Winston Washington Moxam’s Billy
Friday, June 17, 2011 at 7:00 PM
Saturday, June 18, 2011 at 7:00 PM
Sunday, June 19, 2011 at 7:00 PM
Wednesday, June 22, 2011 at 7:00 PM
Thursday, June 23, 2011 at 7:00 PM
Introduced by Ernesto Griffith
A young journalist arrives at a retirement home to interview Billy, a 94 year old black man. Billy tells him the story of his eventful life, dating back to his early recollections of a time when he left the United States to move to Swan River, Manitoba. He recalls his struggle as a homesteader, the racism he endured, his love of a woman, and his gift of photography. Billy is the story of one man’s search for acceptance. The film is based on true events.
From Uptown Magazine June 16, 2011
One final shot from the heart
With its genuine emotional gravitas, Billy is a fine, final tribute to an underrated Winnipeg filmmaker
Ambition alone doesn’t necessarily make for a good film. But it can count for a lot.
Billy, the final film of local independent filmmaker Winston Washington Moxam, who died in April, is nothing if not ambitious. A micro-budgeted period piece, it attempts, through the story of a single life, to encapsulate much about our shared Canadian heritage and experience.
Yes, this film based on true events is sometimes sentimental. Yes, some of the writing is abrupt and obvious. And yes, some of the acting comes off a little hokey.
But in its often-brilliant use of locations and cinematography, it also boasts a genuine sweep — and has an earnestness and sincerity that cuts through its shortcomings to engage us. It may be limited in means and a certain finesse, but it remains a genuinely touching story.
And there’s something else: it offers a perspective that’s perhaps far less a part of our national and cultural discourse than it should be — that is, the Afro-Canadian experience. Perhaps we subconsciously see white-on-black bigotry as an American problem; slavery and racism was “their” issue, not ours.
Yet I’ve always remembered the closing chapter of Barbara Smucker’s novel Underground to Canada, which we discussed in Grade 6. Yes, the heroine makes it across the border to freedom — but only from slavery. Not from the plague of racism and marginalization. As relatively free and tolerant a country as this is, we can’t deny our own historical sins.
This neglect is embodied by one of the film’s central images: the 94-year-old titular character, an African-American immigrant to Canada, pouring his life into a tape recorder. Now a nursing home resident, Billy (Ernesto Griffith) tells his life story to a Winnipeg reporter in 1967… and confides he finds it far more tiring than expected.
The son of a white mother and a black father, Billy grew up defiant and feisty in the face of racism, and finds no respite upon moving to Swan River, Man., in the early 20th century. He finds acceptance in best friend Gus (Gordon Tanner) and earns a degree of local respect, but knows he remains a curiosity and perpetual outsider.
Prevailing prejudice notwithstanding, Billy wins the love of a white woman (Sarah Constible), despite her parents’ opposition. However, a moving, unexpected development late in the film underlines the ultimate solitude of Billy’s life.
Cinematically, what’s striking about Billy is Moxam’s visual flair: the film is filled with vivid colour and bold, even monumental imagery. A shot of Billy looking out a train window at fields of canola hurtling by is simply a beautiful composition, aesthetically, but also says much about the character in pure visual language.
And as Billy, Griffith is enormously appealing, with an air of dignity and strength that personifies his character. We don’t merely sympathize with him, we like him. The warmth of his humanity radiates off the screen. And it’s key to making Billy such a worthy little movie-that-could.
– Kenton Smith
Film of the Week: Billy by Winston Washington Moxam
Lone wolf. Gentle giant. Maverick. Independent
These are just a few of the many titles used to describe the late Winnipeg filmmaker, Winston Washington Moxam.
All are appropriate and fitting titles but the one I feel best describes the British born Winnipegger from Jamaican descent is PIONEER.
Moxam passed away earlier this year and it’s his final film Billy that is my film of the week.
Shot on 35mm with modest funds received from Canada Council, Billy is a feature film based on the life story of Billy Beale – an African American photographer who moved from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Swan River in northern Manitoba in 1906.
Billy, played by Winnipeg actor, Ernesto Griffith, recounts his struggles with racism and bigotry, his love and romance with a white woman and the eventual comradeship and respect of fellow townspeople.
