This is very difficult to write, and I know that no matter how many drafts it’s gone through it still doesn’t say what I want to say, what I need to say…
Dave Barber, the programmer for the Winnipeg Film Group’s Cinematheque since its inception in the early ’80s, died Monday evening after six hard weeks in hospital, weeks made even harder by all the Covid restrictions. No visits, no direct communications, just one designated family member to pass on information about Dave’s struggle to his many friends. I find it hard to process my emotions – knowing he was in there, that things weren’t going well, and no way to see or talk to him after more than three decades of friendship, of almost daily emails and phone calls … no way to say goodbye.
The outpouring of shock and feelings of loss on social media and in the local paper and on local radio testify to how well-respected and loved Dave was, with many members of the film community speaking of the width and depth of Dave’s impact not only locally but in important ways on Canadian cinema itself. I will leave those tributes to people more eloquent than myself (much of what I have read in the few days since Dave’s death has moved me to tears). All I can speak of here is my own personal experience with Dave over three decades … and the nagging feeling I have that I may have taken that friendship too much for granted, that in some ways I hardly knew him at all.
I first got to know Dave when I joined the Winnipeg Film Group in 1989, but he had already had an impact on me before I knew his name. Dave had been programming for the Cinematheque for a number of years by then, screening movies at the National Film Board’s Cinema Main on weekends. My most prominent memory from those days was seeing Mike and Andy Jones’s anarchic comedy The Adventure of Faustus Bidgood (1986), a movie which would never have shown up in Winnipeg if not for Dave, who throughout his career was an unflagging advocate for independent Canadian cinema. Some years later, it was through Dave’s efforts that I got to see Mike Jones’s second feature, Secret Nation (1992), and the brilliant short film made from Andy Jones’s play Albert. In fact, it was through Dave that I got to speak to Andy Jones about the latter, because Dave passed on Jones’s personal phone number to me.
1986 was the year that the Film Group moved into their third-floor offices in the newly opened Artspace Building in Old Market Square, but more importantly it was the year that the Cinematheque’s own dedicated theatre opened on the ground floor, a project with which Dave had been intimately involved. It’s impossible to imagine the Cinematheque without Dave – it was a physical manifestation of his personality, an institution which made the WFG one of the key filmmaking co-ops in the country. Members were guaranteed to have their movies screened for an audience of more than just friends and family, programmed alongside films from around the world.
Dave was a key figure in giving those local filmmakers a public face, but he didn’t confine himself to the local; he worked indefatigably to promote Canadian filmmakers, bringing in independent features, documentaries and shorts and working with other independent theatres across the country to get those films more widely seen. In this he was entirely selfless and seemingly inexhaustible. A friend called him the “film monk”; he worked around the clock, every day, reluctant to take any time off because filling the theatre’s schedule was a never-ending task with always-pressing deadlines.
Dave was a quiet, unassuming man despite the respect he garnered across the country for his work programming and promoting Canadian movies. But as uncomfortable as it made him feel, he would speak in front of audiences and to the media as often as necessary, because the work was always more important than his own comfort. In this, I learned from him because he would ask me to introduce screenings and appear on panels, as a participant and once or twice as facilitator, and because it would have seemed churlish to refuse, I always agreed despite my own anxiety about public speaking. Dave never applied pressure, he just asked, and it was impossible to refuse.
Dave was a great example in other ways too. Sympathetic and tolerant, he was like a father confessor to Film Group members who would enter his office to unload their concerns on him. This included, over the years, many strange characters who inspired discomfort or mocking humour from other people in the office. When such people wanted to screen their strange, amateurish little movies, Dave would be tormented by the dilemma – hurt their feelings or inflict bad movies on an unsuspecting audience? This question would eventually extend to hopeful filmmakers who would proudly send their features to Dave with a plea that he programme them and it always tormented him to turn people down, even when he had the valid excuse of there simply being no room in the schedule.
Back when the entire office was on the third floor, before the administrative staff moved into the basement (which Dave was not happy about, because it seemed to isolate staff from the members who would be upstairs renting equipment, taking workshops and shooting in the studio), he had a small windowless room in the corner. It had probably been intended by the designers to be a storage room, and in fact always looked like a storage room into which Dave had squeezed himself and his desk, with overloaded shelves and stuffed filing cabinets looming over him, piles of newspapers and magazines on every flat surface, and a single other chair at the corner of his desk for visitors.
