FNC: The First Winter

Winnipeg filmmaker Ryan McKenna talks to Cult about his film, a darkly funny drama and love-hate letter to his native city, screening at FNC this weekend.

Winnipeg filmmaker Ryan McKenna’s feature debut, The First Winter, makes its world premiere at this year’s Festival du nouveau cinéma. Stark, minimal and darkly funny, the drama tells the story of Roberto (Robert Vilar), a Portuguese man who gets a phone call one day from Sophie (Eve Majzels), a Winnipegger who informs him that their fling on her European vacation got her pregnant.

With a misguided sense of duty, Roberto spends his meagre savings on a flight to the ’Peg, where he’s greeted by arctic temperatures and a confused Sophie. The rest of the film is basically his descent into a particularly Canadian form of seasonal depression, enlivened by moments of dark, surreal humour.

McKenna, who also keeps an apartment in Montreal, met with Cult MTL to talk about his film and the ideas behind it.

“I wanted to make a film about Winnipeg,” he says of his intentions. “So much of the art that comes out of Winnipeg is very abstract, and Winnipeg as a city is pretty edgy; it’s a scary place. I felt that there was a buffer between what Winnipeg was really like and what a lot of the art was like. So I decided with this film to kind of remove that buffer as an experiment, and see what kind of results we would come up with.”

The film’s style, with sparse dialogue and mostly unmoving camera, recalls the work of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki. Although he admits to their influence, and that of classic French filmmaker Robert Bresson, on his feeling that “understated performances allow for more mystery,” McKenna also cites “a practical purpose” for the shooting style: “I knew my tripod would be frozen solid, so I wouldn’t be able to do any pans and stuff, and if I tried to shoot hand-held my fingers would freeze off.”


Although he lives here part-time, McKenna considers himself a Winnipeg filmmaker. “Montreal is a vibrant city, there’s a lot going on. But creatively, I have more to say about Winnipeg,” he says.

The film’s portrait of the city is harsh, but with an undercurrent of grudging love running deep. “That’s a very Winnipeg thing, to hate on it,” McKenna says. “ You trash your city, but you love it, and you get defensive if anyone else trashes it. And part of what’s interesting about it are its flaws, so it’s important to bring those things up.

“It’s interesting being in a city that’s totally empty. It’s a very abstract feeling walking around Winnipeg — there’s no one around. It’s a big city, but you’re all alone, and it’s really surreal. You don’t get that here in Montreal. There’s people on the street, having a good time.”

McKenna and his editor, Matthew Rankin (another Winnipeg-Montreal transplant and a talented filmmaker in his own right, whose work may be familiar to our readers from his brilliant editing of the Szef Bartek culinary comedy videos) even came up with their own genre, Winnipeg Brutalism, complete with its own manifesto (reprinted below). Says McKenna with characteristic understatement: “It’s always fun to write manifestos, and it is a good way for a viewer to enter the film.”


The First Winter screens in competition at the FNC on Friday, Oct. 12 at Excentris (3536 St-Laurent), 6:30 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 13 at Quartier Latin (350 Emery), 1:30 p.m. Check out the film’s official site and Facebook page.




1. Winnipeg Brutalism is a new cinema of Winnipeg. Stark and austere, it is like a Québec cinema, but with jokes.

2. Winnipeg Brutalism is a cinema of winter and of darkness. Exterior shots are to be filmed only between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, and only at night.

3. Winnipeg Brutalism is very strict. Each Brutalist film must contain at least one (unfaked) blizzard.

4. Winnipeg Brutalism is an urban nightmare. The Brutalist film allows no beauty upon the Winnipeg landscape. The streets are empty, the buildings are abandoned, human drama is devoid of any warmth or compassion.

5. Winnipeg Brutalism is an outsider cinema. It must be pulled out of your own blood, uncontaminated by the neutering dogma of any Canadian “Institutes” or “Film Centres” or any other forced sterilization campaigns.

6. Winnipeg Brutalism becomes more brutal still if the director is kept in a perpetual state of discouragement. Living in squalour, avoiding sunlight, and eating only processed foods will only heighten the success of a Brutalist film production.

7. Winnipeg Brutalism is stark and it is real. The viewer must be Brutally exposed to the elements – there can be no reassuring lamb’s wool of artifice, formalism or phantasmagoria.

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