Meet the Don Quixote of Winnipeg’s North End
by Vanda Schmockel
Are you feeling a little intolerant of football as Grey Cup week approaches its climax? Don’t panic; you might just need a palate cleanser. As luck would have it, relief can be found just beyond the Grey Cup tent, across the park at the Regina Public Library Theatre where you can allow yourself to be spirited away to another exotic locale: Winnipeg.
Everybody knows that Winnipeg is lousy with weirdoes of the very best variety. For whatever reason, the city seems to nurture strange genius; from Guy Maddin to John Paizs, and the Royal Art Lodge, it’s obviously fertile ground for idiosyncratic visionaries. John Paskievich’s Special Ed follows another of Winnipeg’s great, single-minded oddballs — award winning filmmaker, artist, and failed mayoral candidate Ed Ackerman — as he tries to save several derelict houses in Winnipeg’s north end from the city’s wrecking ball.
The film trains a watchful but detached eye on Ackerman’s dilemma; he has returned to Winnipeg to, as he says, finish what he started; an ambitious film project with the National Film Board, and to build an animation studio out of a run-down house that would otherwise be demolished.
The trouble is, Ackerman is categorically incapable of finishing anything. A champion procrastinator, he routinely starts projects on monumental scales, only to find himself adrift in the middle of them months and years later, unable to appreciate why everyone around him is so frustrated.
Paskievich first met Ackerman in the early ’80s, when they were each working on different projects at the NFB. “He would often come into my editing room, and ask me how to spell certain words,” Paskievich says.
Ackerman’s best-known short film, the Gemini award winning Primiti Too Taa, is a jumbled word poem set to a swirling maelstrom of typeset letters. As it turned out, he’d always had always had difficulties with spelling, but this is far from his greatest impediment.
“He has this oppositional defiance, which is kind of a learning disability in itself,” Paskievich says. “It’s hard to learn anything if you’re always in opposition.”
If Paskievich sounds frustrated, it comes from a place of deep affection. It’s hard not to like Ackerman. He’s smart, funny, inventive, and totally engaged with the world around him — his own neighbourhood in particular. The arduous, Dr. Seuss-like approach he takes to repairing his buildings is a kind of activism in response to the terrible housing situation that many in this country face. The majority of people in his neighbourhood are forced to rent because they can’t afford to buy houses and keep them up to current codes. Slumlords, on the other hand, can keep buildings tenanted, and stay just enough on the correct side of city codes to save them from demolition.
In many ways, Special Ed is a classic story about the individual at odds with his surroundings. While it’s clear to see why the City of Winnipeg’s authorities would take issue with Ackerman’s slap-dash methodologies, many of us can identify with the trouble he has reconciling his ambitions with his abilities. At some point or other, we all see ourselves as the exception to the rule.