Written and produced with Ernesto Griffith, Billy is the second feature film directed by Moxam and is a true testament of one man’s search for acceptance and belonging as a black man who makes a deliberate choice to live in Canada.
‘Pioneer’ is one of many titles given to Moxam by Winnipeg filmmaker Matthew Rankin and it’s one that resonates the strongest with me.
In his profile of Winston, From The Outside Looking In: The Films of Winston Washington Moxam, Rankin writes, “Throughout the sensationalist 1990s, Moxam was the lone cinematic voice to speak for racial understanding in Manitoba. In this respect, Moxam must be seen as a pioneer.”
Winston, like Billy, was a prairie pioneer. Through the medium of film, Winston courageously blazed a trail to open the dialogue on the sensitive subject of racism in Canada. As Rankin writes, “Moxam’s films bring welcome nuance to our understanding of race relations in Canada. They compel us to think about what it is like to be black in a place like Winnipeg.”
As a black female who grew up in a small prairie town in the 1980s, I support and admire the courage it took Moxam to tell this story and will be forever grateful to him for telling it.
In 2010, Ernesto Griffith and Moxam won the 2010 Human Rights Commitment Award in Manitoba for Billy.
– Joy Loewen on Exposure Film
From Uptown Magazine June 16, 2011
‘I want to make films for people’
Winston Washington Moxam was arguably Winnipeg’s most underrated filmmaker— but he was also one of the most prolific, and one of the most heartfelt
It was a revelation to learn the big, warm, chatty guy who ran the reels at Cinematheque also made films.
“By any standard, Winston (Washington) Moxam ranks among the most prolific and original cinematic voices in Manitoba,” wrote Winnipeg filmmaker Matthew Rankin in From the Outside Looking In, an article on Moxam commissioned for the 2009 book Place, which profiles 13 Winnipeg auteurs.
Still, Moxam, who died suddenly in April, was first known to many of us volunteer Cinematheque box-office attendants as the arthouse theatre’s most outgoing projectionist. He was, seemingly, always glad to see you — and always in a mood to talk. He especially loved to enthuse about whatever project he had on the go.
And he had plenty more than this (then) volunteer ever suspected.
In the mid-’90s, Moxam wrote, directed and produced a veritable explosion of short films — some long enough to quality as featurettes — in a five-year span. Moxam’s first full-length feature, Barbara James, was completed in 2001. His most recent feature, Billy, the final film he completed before his death, plays at Cinematheque this week.
“In the Empire of Oddities that is the Winnipeg Film Group, Moxam’s voice strikes a resolutely original chord,” Rankin continued, observing that Moxam’s work stood apart from his contemporaries at the WFG, then a co-op that was the nucleus of all filmmaking activity in the city.
His films weren’t transgressive or shocking, as was the work of Jeff Erbach (Soft Like Me) or Gord Wilding (Rapture). Nor did they have the kind of abstracted, dreamy, silent film-inspired quality that defined the work of Deco Dawson (Film(dzama)) or Winnipeg’s most famous auteur, Guy Maddin (The Heart of the World).
For that matter, Moxam was, stylistically, one filmmaker that couldn’t be pinned down: his visual approach ranged from eccentric and absurdist (as in 1993’s The Barbeque) to naturalistic (1996’s The Welfare King) to stark and gritty (1999’s Sand).
Still, there are recurring qualities and themes in Moxam’s body of work. His films tended to have a scope, a sweep, which almost defied the limited means with which they were made.
Billy, named best narrative feature at the 2011 Winnipeg Reel to Real Film Festival, is easily the best example: a period piece set in the early 20th century, it uses colour, locations and the vast prairie landscape to lend its themes — including racism — the grandeur they deserve.
Shot on location in remote parts of southern Manitoba, Billy enjoyed, thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts, a modest increase in budget from Barbara James, which was filmed in 35mm for the unbelievably low price tag of $11,000 (and 10 years ago at that). Claude Savard’s cinematography gives the film a lush, warm, expansive feel that would make one think it cost at least twice as much.
