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Deco Dawson’s 1st film in a decade a timely story of Ukrainian newcomer in Winnipeg’s North End

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New feature Diaspora captures ‘a preciousness about this city that we take for granted,’ says filmmaker

As Winnipeg filmmaker Deco Dawson prepares to premiere his first-ever feature film on Saturday, Oct. 8 at Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinema, he acknowledges it is liable to subvert expectations.

After making so many shorts, Diaspora is longer than most feature films, with a running time of 140 minutes. The premise makes it seem especially timely, as it follows Eva (Yuliia Guzhva), a newcomer from Ukraine who struggles to build a new life for herself 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 a departure from Dawson’s previous work. Recall the filmmaker got himself noticed for pumping an almost manic energy into the work of local director Guy Maddin via collaborations on the short film Heart of the World (2000) and the 2002 TV dance film Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary

Despite a bitter break with Maddin, Dawson earned his own acclaim with a series of shorts, twice winning an award for best Canadian short film at the Toronto International Film Festival — for FILM(dzama) in 2001 and again at the 2012 TIFF for Keep a Modest Head, a fanciful tribute to French surrealist Jean Benoît.

His first film since 2012, Diaspora is comparatively slow, atmospheric and deliberate in its storytelling. Its principal challenge arises from the fact that some 25 languages are spoken by the parade of immigrant characters, from Farsi to Finnish, from Tagalog to Turkish. Eva is the only character who gets subtitles.

A smiling bearded man in a baseball cap stands outside beside a laughing woman in a white dress and sunglasses.
Deco Dawson, shown here with Diaspora’s Yuliia Guzhva, says part of the motivation behind his new feature was ‘[to] make a film about Winnipeg.’ (Eagle Vision)

Joined by Guzhva at a Portage Avenue coffee shop, Dawson said his motivation to make the film after an absence of 10 years was multi-faceted.

“One motivation was [to] make a film about Winnipeg,” said Dawson, adding he also drew inspiration from a master filmmaker.

“Werner Herzog always said that if you want to live life, travel on foot.”

Accepting that wisdom, Dawson took to hiking and exploring the length and breadth of Winnipeg’s North End, in much the same way he once explored the streets of Detroit for a photographic project documenting the Michigan city’s dramatic decline. He turned that critical focus on the streets of Winnipeg.

“Winnipeg is not necessarily in ruins, but there’s so much history present in architecture and our specific surroundings that I started photographing it and walking it and noticing the buildings that you just don’t notice,” Dawson said.

“I saw so much diversity in these shops, and I started mentally recording these little vignettes that were happening in there.”

Capturing Winnipeg’s history

Dawson also wanted to fulfil a historical function, evident in a shot near the beginning of the film that has the title superimposed on what was once the Winnipeg Public Safety Building — a structure which has now disappeared from the Exchange District cityscape like some kind of architectural alien abduction. (It was demolished in 2020.)

“In Diaspora, I wanted to capture so many buildings that will not be there in the very near future. I think we’ve lost about 30 per cent of them that are in the movie,” Dawson said.

A black-and-white photo shows a wide shot of a woman walking out of a store carrying a TV. The sign on the store read "Selkirk M-C-C Furniture and Thrift."
With Diaspora, ‘I wanted to capture so many buildings that will not be there in the very near future,’ says Dawson. (Eagle Vision)

“The meat shop is no longer the meat shop. It’s now a cannabis shop, which is now but closed after someone jumped out the window to evade the police. The Croatian club was torn down.

“There’s a preciousness about this city that we take for granted,” Dawson said. 

The city has history that “remain[s] dormant for so long we don’t notice it anymore, and I felt that it was my duty as a filmmaker to try to capture the last glimpses of these places before they disappeared.”

Another motivation was the search for 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 came in the 1930s.”

Dawson said he did absorb something of the Ukrainian culture, to a point.

“I did Ukrainian dancing 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 was not brought up to speak Ukrainian.”

That became a cultural vacuum Dawson resolved to address by telling a Ukrainian story.

‘I became more Ukrainian’

Unlike the character of Eva, 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 back in Ukraine. 

Despite the family presence, Guzhva said she could relate all too well to her character’s alienation upon arriving in what the film presents as a city of immigrants.

“I spoke no English. I had no friends,” she said. “I didn’t know how to take a bus or get around. So of course, I was lonely, just as Eva felt. My father was still back in Ukraine. I missed him very much too.”

As Eva does, Guzhva locked onto her Ukrainian identity.

A woman in a white dress sits in a grassy field, with rusted trucks in the background.
Like the character of Eva, Yuliia Guzhva came to Winnipeg from Ukraine. ‘I became more Ukrainian than I ever was,’ after arriving in Canada, she says. (Eagle Vision)

“I became more Ukrainian than I ever was,” she said, describing shopping trips to Ukrainian stores as especially poignant.

“‘This reminds me of home. This reminds me of home.’ When I lived in Ukraine, I wasn’t wearing a [Ukrainian flag crest] every day. But when I came here, I wanted to do all those things.”

Those feelings of national identity have been amplified since the Russian invasion began in February.

“The war in Ukraine affects everything — not just Ukrainians that are in Ukraine, but Ukrainians in Canada,” Guzhva said.

“I wake up every day and I think: Is my grandma’s home going to be there tomorrow? When my dad’s not picking 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’s drawing pictures of war, beautiful buildings and burned-down buildings in Ukraine,” Guzhva said. “He’s affected. Ukrainian-Canadians who were born here, they are affected as well because that’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 primary hope and intention as a filmmaker is to create stories of universality,” Dawson said.

“I feel that alienation and loneliness and inability to connect, and a desperate need for cultural connection, or intellectual connection, or emotional connection and the spiral in which Eva finds herself, I think is so humanist,” Dawson said.

“I think we’ve all been there.”

Source : CBC Canada