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Filmmaker’s first feature found its feet in odd Manitoba tradition

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Tavis Putnam was 17 when he lost his social virginity.

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Tavis Putnam was 17 when he lost his social virginity.

“I think the first one I went to was my friend’s second cousin’s wedding social or something like that,” says Putnam, a 29-year-old filmmaker from Winnipeg.

After 12 years, the details of that holy Manitoban rite of passage are fuzzy at best, but Putnam does his best to fill in the missing parts: there was alcohol, there was a raffle of some sort, there were sandwiches and chips on paper plates, and there were interactions with tenuously connected characters from his inner and outer circles. It might have been at the Caboto Centre, but he can’t quite recall. There was probably some song and dance everybody knew except him, leaving him awkwardly tapping his feet.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

With A Social, director and star Tavis Putnam wanted to create a comedy that felt personal while poking fun at a Manitoba tradition.

For Putnam, the experience was strangely formative, and definitive of the Manitoban experience. Elsewhere in the world, there must be loosely philanthropic galas to pay for celebrations further down the road. “So why do we call it a social and not, like, a fundraiser party?” he wonders during a Zoom interview. “The name was funny to me. So, you just … go and be social? It’s one of the few things that I feel is distinctly Manitoban, I guess.”

Drawn from that Manitoban obscurity, Putnam has made for his feature film debut a character study that is unmistakably Winnipeg-ish. The tagline says it all: “On every street in every corner of the world, there’s somebody selling tickets to something,” it reads. “In this town, that something is called… A SOCIAL.”

In A Social, which screens tonight at the Dave Barber Cinematheque, Putnam, who wrote and directed, also stars as Ross St. Clair, an awkward but lovable young man who wears his city on his sleeve. He drinks Slurpees, refers to -50 C as mild, and eats Nips by himself at Salisbury House. He ambles around the Corydon ODR for games of shinny with the fellas.

But Ross’s life is changing: his mom is getting married to a man named Gregor, and on the day of their wedding social, the wayward son goes on a trek around his city to deliver $10 tickets — and a little bit of guilt — to every friend who indicated they might be be interested in attending the event.

The film, shot in black, white and grey by Jesse de Rocquigny, serves as a melancholic and sweet tour through a city that is always changing but ever the same, with Putnam’s Ross as the hapless and harmless guide.

Putnam has been making short films for the better part of a decade, and though he never had a video camera growing up, cinema consumed him. “It’s always been the most exciting thing I can imagine,” he says. “I rented so many movies from Jumbo Video and Blockbuster as a kid.”

At first, he wanted to be an actor. But then he realized that actors don’t come up with the story. Too self-conscious to try as a teenager, Putnam’s yen for filmmaking took hold while studying at the University of Winnipeg, where introductory courses lit a fire under him.

“My parents were asking me what I wanted to do after first year, and I think I just said, ‘I want to make movies.’”

It was a learning process: At 22, Putnam got several friends together to shoot and rented a boom mic for the occasion, but didn’t have a way to connect it to the camera. “We got there and I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to do this.’”

After figuring that out, Putnam finished his film degree and made several short films on minuscule budgets — a necessary step before moving on to a feature.

In keeping with independent filmmaking tradition, Putnam created A Social without much money and with considerable help from friends and family. He shot multiple scenes at their apartments and homes.

“I owe a huge debt of gratitude to so many people,” he says.

If the relationships depicted on screen feel natural, it’s because to a certain extent, they are, even if they’ve been put through Putnam’s creative blender.

His mother, Charmaine Johnson Putnam, plays Ross’s mother. His father, Tom Putnam, plays his stepfather-to-be Gregor. And Putnam’s sister Sarah plays Ross’s sister, Laura, who steals the show by raining on his pro-Winnipeg parade.

“There’s no such thing as home, Ross,” she says, with straight-faced control. “It’s just where you happen to be from.”

Putnam says directing relatives and friends was a mixed bag. “It’s challenging in one sense, because not everybody is a seasoned actor,” he says. “But also, I think it helped because I always had this shorthand.”

ben.waldman@winnipegfreepress.com

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Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
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Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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