Miniature: A very tiny documentary with big ideas

By Jim Slotek

Rating: B-plus

It seems oxymoronic to recommend seeing a documentary on miniatures on the big screen. But, as it turns out, the subject is pretty big.

Miniature is the latest project by Tony Coleman and Margaret Meagher, who previously gave us the light-hearted ukulele documentary Mighty Uke. Though the subject carries a whiff of things child-like, Miniature speaks to something in the human condition as it exposes our fascination with tiny representations of things.

A scene from Miniature

A scene from Miniature

The movie opens with the smallest-of-the-small, an almost microscopic, ornate crown placed on the head of a pin by artist Willard Wigan, to be presented to HRH Queen Elizabeth II. 

It then heads back in time, with unearthed miniatures from Southern Germany of Pleistocene-age creatures, woolly mammoths and such, carved by early humans 35,000 years ago.

More contemporarily, but still facing backwards in time, we’re shown the work of Cheryl Teamer, whose dollhouses are elaborate depictions of life in 1840s Louisiana.

Back in the present, we find elaborate miniature projects of villages and cities, some created merely to excite whimsy, others with more serious social intent.

The latter includes the work of “outsider artist” Jimmy Cauty, ex of the British electronic band The KLF, whose dystopian project The Aftermath Dislocation Principle is a diorama of a tiny village of 1:87 scale, whose citizens are apparently reeling in the aftermath of rioting, with emergency vehicles, police and burned buildings. The elaborate exhibition toured historic riot sites in the U.K.

We see Hypotopia, a concrete, knee-high urban landscape, which was built by social activists and artists, an installation in Vienna’s Karlsplatz Square as a protest to the European Union’s bailout of a national bank. Hypotopia is meant to represent what could have been built with the 19 billion Euros that were poured into a financial black hole peopled by corrupt politicians and shady bankers. A statement born to die, Hypotopia tweaked consciences for months before being dismantled.

And then there is the granddaddy of all urban miniatures, Miniatur Wunderland Hamburg, a representation of the city that came to include Knuffingen Airport – billed, again oxymoronically, as “the world’s largest model airport.” A bit of a technological marvel, visitors to Wunderland Hamburg see planes “take off” and “land” (via intricate wiring) throughout the day. A dream project of twins Gerrit and Frederik Braun, it is whimsy writ large and enjoyed by huge crowds of tourists.

I know love of miniatures to be a very European thing. The Prater Amusement Park in Vienna contains historical miniature mechanical representations of the very amusement park you are in, making for a somewhat meta experience. But Miniature shows it also runs strongly in the U.K. and the U.S.

What does it say about us that we have this innate desire to depict the world around us in a size we can encompass in our field of vision? Though it interviews academics on the subject, Miniature is not an overtly philosophical movie. But the mere act of showing us these people’s life’s work provides cause for wonder.

Miniature. Directed by Tony Coleman and Margaret Meagher. Starring Gerrit and Frederik Braun, and Jimmy Cauty. Plays 2 p.m. Sunday at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, followed by an engagement on Super Channel’s Fuse. Coleman and Meagher will present a post-screening Q&A.