As Winnipeg filmmaker Deco Dawson prepares to premiere his first-ever feature on Saturday, October 8 at Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, he recognizes it has the potential to subvert expectations.
After making so many short films, Diaspora is longer than most feature films, with a running time of 140 minutes. The premise feels particularly apt, as it follows Eva (Yuliia Guzhva), a newcomer from the Ukraine who struggles to build a new life in Winnipeg’s North End.
In fact, the film, produced by local production company Eagle Vision, was shot three years ago, before the pandemic and before the Russian invasion forced an exodus of Ukrainians from the now war-torn country.
Even stylistically, the film seems to deviate from Dawson’s previous work. Recall that the filmmaker stood out for injecting an almost maniacal energy into the work of local director Guy Maddin via collaborations on the short film heart of the world (2000) and the 2002 dance TV movie Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary.
Despite a bitter breakup with Maddin, Dawson rose to prominence with a string of shorts, twice winning Best Canadian Short at the Toronto International Film Festival – for FILM(dzama) in 2001 and again at TIFF 2012 for keep a modest heada whimsical tribute to the French surrealist Jean Benoît.
His first film since 2012, Diaspora is relatively slow, atmospheric, and deliberate in its storytelling. Its main challenge comes from the fact that some 25 languages are spoken by the procession of immigrant characters, from Farsi to Finnish, from Tagalog to Turkish. Eva is the only character to have subtitles.
Joined by Guzhva at a café on Portage Avenue, Dawson said his motivation for making the film after a 10-year absence was multifold.
“One of the motivations was [to] make a movie about Winnipeg,” Dawson said, adding that he was also inspired by a master filmmaker.
“Werner Herzog always said that if you want to live life, travel on foot.”
Accepting this wisdom, Dawson set out to hike and explore Winnipeg’s North End far and wide, the same way he explored the streets of Detroit for a photographic project documenting the dramatic decline of the city of Michigan. He turned that critical attention to the streets of Winnipeg.
“Winnipeg isn’t necessarily in ruins, but there is so much history present in the architecture and our specific environment that I started photographing it and walking through it and noticing buildings that you just don’t notice. not,” Dawson said.
“I saw so much diversity in these stores, and I started mentally recording these little vignettes that were happening there.”
Capturing Winnipeg’s History
Dawson also wanted to fulfill a historic function, evident in a shot near the beginning of the film whose title is superimposed on what was once the Winnipeg Public Safety Building – a structure that has now disappeared from the streetscape of the Stock market as a kind of architectural edifice. alien abduction. (It was demolished in 2020.)
“In Diaspora, I wanted to capture so many buildings that won’t be there in the very near future. I think we lost about 30% of them that are in the movie,” Dawson said.
“The meat shop is no longer the meat shop. It is now a cannabis shop, which is now closed after someone jumped out of the window to escape the police. The Croatian club has been demolished.
“There’s a preciousness about this city that we take for granted,” Dawson said.
The city has a history that “remains[s] dormant for so long that we no longer notice it, and I felt it was my duty as a filmmaker to try and capture the last glimpses of these places before they were gone.”
Another motivation was researching his own Ukrainian heritage, said Dawson, who was born Darryl Kinaschuk.
“My father’s grandparents were the first wave of immigrants in the late 1800s to Saskatchewan, and my mother’s parents arrived in the 1930s.”
Dawson said he absorbed something from Ukrainian culture, up to a point.
“I did Ukrainian dance for about 15 years,” he said. “All my friends lived in the North End and I was from the South End. They can speak Ukrainian. My sister is eight years older than me and she could speak Ukrainian, but I wasn’t brought up to speak Ukrainian.”
It became a cultural void that Dawson resolved to fill by telling a Ukrainian story.
“I became more Ukrainian”
Unlike the character of Eva, the 23-year-old actress Yuliia Guzhva speaks English very well. Not quite a newcomer, she moved to Canada 10 years ago with her mother and stepfather, leaving her biological father in Ukraine.
Despite the presence of family, Guzhva said she could understand her character’s alienation all too well upon arriving in what the film portrays as a town of immigrants.
“I didn’t speak English. I had no friends,” she said. “I didn’t know how to get on a bus or get around. So of course I was alone, just like Eva felt. My dad was still back in Ukraine. I missed him a lot too.”
Like Eva, Guzhva has locked herself into her Ukrainian identity.
“I have become more Ukrainian than I have ever been,” she said, describing shopping trips to Ukrainian stores as particularly poignant.
“‘It reminds me of home. It reminds me of home.’ When I lived in Ukraine, I didn’t wear [Ukrainian flag crest] every day. But when I came here, I wanted to do all those things.”
These feelings of national identity have grown since the beginning of the Russian invasion in February.
“The war in Ukraine affects everything – not just Ukrainians who are in Ukraine, but Ukrainians in Canada,” Guzhva said.
“I wake up every day and think: Will my grandma’s house be there tomorrow? When my dad doesn’t pick up [the phone]because he’s driving all over the eastern region, is he alive?”
She has a seven-year-old brother who was born in Canada.
“He draws images of war, beautiful buildings and burnt buildings in Ukraine,” Guzhva said. “He’s touched. The Ukrainian-Canadians who were born here are also touched because it’s their culture.”
Even in the specific current context, Dawson says he hopes his film will ultimately be relatable.
Watch the trailer for Diaspora:
“My main hope and intention as a filmmaker is to create stories of universality,” Dawson said.
“I feel this alienation, this loneliness and this inability to connect, and a desperate need for cultural connection, or intellectual connection, or emotional connection and the spiral that Eva is in, I think it’s so humanistic” , Dawson said.
“I think we’ve all been there.”