivers a baby.
More ads follow, but so do Barber’s excursions in film: his student production, casting his nephews in Capt. Force VS. Dr. Evil, shot on a Super 8 camera with his brother Alan and featuring flying trash-can spaceships and an animate barbecue who gets attacked by a trio of garden hoses. It’s magical.
The audience can hardly hold back during the screening of “Will The Real Dave Barber Please Stand Up?” a documentary short Barber made about the time in 2013 he was accidentally given a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee award.
The prestigious honour was meant for climatologist Dr. David Barber, but the gruff Barber of the film world showed up instead because he was invited, only made aware of the mistake as he was about to shake hands with then-premier Greg Selinger.
Later, an extended, never-before-seen interview with Barber — shot but not used by filmmaker Kevin Nikkel in 2017’s Tales from the Winnipeg Film Group — displays Barber’s physical archive — boxes of old reviews and press materials — his knowledge, and work ethic.
“Money’s never been the driving force in my life. Being good at something (has), and I do feel that I’m pretty good at it,” he says.
The guests are called to pay their respects.
“I’ll break the ice,” said Greg Tonn, owner of Into the Music, a record shop next to the theatre. “The image that came to mind was a Venn Diagram of work life and private life,” Tonn said. “With Dave, I think they completely crossed over, and the lines between the two were entirely erased.”
Kevin Nikkel recalled how Barber always knew the answer, or knew how to find a piece of it. He would tell Nikkel, “Just a second. Let me check.” “Of course he had it,” Nikkel said. “He was better than Google.”
“It was his memory too,” called out Ben Williams, a lifetime member of the Winnipeg Film Group. “He had it up here, and a paper copy also.”
“I hope this isn’t the part where I cry,” said Neil Coligan, a longtime friend who’d known Barber since 1989.
Filmmaker Brian Rougeau said, “He always had something kind to say, and he only told the truth.”
“He always had something kind to say, and he only told the truth.”–Brian Rougeau
Filmmaker Amanda Kindzierski didn’t know at first that her old deskmate and mentor made films. “He was just this cool person I loved talking to,” she said.
“He was the most creative person, he loved making art, and he could always surprise you,” said the film group’s Dillon Baillie, who wore a Barberized T and was behind the camera for many enduring Cinematheque ads. “You sort of knew what you would get with Dave, but he would always give you a little extra.”
The next speaker knew Dave Barber for longer than anyone else in the room.
“Tonight is a difficult night,” said his brother Alan. “It’s the night he’d be coming to dinner.”
Barber recalled a trip to Europe when he and Dave saw The Byrds, The Band and The Who. His brother kept all the ticket stubs.
Alan was there for his brother’s early forays into film, like Capt. Force and short, humorous films about shovelling the sidewalk and furniture coming to life and attacking the homeowners, with grainy stop-motion inspired by Canadian filmmaking pioneer Norman McLaren.
Barber brought with him a press release Dave drafted for that film, entitled Handle With Care. “The film world has been captivated by a daring new talent,” it began. “His name is Dave Barber and his first film is proof that he’s here for a long time.”
“It’s causing a furor wherever it plays. When premiered in New York there were riots at the box office because of the number of people that couldn’t get in. In the first week alone, its receipts have exceeded those of Shampoo, Lenny and The Towering Inferno which have been playing for several months.”
Fake reviews followed. Rex Reed of the New York Daily News “called it” “the most important film experience of this year or any year.” Bernard Drew of Gannett “called it” “a genuine masterpiece of staggering proportions.” Someone named Sidney Skolskey “called it” “a goddamned mess.” In parentheses, Barber wrote, “Well, who‘s Sidney Skolsky anyway?”
Soon, the room fell silent for three full minutes, the event wrapped up, and guests hung back to chat before a screening of Harold Lloyd’s Speedy, one of Barber’s favourites.
Projectionist Eric Peterson gently ushered them out.
“Sorry guys, I gotta start another movie.”
The show goes on.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.