Manitoba History: Reviews: ‘The New Mayor’: Three Views of the Film
Conceived as a portrait of long-time Winnipeg mayor Steve Juba and concluded as a memorial to his successor, Bob Steen, who died unexpectedly after less than two years in office, The New Mayor went through more changes before it was finished than a chameleon in a crayon box. That it was completed at all is a tribute to the tenacity and resourcefulness of the filmmakers: producer Derek Mazur; cameraman Ian Elkin; and editor Bob Lower.
When Juba surprised everyone by his last-minute withdrawal from the mayoral race after twenty-one years in office, the filmmakers aborted their original plans and decided to make their film an examination of the transition process between the wily veteran mayor and whoever succeeded him. Juba, however, became a less than cooperative participant in this project. So attention had to be focused exclusively on his political heir. But Steen, who narrowly defeated Bill Norrie for the office, turned out to be pallid and undynamic in front of the camera; in editor Bob Lower’s words, he seemed like a “dandelion in the wind” in his initial responses to the demands of the office. The filmmakers therefore began concentrating on the forces that swirled around himthe lobbyists who were anxiously soliciting his favour, especially Al Golden with his scheme for a new hockey arena. By this point the actual filming was nearing completion, and the lobbying issue had not crystallized into a cinematically exploitable incident. As a result, The New Mayor had to discover its focus and develop a storyline through the slow and arduous process of editing. To further complicate matters, Steen was hospitalized with cancer just as the film was reaching its final form, necessitating further alterations in both the tone and the conclusion of the film. What emerged from all this is a film as surprising and refreshing as a January chinook in Winnipeg. The New Mayor is not just a documentary about local, ephemeral politicians but about people and the political process as it has evolved in North America in the last quarter of the twentieth century. And it is not just informative and revealing, it is also amusing and even compelling. This is because the filmmakers have realized that to be effective a documentary must be a dramanot one of those contrived, so-called “docudramas” which have been sullying our screens lately, but a dramatic record of a conflict of some importance between real adversaries that is true to the situation and to the personalities involved.
Two things especially stand out in The New Mayor: the point of view that is established and the way incidents are orchestrated into a narrative line. Many, if not most, National Film Board documentaries are sincere and well-photographed and thorough enough to be at least mildly interesting. But they are so careful in their attempts to be fair, to appear objective, that they are ultimately boring. There’s a kind of industrial blandness to them all, like the paint used in public buildings that is blended by interior designers who have minored in group psychology. They seem to have been made without any personal convictions so as not to offend either the people in the film or those in the audience. This is not the case with The New Mayor. It is not afraid to take a stand. It does not mince words or polish images.
The film’s narrator is no civic-minded, chamber-of-commerce booster type. Winnipeg is first defined negatively, in terms of what it does not have that other Canadian cities do. The most positive thing said is that it is comprised of “600,000 people asking themselves why they put up with the climate.” The mayoral election revealed that it is a “city of many problems but few issues.” What a welcome tonic! Not because it is cynical, but because it is opinionated, is it so unique.
The filmmakers are equally unflinching in their determination to include real people, warts and all. The New Mayor has more than its share of cinematic epiphaniesmoments when the camera captures people behaving in ways that succinctly reveal more about them than could be expressed in pages of print. There is Al Golden acknowledging his bungled opportunism; Dick Champlone repeatedly unable to find a pocket for an oversize envelope; a pugnacious Don Smith resorting to gunslinger rhetoric as he vows revenge; his ICEC colleagues a montage of stolid faces as they anticipate a telling defeat; and common citizens openly confessing to their political ignorance.
These epiphanies are part of a storyline that is crisp and subtle in its orchestration yet clear in its ultimate intent. Drama is conflict, and conflict is what The New Mayor is about. Though the participants may be overdrawn, the conflict is not a manufactured one, nor is it artificially imposed. Whether it is inflated is even open to some question, for one of the principals in the conflict, independent councillor Joe Zuken, seems to indicate that it is not only important but central when he states: “if [Steen] doesn’t fight he’s going to be a nothing mayor.”
What finally distinguishes The New Mayor, however, is neither the character revelation nor the drama but the film’s rationalityits sense of proportion. Though the conflict between the ICEC and Bob Steen was important, it is shown to be part of a continuing battle. Though the conflict was played out in the hallowed chambers of city government and in the media, politics is not described in the grand terms of Hollywood-style public debate but in its unglamorous “everydayness.” And though the film is opinionated, it adeptly straddles that fine line between outrage and bemusement. The New Mayor is both an invaluable document and an intelligent film.
This film attempts to provide some insights into the process and circumstances by which the late Robert Steen became Mayor in 1977, together with an account of the difficulties he encountered during his first months of office. Those difficulties, according to the film, derived from the conflict between the ICEC, a powerful, entrenched, establishment-oriented majority on the council, and a vaguely populist, vaguely anti-establishment new Mayor, possessing neither charisma nor a broad public mandate. At the end of the film, on a symbolically significant issue, the Mayor wins and the ICEC loses.
In assessing The New Mayor, the first thing to be said is that one can be happy that it was made and people had, and will have, an opportunity to see it. I know of relatively few Canadian documentary films that have attempted to get behind the ‘public’ side of public life with any real success: too often such films consist of ‘public performances’ by politicians or of stagey and guarded ‘private’ moments. Yet in this film, there are moments when one senses keenly that the participants have finally forgotten the camera’s presence: the Mayor receiving some frank analysis and advice from members of his staff provides one such moment; another is provided by a meeting between the Mayor and several real estate agents interested in acquiring a golf course for development, a vignette which demonstrates that candid moments can frequently be banal as well.
