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Winnipeg-based director Guy Maddin was in Toronto for TIFF in 2015 for his film, 'The Forbidden Room'.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

While Taylor Swift, Harry Styles and Hillary Clinton descended upon the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, there was also, briefly haunting the hallways of the TIFF Lightbox, a less high-profile but nonetheless essential storyteller in the celebrity mix. In town to present the new 4K remastering of his debut feature, 1988′s surreal masterpiece Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin added a touch of genuine auteurism to the TIFF playground.

And now that the pop stars and politicians have flown off to other engagements, TIFF is giving more of itself over to Maddin, running a week-long engagement of Tales from the Gimli Hospital at its Lightbox. The release is partly to showcase the start of the delirious and delightful Maddin canon (which includes such instant cult classics as The Saddest Music in the World, My Winnipeg and The Forbidden Room), but also to highlight the good work that TIFF has done in participating in Telefilm’s recent digitization initiative, Canadian Cinema - Reignited, which made the painstaking remaster possible.

Ahead of the film’s re-release, the 66-year-old Maddin spoke with The Globe and Mail in a wide-ranging conversation about his long, beautifully strange career.

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TIFF is giving more time to Maddin's 1988 cult film, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, running it for a week at its Lightbox.Courtesy of Films We Lik

Gimli Hospital was famously rejected by TIFF in 1988, when the organization was known as the Festival of Festivals. Now it’s having a triumphant return. That must feel ... rewarding? I don’t want to say, like, “revenge.”

[Future TIFF chief executive] Piers Handling was on the selection committee then, with my friends Geoff Pevere and Kay Armatage. Geoff was my inside man, sending me phone calls on reports of how bleak it looked for me getting in. I didn’t presuppose the film deserved to be in any festival, but by the time the process was over I started pulling for Geoff to convince the others – a real underdog situation. Three hours went by, and I was prepared to declare war on the Toronto festival.

You and Piers must have talked about it since. All your subsequent films played the festival.

He showed up at the screening a few weeks ago, and it was so nice because yes, he’s given me a platform ever since. And he never fails to mention how ridiculous he felt to turn Gimli down. But I’m not even sure that he was wrong. I’m proud it got turned down. So it didn’t feel like revenge. It was just nice. I wish I had an angle for you there. Finally, I got to sink a harpoon into the great whale that is TIFF!

How much do you recall of the initial reception to Gimli?

My producer at the time, Greg Klymkiw, was very angry that the festival turned it down, so he showed up in Toronto with a steamer trunk full of VHS tapes and circulated them among journalists, starting the rumour that the best film in the festival wasn’t in the festival. And when the Toronto journalists began running their festival preview pieces, quite often space was devoted to this movie that wasn’t there. I got some nice notoriety right out of the gate. This picture isn’t for everyone. Back then, the walkout rate would be 50 to 80 per cent. It plays better now, because audiences aren’t caught flat-footed by it.

Audiences can contextualize it with the rest of your work. Where do you see this film, a dreamlike look at jealousy and madness in a Manitoba village, sitting in your own filmography?

I love how I felt when I made it. For some reason, I had a lot of confidence. I was 30 when I started, but it was a young 30. I felt like a teenager. I had spent my whole life watching Canadian television and not liking it. I did enjoy the NFB documentaries though, which were more straightforward attempts at mythologizing the Canada that I knew. But for a proper mythologizing, I knew a Hollywood approach was needed. You take the facts and flip them, or just invent them. I wanted this story about Gimli, a small fishing village, to get the Hollywood treatment. Round the corners off the facts, or change them completely. I felt you just had to make up stuff about your home. I then did a version of that with My Winnipeg, too. It gave me a mission.

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Tales from the Gimli Hospital is about blistering lust and seething envy during a 19th-century epidemic ravaging Gimli, a small Icelandic-Canadian fishing village on the shores on Lake Winnipeg.Films We Like/Courtesy of Films We Lik

Is that mission accomplished today? Is that mythologizing of Canada something that you want to keep exploring in your work?

Yeah, but I think now, since the internet has highlighted misinformation, mythology isn’t just a playful, fun thing any more. Today’s audiences are more sophisticated about what is charming and what is insensitive. I try to keep evolving with audiences, but I can also never take myself so seriously. I like a good cine-essay. But I also like recent works by Tim Heidecker, Nathan Fielder. Artists who take reality to extremes. [Fielder’s HBO series] The Rehearsal is marvelous. We’re now at a point in film history that allows us to make these kind of unclassifiable cinematic essay docu-fictions. Filmmakers have as much freedom now as novelists.

Perhaps partly because there are so many more streamers hungry to release new capital-c Content.

You have to be practically an idiot now to not get some content out there. You might not get rich off of it, so mission not accomplished, I guess. But I also have to keep working because I’ve been really bad with money. I have to keep making films. I teach at U of T, which keeps the body and soul together. But I don’t have any PhD or masters degree, so any clout or credibility I have comes from making new films.

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Tales from the Gimli Hospital was rejected from the TIFF's 1988 version, the Festival of Festivals.Courtesy of Films We Lik

Can you say much about your future projects?

I’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement about one project, and I have a movie that I could shoot next summer, I hope. I’m working with my [Forbidden Room co-director] Evan Johnson and his brother Galen. We’re hoping the project comes through, or else they’ll be the youngest greeters ever at Walmart, by my side. There are times when I miss the methods on display in Gimli, where you just go find some props, ask an actor friend of yours to star, get the costumes from the navy surplus store, and then just order up some film and shoot. And then get rejected by TIFF.

We should talk about the restoration itself. What was it like revisiting the film?

Oh, I hate revisiting my old films because it’s just an accusation against me. My ineptitude and my good intentions that never amounted to much. [Laughs] But this time, it was just nice to see it at least once. I’ll probably never watch it again. While watching it, I had a little moment of objectivity: What could people possibly be making of all this? And then I would remember that it all started with this insane jealous rivalry I had with some guy who had been a better lover of some girlfriend, and it was so intense that once the woman was removed from the formula it was just guy-on-guy anger and lust. And then I remember, oh, yeah, that’s what was consuming me those days. That’s what got me out of bed with a camera in my hand.

Tales from the Gimli Hospital screens at the TIFF Lightbox Sept. 30 through Oct. 6 (, and then Montreal’s Cinéma Moderne Oct. 5 through Oct. 11 (

This interview has been condensed and edited

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