Diversity of the Maple

By Richard Mowe

adjuster-atom-egoyan.jpgThe Adjuster, 1991

Thoughts on the multiple Canadas of Canadian cinema

Trying to define Canadian and Quebecois cinema leaves most of the nation’s filmmakers and actors floundering for words. They acknowledge readily a debt to the country’s great documentary tradition as epitomised by John Grierson; are quick to praise animation as espoused by Norman McLaren and his successors, and take comfort in the international success of David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Robert LePage and Denys Arcand, among others who have all stayed true to their roots.

Beyond the obvious, though, they’re rather perplexed about what, if anything, unites them. Bruce McDonald, whose new film The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess is based on the true story of a juror who had a mid-trial affair with the accused, believes one of the components that bonds his compatriots is the fact “we make films for next to nothing.”

McDonald, on the festival circuit with the film, is talking at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, which has mounted a special focus on Canadian cinema, testimony to the country’s new mood of confidence in selling its wares around the world. He feels that the paucity of budgets has engendered “cleverness, cheekiness, and a sense of improvisation and invention. And we also have to fight our desire to be like our American cousins.”

His lead actress Joely Collins (daughter of musician Phil Collins) concurs with the sentiments. “I think that diversity is the key, because Canada is one of the most multi-cultural countries in the world. We have so many ethnicities but that does make it hard to define Canadian cinema. We’re always searching for our identity in a way and that feeling invests a lot of narratives.” An arresting example of exactly this is Ruba Nadda’s Sabah. It provides the first occasion a Muslim family has been portrayed in a Canadian film, here in the depiction of a spinster who falls in love outside her closed Toronto community.

One of Canadian cinema’s biggest problems is having indigenous films accepted by Canadian audiences. The Americans spend so much on advertising and promotion that there is virtually no contest for any home-grown title battling it out in the market place. In Quebec last year, buoyed by the Oscar fillip for Arcand’s Barbarian Invasions, locally produced films accounted for 18% of ticket sales, but in the rest of the country Canadian films only represented 1% of the total box office. The year before, the beacon had been Seducing Dr Lewis / La Grande Seduction, close in spirit to films such as Waking Ned Devine or the Ealing classic Whisky Galore, where an isolated village engages in communal subterfuge towards a common goal. Its $5.2m gross made it the highest-grossing Canadian film of 2003 and the ninth highest-grossing film in the province’s history.

Tom McSorley, executive director of the Canadian Film Institute, feels less downbeat than such statistics might indicate. “Film-making in Canada has evolved out of a combination of state-supported cultural institutions and a tenacious independent sector. It has been and remains a cinema of auteur directors making art films on modest budgets.”

This independent approach began in the late 1960s, but it has emerged with protean force from the mid-1980s onwards, largely due to the arrival of speciality television channels and the new media delivery systems such as home video, DVD and the internet. It has also arrived because of a renewed desire to tell stories in Canadian terms and a heightened sense that, being so close to the United States, it is important to establish a distinctively Canadian cinematic voice in a rapidly homogenising mass media environment.

It’s not surprising, then, that Canada’s celluloid heroes and heroines are frequently wounded, lost and searching. Unlike those of Hollywood, any victories are likely to be modest in aspiration and achievement. For Atom Egoyan (Where the Truth Lies), it’s even clearer.

“Canadians are very unsure about watching themselves on screen, and in a way that is a defining character of our films. That also explains why they have such difficulty finding an audience.”

Yet if Canadian cinema can continue to provide a consistent antidote to blockbuster triumphalism and steamroller emotions, then it will be doing a valiant service for North America, not to mention the planet.

Richard Mowe is a film journalist, critic, director of the French and Italian film festivals in the UK, and a director of independent distributors CineFile.