Matthew Rankin proud to represent Winnipeg’s ‘anti-mainstream’ film scene at Cannes

Matthew Rankin says he’s proud to attend this year’s Cannes Film Festival with fellow Winnipeg-born director Guy Maddin — especially since his hometown’s indie film scene often gets overlooked.

“It’s wonderful to be there with Guy. In a lot of ways, he’s a huge mentor to me and to all emerging Winnipeg filmmakers,” he says on a video call from Montreal.

“We’ll see if Winnipeg takes any notice of us being there. That would be fun. I don’t know what will happen.”

Rankin’s sophomore feature “Universal Language” will make its world premiere at Cannes’ parallel section Directors’ Fortnight, while veteran filmmaker Maddin’s dark comedy “Rumours,” co-directed with Winnipeggers Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson, will debut out of competition.

They are among several Canadians with films screening at the 77th edition of the festival — kicking off Tuesday in southern France — including Toronto’s David Cronenberg, whose horror feature “The Shrouds” will compete for the Palme d’Or.

Though Winnipeg will have a significant presence at Cannes, Rankin says the city has become “very corporate” over the years and doesn’t celebrate its homegrown independent talent as it should.

“Despite all the great artists who live there, there’s no interest in their work on the part of institutions or the government or even culture writ large,” says the director who made his Cannes debut in 2017 with short film “The Tesla World Light,” which screened at Critics’ Week, another parallel section of the festival.

“I feel like the Hallmark movement has really taken over that town. It’s become all about Christmas movies and the independents make their work in defiance. The system is structured against them. But this has always been a tension in Winnipeg.”

He says that friction has led Winnipeg’s indie filmmakers to have a “punk rock, anti-establishment, anti-mainstream” impulse.

Rankin’s hometown plays a big role in “Universal Language,” and so does he. The director stars as himself in the surrealist comedy, in which he leaves a mind-numbing job with the Quebec government and takes a winding trip to Winnipeg to visit his mother.

His storyline intertwines with two others: Rojina Esmaeili and Saba Vahedyousefi star as two girls attempting to retrieve an Iranian banknote frozen beneath a sheath of ice, while Pirouz Nemati plays a tour guide leading a bewildered group through Winnipeg’s increasingly bizarre monuments and historical sites.

Space, time and people all blend abstractly throughout the film; characters trade places, the setting cross-fades between Winnipeg, Quebec and Tehran and the dialogue alternates between French and Farsi.

“It’s about exploring the fluidity of our experience of life, fluidity of identity, how we overlap,” says Rankin.

“In life, we’re in dialogue with lots of different data. We’re not just living in one structured binary. We’re part of a much larger human family, a much more complex story.”

Co-writer Ila Firouzabadi, who grew up in Tehran and currently lives in Montreal, says “it’s about our common brain — Quebecois, Winnipeg and Iranian all together.”

The film’s fever dream aura is on-brand for Rankin, whose debut feature, 2019’s “The Twentieth Century,” is an absurdist biopic about former Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Rankin says “Universal Language” fits into the style of Winnipeg’s indie film scene, which has “taken the vocabulary of experimental film and has reprocessed it to tell these very personal, very bizarre, very countercultural, personal stories.”

He says the oddball sensibility of many Winnipeg movies is “the most sincere and authentic expression” of the city that can exist.

“This is the Winnipeg that I love the most. I feel like it’s something you can trace throughout Winnipeg history from Louis Riel to the 1919 general strike, right up to Guy Maddin and beyond,” he says.

“It’s this absolute rejection of the North American mainstream that resists the pull of Anglo America.”

Rankin says he and Firouzabadi will share an Airbnb at Cannes with 12 people from the film’s crew, including first-time actors Esmaeili and Vahedyousefi.

“We’ll have to shake some hands. There’ll probably be a few backs we’ll have to slap. I guess we’ll see some films and stuff,” he quips.

Some might say Rankin being highlighted at the festival with Maddin suggests a passing of the torch for Winnipeg’s film scene, but he prefers to take a bigger-picture perspective.

“That torch is passed on to many people. There’s an incredible community of filmmakers making work in Winnipeg about Winnipeg and about that experience who will carry that tradition on.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2024.

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