Even the deliberately rough aesthetic of Sand can’t bury the film’s sense of grandeur: set in North Africa, the black-and-white film’s Grand Beach locations and sunset vistas not only lend it an air of authenticity but underline the story’s vast, underlying sadness. (Towards the end of Barbara James, there’s a beach scene that looks like it could have been lensed in the Caribbean.)
Finally, Moxam’s chosen themes also lent his work a gravitas that stood out in the Winnipeg indie filmmaking world. It was as the filmmaker told Rankin for that 2009 article:
“I wanted to make films for people.”
More specifically, he wanted to address real-world issues of social injustices and people’s struggle for acceptance and dignity — whether it’s white kids living with the stigma of social assistance in The Welfare King, to the title character despairingly contemplating abortion in Barbara James, to the marooned black soldiers unable to escape the reach of racism in Sand.
Moxam was also one of the few Canadian filmmakers to specifically address this country’s legacy of racism against Afro-Canadians, and he didn’t shy away from telegraphing his points. For some, the effect might seem heavy-handed.
But the point — legitimate, powerful and undeniable — always remained. One can easily imagine Moxam — who, along with Billy co-writer, producer and star Ernesto Griffith, won the 2010 Human Rights Commitment Award in Manitoba for his last feature — smiling at that.
– Kenton Smith
Question & Answer session with Winston and Matthew Etches from Catacomb Microcinema in November 2007, after the screening of Barbara James. Special thanks to Kevin Nikkel of Five Door Films for making this recording available.
From The Outside Looking In: The Films of Winston Washington Moxam
Winston Washington Moxam is something of a lone wolf in the annals of Winnipeg cinema. He is a maverick in a city of weirdos. He makes politically engaged dramatic films concerned with social justice and interracial understanding that are both deeply personal and defiantly, resiliently independent. And he’s done it all on the periphery of a peripheral city.
By any standard, Winston Moxam ranks among the most prolific and original cinematic voices in Manitoba. In less then five years in the mid-1990s, Moxam write, directed and produced no fewer than eight dramatic shorts – two of which, The Barbeque (1993) and The Welfare King (1996) were over 30 minutes in length – before making the leap into feature filmmaking with Barbara James (2001), and Billy (2010) and the forthcoming When I Grow Too Old To Dream. He has done all of this without budgets, without media spectacle, without the collaborative support of an aesthetic circle and has managed to work largely outside of the financing infrastructure through which most Canadian feature films are funding. In his own words, Moxam’s perspective is that of a filmmaker on the outside looking in, and that is true not only of his career but of the ideas that have compelled his body of work.
Winston Washington Moxam was born in England in 1963, the son of Jamaican immigrants. His family moved to Canada in 1971, after a 3-year detour back in Jamaica, and settled into a home on Cathedral Avenue in Winnipeg’s North End. Winnipeg’s black community has always been relatively small, particularly in the early 1970s. At what point did Moxam first discover that he was now a “visible minority” in his adoptive homeland? When did he become conscious of racism? “As soon as I got off the place,” he answers. As a boy at Luxton Elementary School, Moxam quickly came face to face with racial alienation, an experience that would later become one of the central creative preoccupations of his filmmaking.
After finishing a degree in anthropology at the University of Winnipeg in 1986, Moxam studied film production at Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Ontario – an unlikely but no less important training mecca for a generation of Winnipeg filmmakers, including Jeff Erbach. Upon graduation in 1989, Moxam did as most Anglo-Canadian filmmakers inevitably do – he moved to Toronto.
But this move from the margins to the centre did not sit well with the young filmmaker. Moxam soon found the Toronto film world to be superficial. He felt little artistic kinship with an industry structured around shoulder-padded soap operas like Street Legal and the relentless, Sarah-Polley-inflamed Green-Gablegasms of Kevin Sullivan Entertainment. And so Moxam returned to what he understood and what he identified with: the periphery. Working variously as an editor, sync-rusher, actor, security guard and, briefly, as a stand-in for Mr. T, Moxam directed the self-financed From the Other Side (1992), a sensitive, 30 minute, black and white documentary portrait of homeless people living on the streets of Toronto.