Because this room was just to the right of the main office door, almost everyone who walked into the Film Group would stop first for a few words with Dave … sometimes many more than a few. And Dave would always take the time to chat, even though his work gave him little time to spare. When facing a pressing deadline, he would close the door and seal himself into that small airless space and visitors would feel a sense of disappointment that he was temporarily unavailable.
Dave and I hit it off immediately. He was someone I could always talk film with in his strangely inviting little office. It was a den, a haven, a place to which we could all retreat to enjoy the calming effect of Dave’s quiet, steady personality. Even though he had a serious outward demeanor, Dave possessed a dead-pan, self-deprecating sense of humour, always willing to accept a request to appear in a member’s film, often in a comic moment which played on his seriousness. He appeared briefly as an extra in my first short film, Incident at Pickerel Fillet (1991), and again in my more elaborate sci-fi comedy The Adventures of Stella Starr of the Galaxy Rangers in the 23rd Century (1994), in which he was one of a number of people in straitjackets in a psych ward. In fact, Dave was a primary inspiration for that film: it was his old military-style office chair and two huge 35mm lamp housings which stood to either side of the Cinematheque screen that got me thinking about a story which might make use of these artifacts.
Matthew Rankin’s brief short Barber Gull Rub gives a nice sense of Dave’s unique balance of seriousness and humour:
When I took a position in 1990 as administrative coordinator at Video Pool, across the third-floor hall from the WFG, I would see Dave pretty much every day; that increased, if possible, the following year when I landed the job of Training Coordinator at the Film Group, designing and overseeing a program of workshops. Some of this was done with Dave’s collaboration as I would bring in filmmakers and we would schedule screenings of their work while they were in town. Then in 1993, I became Dave’s assistant and house manager of the Cinematheque. This involved me with his work on a daily basis, giving me a close-up view of what he was doing, the satisfactions and stresses of tracking down movies, dealing with distributors – an often painful necessity, as so many were reluctant to “waste their time” with such a small, independent theatre – and more directly with filmmakers themselves.
Dave was patient and persistent, doggedly pursuing movies he wanted to screen, often securing agreements with distributors by coordinating with programmers at other theatres across the country, setting up tours which would increase the exposure of movies which might otherwise have had trouble gaining traction. In those days, he was screening mostly 35mm prints, which involved shipping headaches. I recall us showing Chris Newby’s exquisite Anchoress (1993); Cinematheque was the final booking in Canada for a print brought in from the States and the distributor asked Dave to hold onto it in case any further bookings came up. A couple of decades later, the print was still there despite Dave’s repeated efforts to send it back after the original distributor disappeared. It may still be tucked away somewhere on the Film Group premises.
During that period, I spent a great deal of time at the Cinematheque. It was one of my tasks to schedule and oversee volunteers for the box office and concession, and I would stick around many evenings, helping to sell tickets and popcorn, hanging out with the projectionists and watching movies from the booth. For several years, I virtually lived and breathed movies and I doubt that would have happened if not for my friendship with Dave. Even after I left the Film Group, I would frequently drop in to see him. And after the move to the basement, when Dave was more exposed by the open-plan office, I would call him out for a coffee and a chat.
Because of our shared experience those conversations mostly revolved around movies, the changing climate of distribution and exhibition, the radical shift away from physical prints to digital projection. And with the ebb and flow of organizational politics, more and more Dave spoke about job stress, the unpleasant diversion of his energies from what he loved to do to the pressures increasingly being put on him to make money rather than provide an alternate service to the city’s mainstream theatres. With shifts in audience behaviour, Cinematheque went through some pretty difficult years, but Dave refused to give in – despite budget cuts, he maintained his seven-day-a-week schedule, working as hard as ever, harder in fact, to keep providing a service he considered vitally important even if audiences sometimes seemed to disagree. That challenge was amplified over the past year-and-a-half with Covid and the complications of switching to on-line programming, but Dave continued to rise to the occasion and keep Cinematheque afloat and viable.
It was Dave’s commitment and unflagging efforts which enabled the Cinematheque to weather these storms and survive, though this all took its toll. Dave had long had health concerns, and his perpetual desire to avoid wasting energy on fighting against the pressures imposed on him, caused him to internalize so much of the stress. He worked for years to counteract the effects of all this by modifying his diet and exercising (he took to walking to work often), but holding back the forces which seemed perpetually to threaten his beloved Cinematheque wore him down. As much of a shock as his sudden decline has been, in retrospect it doesn’t seem surprising. Dave was the power source of the Cinematheque for four decades, fuelling this insatiable institution with his own energy; he gave selflessly and it took everything he had to give. He wouldn’t have had it any other way and it remains now as a testament to his passion, to the love of his life – the movies.