Daniel Barrow, Winnipeg Babysitter
posted by Kirsten Collins
What would happen if everyone in town had their own TV show? What small dream would they have to share? How would they represent themselves to their community? Part time capsule, part documentary, part Waiting for Guffman, Winnipeg Babysitter answers these questions by creating an uncensored portrait of this Canadian community circa 1985.
Overall, this piece is like watching a high school performance of an obscure play in the next town over. You have no personal connection to the players nor intense nostalgia for the material. They are clearly amateur with limited resources and low production value. Everything about it points to a boring waste of time.
You laugh at how bad it is, and yet you can’t help but root for each and every one of them–the heavy metal puppeteers, the seniors hosting tacky crafting and cooking shows, the math geek solving the “problem of the week” while his sister plays piano, the teen boy comedy hour, the survivalist parody. These average citizens are taking a risk by calling themselves artists and broadcasting what that they find worthwhile. The compelling part is not what they’re doing, it’s that they’re doing it with such gusto.
We learned from Everytime I See Your Picture I Cry that Daniel Barrow collects things. Winnipeg Babysitter is a two-hour greatest hits selection from his “prized collection” of hometown cable access archives at a time when the format was explosive (over 50 channels) and he was a kid at home watching a lot of TV. His collections spans roughly between 1984 (when the VCR hit the Winnipeg market) and 1997ish (when the “axe came down”: 50 cable channels were consolidated into 3, and the master tapes were destroyed). Years later, Barrow began reconstructing an archive by “shyly looking up names in the phone book” and tracking down the TV hosts’ personal copies.
Throughout, Barrow projected Pop-Up Video style factoids alongside the episodes to fill in context, high points of the series, and what the hosts are up to now. The most involved storyline was from “The Cosmopolitan Time,” a live music show produced by two elderly women. One played the organ, one played drums. They met in Europe, fell in love, and moved to Canada. They started a public access show; playing standards from around the world, sometimes live to an audience of wheelchairs in senior centers. At first, the Works audience laughed heartily at these solemn women with gingham shirts and bad haircuts playing jazzy variations of “You Are My Sunshine” (think SNL’s Bobby & Marty Culp, but in all seriousness). But as we learned more about their behind-the-scenes story–their challenges being a gay couple and trying to get a mortgage, their successful coffeeshop and music studio endeavors, their dream for a peaceful, rural life–the laughs turned to sympathetic sighs and hands held over hearts.
Barrow admits he watched a lot of public access during his formative years, and that these shows undoubtedly influenced his approach to art and cinema. You can order a DVD, but it wouldn’t be the same. Barrow’s introduction to the piece, commentary throughout, and obvious love of this format, time period, and characters is what makes this piece worthy of inclusion in TBA’s lineup. The tenderness with which Barrow has collected, researched, and presented this archive is what transforms Winnipeg Babysitter from a collection of strangers making bad TV shows to a compelling world worth spending time with.