A more important question is whether, in a broader sense, the film says anything worthwhile. Here one is less sure. Someparticularly, members or supporters of the ICEChave seen it as being highly selective in its targets and observations: it provides, for example, thumbnail sketches of prominent ICEC Councillors, aimed presumably at showing their establishment connections, but little or no equivalent information is provided about their critics, even though such information might be equally relevant.
However, to grant that the film is selective would not in itself invalidate its point of view. The real difficulty lies in identifying that point of view: Juba is a ‘political chameleon,’ Steen is a ‘man of indeterminate politics’ and the ICEC is interested only in a ‘power grab.’ The film seems unable to decide whether its thesis is that all municipal politicians are interested only in power (or the appearance of it) or whether it is really about how Steen’s David slew the ICEC’s Goliath. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that the makers of the film do not convince us that they really know or understand their characters. They portray Bob Steen, for example, as a kind of political “naif” (whereas in fact Steen was a canny survivor of, among other things, twenty-five or thirty years of the Tory Party’s internecine wars). The result is that one oscillates between a sense that the players are, in one moment, viewed as real and particular, and in another, symbolic and representative. When the actors of the years 1977-79 have all passed from the scene, one can speculate that the film will have lost much of its punch, for it does not consistently possess those timeless qualities that endure.
Whatever the realities of the time, the film does reasonably accurately reflect a widely held perception of the ICEC on the City council. Yet the Council with which I am familiar is not immediately or consistently recognizable as the one in this film. Not least among the differences is the fact that the ICEC is no longer the majority group and the composition of the ICEC caucus has undergone significant changes. Nonetheless, I would suppose that the evocation of this earlier perception suggests that the film may have caught some essential truths of that time. And though one may believe that the time has changed and is changing, the film was worth making and is also worth seeing.
The New Mayor certainly has its priceless moments. The stock footage of Steve Juba becoming a Mouseketeer is one of the great moments in Winnipeg’s history. Coming a close second is the scene with Bob Steen and Sleepy Bear turning the sod for the start of a new motel. And who could forget the real estate firm of Banfield, Macfarlane, Evans arguing about whether to call Steen ‘Bobby’ or ‘Bob,’ or Al Golden trying to persuade Dick Champlone that his arena is a good one.
I am afraid, however, that the film, despite its attempt to be realistic and complete, has some major failings. Chief among them is its simplistic analysis of power-politics. The film appears to paint Bob Steen as the bumbling good guy and the I.C.E.C. as the pugnacious bad guys in a fight over representation on the Board of Commissioners. This does not do the facts of the matter justice.
Contrary to what the film suggests, Bob Steen was a wheeler and dealer of the highest level on City Council. He had an old-boy style of operating, which concealed his brilliance and made it difficult for him to be disliked, and he was quite honest about the deals he made. On one occasion, he struck a deal with a number of councillors (it was an amazing feat to be able to get all the councillors to agree) which resulted in a road being repaved in his constituency at the cost of $100,000. By the time the deal was completed, it cost the city over a million dollars in capital expenditures.
On major development issues, which formed the majority of the decisions on council and usually divided council along fairly clear ideological lines, Bob Steen usually sided with the I.C.E.C. (from whose ranks he had previously broken). On power issues he was like Steve Juba in wanting to decentralize power so that he as an individual could make the deals that were necessary for his own political survival which is exactly how most of the other councillors operated, especially those from the I.C.E.C.
The City of Winnipeg Act, however, was formulated to counter this. It was set up to make party politics a visible force on the municipal scene. A Board of Commissioners was created in order to let the day-to-day administration be done by civil servants, and the number of city councillors was set at fifty so as to encourage both policy discussion and leadership through party politics.
What happened was completely different. The I.C.E.C. councillors diffused their presence as I.C.E.C. members and made major decisions behind closed doors, deliberately not speaking as a group in public and often remaining silent in debate. On issues that had nothing to do with ideology the I.C.E.C. councillors split. This was to their advantage since it allowed decision-making on major issues to be done by a political group, but prevented the public from perceiving that this political group truly had control of Council.
The New Mayor fails to see this distinction between power-politics and perceived power. In the exciting last half of the film, which deals with Bob Steen’s attempt to sit on the Board of Commissioners and to stop an I.C.E.C. representative from being placed on it, the film sides with Bob Steen. But the power of the mayor is not opened to ideological question. The I.C.E.C., in trying to force Steen out of a position of power and put an I.C.E.C. representative on the Board, was for once publicly revealing what was in truth happening: the I.C.E.C. controlled Council and it wanted its ideology represented on the day-to-day decision-making body of the city.
Steen’s feigned attempt to retain power for the mayor by sitting on the Board of Commissioners was really an attempt to preserve only the appearance of power at the expense of I.C.E.C. The solution that Steen proposeda compromise resolutionwould naturally be supported by the NDP, who would want to confound the I.C.E.C., and by the independent members who, although allied with the I.C.E.C. on ideological grounds, would want to show that they were independent and took the opportunity to do so with an issue that did not have very real consequences. Accordingly, it was predictable that Steen would win on this issue.
The New Mayor has great power because the film-makers are adept at creating exciting cinema. The behind-the-scene glimpses of citizens trying to influence the mayor and of the mayor engaged in strategy meetings all show the seamier side of city politics, often unappreciated by Winnipegers. In that respect the film has value; it suggests to the audience that there is more beneath the surface than they can see unless they study the issues. But by neglecting ideology and instead concentrating on the conflict between the good guys and the bad guys, the film undercuts the main point it wishes to makethat is: civic politics is dominated by a group of persons whose priority it is to develop the city for the good of large business to the resulting neglect of the general welfare. The film says so, but doesn’t show it, and for that I am sorry.
Page revised: 17 February 2021