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A film festival on the inland sea in Gimli

Gimli Film Festival

GIMLI, Manitoba — In late July, long after the traditional ice fishing huts have been towed back to shore, Gimli Beach is overrun with hundreds of eager filmgoers.

Gimli (pop. 2,500), located 56 miles north of Winnipeg, sits within a couple hours drive of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota.

This corner of Manitoba’s Interlake, originally called New Iceland, dates back to pioneering Icelandic immigrants who settled in 1875 on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg.

Gimli first served as an Icelandic fishing village. In 1905, the railway reached Gimli and opened up the region to more commerce and summer cottagers from nearby Winnipeg.


Yet the traditional ways continue since local Icelandic fishermen still harvest goldeye and walleye from the expansive Lake Winnipeg; in winter, these hardy Norse ice fishers use Bombardier 1930s-era tracked vehicles known as “Wooden Dinosaurs.”

The early pioneers made their living as fishermen and farmers. The settlers cleared land for crops and pulled goldeye and walleye (known as pickerel locally) from Lake Winnipeg. This massive body of water is known as the inland sea: 9,465 square miles in size with its southern tip 34 miles north of Winnipeg.

The original Icelanders placed a premium on literacy and culture. Their daily lives included time set aside for reading, telling Bible stories, and recounting Icelandic sagas. The tiny colony is now the second largest community of Icelandic people outside of Iceland.

Since the roots of storytelling run deep in this lake community, it’s no surprise that the 2015 Gimli Film Festival attracted more than 10,000 visitors. It’s now the largest film festival of its kind in rural Canada.

For five-consecutive nights in late July, a giant screen perched on scaffolding protrudes from Lake Winnipeg like the white mainsail of a ship. When the sun sinks into the western horizon, the projector illuminates the screen and the assembled movie watchers settle in on blankets for two hours of free summer entertainment.


Many of the free films screened at Gimli Beach are popcorn-munchers, like “Jaws,” the kind of accessible, escapist summer blockbusters that draw a big crowd. The indoor venues, like the Gimli Theatre, offer more cerebral fare. It screens Canadian feature films, circumpolar-themed films, and award-winning documentaries.

The film festival had its origins in the community’s annual Icelandic Festival, Islendingadagurin, which was established in Gimli 127 years ago to celebrate Icelandic heritage and culture. “In 2000, we screened films on the beach made by Icelandic directors. It was our first time erecting a screen in the water, which was a learning curve,” recalls festival founder Janis G. Johnson.

A few years ago, the organizers decided to break off from the Icelandic Festival and secure their own weekend dates in late July. The concept has since expanded beyond Icelandic films to encompass the Scandinavian countries, the Russian Federation, the Baltic States, Ukraine, the United States, and Canada.

“The Festival’s mandate is to screen films with a northern theme. We choose the circumpolar theme since we’re a northern community,” says Johnson. When she’s not volunteering for the film festival, Johnson is a senator in the Senate of Canada in Ottawa.

Norma Bailey, a fellow volunteer and Gimli-born film director, sits on the festival’s programming committee. Her most memorable screening was the 2001 Norwegian documentary “Cool & Crazy on the Road.” Director Knut Erik Jensen follows the Berlevåg men’s choir as members embarked on an American tour just three weeks after 9/11.


The singers, who are all fishermen, hail from a harsh and isolated community in the northernmost tip of Norway. “I was so moved by this documentary. It was uplifting to watch as these men sing so beautifully for the bereaved people of New York,” says Bailey.

For the last 12 summers, Winnipeg-based senior executive Michelle Aitkenhead and her family have been devoted film fest-goers. In a recent interview, she recalled the excitement of “marking your territory on the beach before the sun sets and the movie begins by spreading blankets on the sand, or digging your pit.” A typical outdoor movie night for the family involves a race for ice cream cones from nearby Country Boy before the opening credits roll.

One summer evening, “The Snow Walker” completely captivated the family because of the synchronicity between the movie and beach setting. “ ‘The Snow Walker’ was about a bush pilot flying a young Inuit woman out of her isolated northern community to a hospital in the south. The plane crashes into a lake, and the rest of the movie is how they struggle to survive,” says Aitkenhead.

“That night, the waves were crashing against the screen in Lake Winnipeg ahead of us, the stars filled the clear sky, and I swear you could feel frost in the air as the temperature dropped, as if on cue!” Aitkenhead recalls.

The 2016 Gimli Film Festival runs July 20-24. Visit gimlifilm.com for screening times, prices, and programming information.


Patricia Dawn Robertson can be reached at verba@sasktel.net.