The release print for From the Other Side was scarcely back from the lab when the Canada Council for the Arts approved funding for Moxam’s satirical critique of Canadian multi-culturalism The Barbeque, which was set in Winnipeg’s North End. Money in hand, Moxam resolved to move his career back to his hometown, and hoped on a bus to Winnipeg. Within a few short hours of arriving, he went to the Artspace building and took out his first membership at the Winnipeg Film Group.
The isolated, windswept city of Winnipeg, festering eternally on the margins of mainstream Anglo-America, would seem to be a more appropriate cultural centre for a filmmaker who wanted to speak from the outside. Yet throughout the 1990s, Moxam would build a cinematic voice that defined itself against the reigning Winnipeg vanguard.
Filmmaking at the Winnipeg Film Group has typically been compelled by weirdness, formalist innovation and the surreal, particularly in the 1990s. In 2002, the Winnipeg Film Group produced a commemorative DVD entitled The Sensationalists of the 90s. The disc was something of a critical survey of the broad cinematic tendencies of Film Group members in the last decade of the 20th century. It included Jeff Erbach’s transgressive re-imagining of W.O. Mitchell, Soft Like Me (1996), in which Prairie farm boys are ritualistically enslaved by cannibalistic, grain-farming pederasts. The disc also included Rapture (1997), a short film by Erbach’s erstwhile production designer Gord Wilding, which is about a lecherous proto-NAMBLA shlub who uses his own dung to build a nude statue of the kid he has been staling. The curation makes the point convincingly: In the 1990s, Winnipeg’s indie filmmakers were largely compelled by sensationalism – the desire to shock and disturb and transgress.
Such was the tenor of Winnipeg filmmaking when Moxam returned to his hometown in 1992. Yet nothing could be farther from Moxam’s film universe. In the Empire of Oddities that is the Winnipeg Film Group, Moxam’s voice strikes a resolutely original cord, for his creative goals share virtually nothing with the abstracted mainstream of his contemporaries. “I wanted to make films for people,” says Moxam, “films that deal with real issues of social injustice that people face every day. This is how I see myself. This is how I see life.” In this, Moxam has been a truly independent solo artist with little back-up band.
Moxam’s films are big-hearted. They have a social conscience and a sincere concern for human dignity. The Barbeque is an intricate deconstruction of the passive-aggressive forms of racism that a young black women has to face at her white boyfriend’s family gathering. The Welfare King follows two kids through the soulless, Filmon-era opulence of Linden Woods on a hopeful odyssey against child poverty. Moxam’s first historical film, Sand (1999), chronicles the existential struggle of two African-Canadian soldiers in the Second World War as they contemplate the irony of defending a country that denigrates their humanity. And with his first feature, Barbara James, Moxam studies the tenderness and humour the dramatic situation of a young black woman (Storma T. McDonald) who fines herself pergnant and adrift in the world after a misguided, one-tome encounter with an exploitative car salesman (Ross McMillan).
Moxam’s characters are not pushovers. They are not helpless victims. They are resilient in the face of adversity and hold their own before a world that seeks to isolate them. Though they find themselves on the Margins of their societies, they reveal resilience and conviction as they confront the injustices that have been dealt to them.
Questions of race have rarely been tackled by Winnipeg filmmakers. Throughout the sensationalist 1990s, Moxam was the lone cinematic voice to speak for racial understanding in Manitoba. In this respect, Moxam must be seen as a pioneer. Only recently has he been joined by a younger generation of filmmakers – notably Divya Mehra and Darryl Nepinak – who, like Moxam before them, ask provocative questions of mainstream white audiences. Moxam’s films bring a welcomed nuance to our understanding of race relations in Canada. They compel us to think about what it is like to be black in a place like Winnipeg. What is the experience of African-Canadians in Manitoba?
The average white-bread Canadian would prefer to believe that racism does not exist in this country. Equipped with a simplistic, blind faith in the untarnished perfection of Canada’s multicultural mosaic as opposed to the slavery and race riots of the American melting pot, Joe WhiteGuy prefers to get back to the more comfortable business of eating mayonnaise and being complacent. Moxam’s films jostle us out of our complacency; they refuse to reassure us with established truths. His films testify that racism does happen here. They dramatize how it has occurred in our history and how it occurs still today.
