Belying his gentle demeanour and a scruffy, unmade-bed personal style, Dave Barber was nothing less than a knight in shining armour to Manitoba and Canada film talent. His death Monday night at the age of 67 from complications of an ulcer at the St. Boniface Hospital sent a shockwave through the Canadian film community.
"Dave Barber was the Rock of Gibraltar of the Winnipeg Film Group," said local filmmaker Patrick Lowe. "He kept the Winnipeg Film Group together from the time he joined in 1983.
"I don’t mean that metaphorically. He was there all the time. He worked his ass off.
"He was a good, kind, courteous and altruistic man who, more than any other programmer in Canada, gave Canadian film and local film the spotlight."
The film community across the country expressed love for the Winnipeg-born Barber, the longtime senior film programmer at the film group-run theatre Cinematheque, when the news of his death was shared on Facebook.
"I have lost another parent," posted Matthew Rankin, a Montreal-based filmmaker who started his career in Winnipeg and premièred his acclaimed feature The Twentieth Century at Cinematheque in early 2020.
"I’ve known Dave almost my whole life, from the age of seven, and I am so crestfallen," wrote Rankin. "Filmmaking in Winnipeg and in Canada writ large has no greater, more encouraging friend than Dave. Somehow he alone was able walk a sure-footed path through Winnipeg’s notoriously sectarian artistic community and hold it all together."
That sentiment was mirrored by John Paizs, the WFG veteran whose early work was screened and celebrated at Cinematheque, from his short films to his celebrated 1985 feature Crime Wave.
“This really hurts. (I’m) still trying to take it in." – My Winnipeg director Guy Maddin
"I feel as though someone near and dear in my own family has passed, which in a very real sense is exactly what happened," Paizs wrote. "In my 40-plus-years filmmaking journey alongside the Winnipeg Film Group and Dave — for he has been there practically every step of the way — I have only ever known him to be kind, empathetic, supportive and deeply committed to the fostering of filmmaking talent in Manitoba.
"To say that I will miss him is an understatement. He was truly one of the good ones, a brilliant original, and he will remain always in my heart."
"This really hurts," said My Winnipeg director Guy Maddin in an email. "(I’m) still trying to take it in.
"Dave had survived so many insanely turbulent times at the film group, so many board blow-ups and coup attempts, that I came to believe he’d be there forever, and that the film group could survive anything as long as beloved, generous, perennially sane Dave was there.
"That’s why this news really staggers me and shakes everyone in the film community," Maddin said. "I can’t believe someone will clean out his desk, that mythically brimming-to-bulging desk, and replace the irreplaceable soul who sat at it for 40 years."
Of course, Barber’s influence transcended Winnipeg.
"I owe so much to him," wrote Toronto-based filmmaker Alan Zweig, whose documentary Vinyl was wholeheartedly championed by Barber upon its release in 2000.
"When I made Vinyl, I’d never had a film show anywhere. I was utterly unprepared and after its screening at Hot Docs (documentary festival in Toronto), I had no other plans for it," Zweig wrote on Facebook. "Then I got a call from the Blinding Light cinema in Vancouver. They wanted to show the film. ‘Where did they hear about it,?’ I wanted to know. ‘Dave Barber,’ they said.
"I didn’t know who the hell that was, so I kind of forgot about it," Zweig wrote. "Then I got a call from Seattle for some music and film festival. Again I asked how they heard about it. ‘Dave Barber was raving about it.’
"Many of my most cherished experiences as a filmmaker came as a direct result of Dave’s influence." – Toronto–based filmmaker Alan Zweig
"And so it kept happening, until I met Dave and I came to understand who this man was, and how he loved films and supported filmmakers.
"Many of my most cherished experiences as a filmmaker came as a direct result of Dave’s influence," Zweig said. "Every time I screened at Cinematheque, I told the audience that having Dave Barber programming for them made them the luckiest audience in Canada."
In 1982, Barber answered an ad in the Winnipeg Free Press for a program co-ordinator at Cinema Main, the National Film Board’s in-house screening space. That job would mark the beginning of his association with Cinematheque, the Winnipeg Film Group’s own in-house cinema.
As the WFG began turning out noteworthy locally sourced films later in the ‘80s, with shorts from the likes of Maddin, Paizs, John Kozak and others, Barber went beyond the task of merely booking films. He made sure the press was informed about the film co-op’s output. As much as possible, he strived to make sure the cinema’s program of local, Canadian, independent or international films got as much ink as the Hollywood fare playing at the city’s mainstream multiplexes.
"He worked tirelessly to promote Canadian cinema and, more importantly, to quietly build the local film community," says Winnipeg filmmaker Kevin Nikkel. "Dave made the Cinematheque and independent film his life work.
"I was amazed that he had the same enthusiasm the first time I met him — promoting Lorne Bailey’s first feature, Green Peril in 1996 — and the last time I met him — discussing getting some of my work up onto Cinematheque-on-Demand a few months ago," says Winnipeg filmmaker Sean Garrity. "Same energy, same drive, same passion."
Barber had received his share of official commendations, including the Winnipeg Arts Council’s first ever Making a Difference Award in 2007. In 2013, he showed up at the Manitoba Legislature to receive a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for his work. At the reception, Barber discovered the medal was intended for a climate scientist named Dr. David Barber, but since he was the Dave Barber who showed up, he got the award.
It was a sign of Barber’s self-effacing style that he made a short film about the mix-up titled Will the Real Dave Barber Please Stand Up?
"I doubt I would be a director if not for him. No exaggeration. Dave was an absolute hero to me. So kind, so encouraging." – Toronto–based filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy
Toronto-based filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy, who has been busy the past few years directing film (The Banana Splits Movie) and TV (Surreal Estate) has said she often had trouble convincing Winnipeg production companies to hire her for projects. But she always had an ally in Barber.
"I doubt I would be a director if not for him. No exaggeration," Esterhazy said. "Dave was an absolute hero to me. So kind, so encouraging."
"Dave was a rare thing — a visionary who was entirely without ego," said Free Press film critic Alison Gillmor.
"He was absolutely valiant in his devotion to independent Canadian film. It seemed like the more obscure and odd the film was, the harder he’d work to get it seen, and that included emails and phone messages to reviewers — me being one — telling me exactly why this new film was so important.
"He fought passionately for every film he programmed," Gillmor said. "Nothing made him happier than a Friday night full house."
David Knipe, the interim executive director of the WFG, says Barber’s legacy will likely be celebrated when the cinema opens up again in August.
"We’re going to pull out all the stops to make sure that we do the best tribute we can for him," Knipe said. "Something we were talking about last night is a series of Dave’s Faves, his favourite movies at the Cinematheque, and maybe get some people that were close to him come in to introduce and talk about him and movies."
"I fully expect that the Cinematheque will be renamed in his honour," said Garrity of the Exchange District art house theatre. "I can’t imagine that cinema without him. They were one and the same."
Barber is survived by three brothers, Steve, Paul and Alan, and six nieces and nephews.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.