Moxams’ forthcoming feature, Billy, promise to be the crowning artistic achievement of the director;’s career to date. The film stars one of Winnipeg’s most captivating actors, Ernesto Griffith, who also co-wrote and is co-producing Billy with Moxam. The film is based on the true life story of Billy Beale (Griffith), a line African-American photographer who moves to Northern Manitoba in 1907. There, Beale encounters the comradeship as well as the bigoted violence of the other settlers as he embarks on a passionate romance with a white women (Sarah Constible). Shot in glorious 35mm by Claude Savard, this sensitive portrait of one man’s search for acceptance in the earliest days of Manitoba history also promises to be a major contribution to our collective understanding of the African-Canadian experience, standing amid the metatexts of Clement Virgo and George Elliott Clarke. It also represents a dramatic coming together of the disparate threads of Moxam’s career, not only in terms of theme and dramatic preoccupation, but also in terms of Moxam’s stridently independent approach to film production.
Werner Herzog has said it is not money that makes films; it is faith and the strength of your convictions alone that result in film. You just have to go out and do it, regardless of your means. In Winnipeg, there is perhaps no filmmaker wgi better exemplifies this Herzogian maxim than Winston Washington Moxam.
The hardships of getting a film made can quickly drag a human soul into the most destitute sub-strata of existential discouragement. The WFG film archive is littered with the sad ephemera left behind by the many “Three Year Filmmakers” who passed though its doors – those well-intentioned idealists who pursued filmmaker just as long as their self-confidence could endure its many disappointments, and them gave up. Even the most well-monied of directors must possess iron will-power and resilient emotional strength to see a film through to completion, and Moxam has made his films with unbelievably tiny budgets.
Denied funding from Canada’s feature film financing agencies, Moxam’s first feature, Barbara James, was produced for the minuscule sum of $11,000 from the Manitoba Arts Council. Despite his severely limited means, Moxam defied all conventional wisdom and expectation by shooting the film on 35mm. Collection 35mm short ends from production houses throughout the city and recruiting a volunteer film crew, Moxam shot Barbara James piecemeal over the course of 1998 and 1999. The unprocessed film stock lay dormant in his freezer for over a year before he could raise enough money to send it to the lab. It was not until André Bennett the executive producer of Guy Maddin’s Archangel (1990) and Careful (1992) took an interest in distributing Barbara James that Telefilm opened its gates and helped Moxam release the picture. The making of Barbara James is a truly heroic feat of independent film production in Manitoba. And Moxam and collaborator Ernesto Griffith would do it again a few years later with Billy.
Billy enjoyed a marginally larger budget than Barbara James, but, as a period piece which takes place in both 1907 and 1967, the film was radically more ambitious. With a modes Canada Council grant alone, Moxam and Griffith once again defied convention and shot the film on 35mm. Using short-ends, they shot for 21 days straight in remote locations throughout southern Manitoba. their shooting days chanced to fall within the massive hear wave of 2007, and temperature smoldered hellishly about 45 degrees Celsius on every day of the shoot. Eight days into the filming, Moxam’s director of photography suddenly abandoned the project in favour of a well-paid TV movie gig and had to be replaced by his camera assistant. The production was further cursed by rancid catering, $800 in speeding tickets accrued during an emergency commute between location, and a rental truck that was demolished when a production assistant drove it into a tree. And once more, the undeveloped film lay dormant in Moxam’s freezer as the director patiently awaited post-production funds.
As he finished Billy, Moxam is ready to pounce with another ambitious historical drama, When I Grow To Old To Dream. This project has been waiting in the wings for a chance since 1989, a testimony to the incredible strength of the director’s creative fire. Winston Washington Moxam remains a lone wolf in Winnipeg feature filmmaking. This position has been advantageous to the development of his singular perspective on the Winnipeg cinematic landscape, but it has also demanded enormous energy, conviction and patience from the director. This is what the maverick filmmaker is willing to do in order to create new images. And this is what he must do to make his films from the outside looking in.
– Matthew Rankin in Place: 13 Essays, 13 Filmmakers, 1 City, Cecilia Araneda, ed. Winnipeg: Winnipeg Film Group Inc.
Candace’s Waltz by Winston Washington Moxam