Three Nations Cinema?

By Jerry White

32-short-films-about-glenn-gould-francois-girard.jpg32 Short Films about Glenn Gould, 1993

Writing the introduction to an anthology on Canadian cinema is a treacherous undertaking. The notion of what constitutes ‘Canada,’ or ‘Canadian cinema,’ is a particularly contentious area.

Great deal of my thinking about Canadian identity has been influenced by John Ralston Saul, a political philosopher and novelist (and the husband of the former Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson). In his 1997 book Reflections of a Siamese Twin, he writes of Canada that, “its strength – you might even say what makes it interesting – is its complexity; its refusal of the conforming, monolithic nineteenth-century nation-state model. That complexity has been constructed upon three deeply-rooted pillars, three experiences – the aboriginal, the Francophone and the Anglophone. No matter how much each may deny the others at various times, each of their existences is dependent on the other two.”  

Saul calls this ‘a Triangular Reality,’ and it is one of the assumptions that gives 24 Frames: Canada its form; I have sought to create a triangular portrait of the cinemas of Canada.

Within Canadian film studies, the ‘national cinema question’ represents a long-standing argument, and it is in some ways connected to the kinds of tensions that Saul identifies. George Melnyk’s recent book 100 Years of Canadian Cinema spells out the contemporary ambiguity quite clearly: “the entrenched division in the two non-communicating national cinemas should be viewed as a major barrier for building a sustained critical mass for the nation’s cinema.”

I have therefore chosen to break the book into three parts; the Anglophone, Francophone and Aboriginal traditions get eight films each. I have conceived of these traditions in as broad a way as I can. Not all of the Anglophone films are only in English: Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1997) is in English, Hindi, Parsee, Punjabi, and Urdu; I include it partially because Mehta lives in the Anglophone province of British Columbia and represents Canadian cinema’s trans-national reality.

Similarly, not all of the Francophone films are only in French; Fédor Ozep’s La Fortressese (1947) also exists in an English-language version called Whispering City; I include it because it is an important part of Quebec’s early, mostly French-language feature film industry. And not all of the Aboriginal films are directed by people with Aboriginal ancestry. To explain the most seemingly eccentric entry of the book, Dead Man (1996) is directed by the white American, Jim Jarmusch. I include it because it stars Gary Farmer (Cayuga), a figure who has been important in the promotion of Aboriginal cultural practice both in both the USA and Canada and who collaborated closely with Jarmusch on the creation of the film. Dead Man can therefore help identify a continental understanding of Aboriginal culture – one that seeks to transcend the borders of colonially-imposed nation-states.

One problem that is faced by the other editors in this series, though, is the selection of specific films, and the inevitable sense that they are creating a canon of films for the area under their consideration. Of course this is not what we are trying to do with this series, so I would like to explain what, exactly, my slightly eccentric choice of films is meant to illustrate about Canadian cinema.

I’ll start with what I have left out; that the English section includes no films from either David Cronenberg or Guy Maddin is the most obvious omission. I exclude these two because their films, although widely seen and sometimes interesting, do not offer the opportunity for reappraisal that I think English Canadian cinema desperately needs. The feature-narratives that I have included here all illustrate the development of a feature narrative cinema at the same time that they ‘rhyme’ with the non-narrative films that I have included. Nobody Waved Goodbye thus connects with Winds of Fogo via the seminally Canadian genre of the docu-fiction; Reason over Passion rhymes with I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing via their shared tricky connections with both Canadian identity and conceptual art; Exotica connects with 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould via their shared engagement with memory and their shared restlessness with, and yet inability to, abandon narrative form.

exotica-atom-egoyan.jpgExotica, 1994

And I like very much that the earliest English-Canadian film (the WWII propaganda documentary Churchill’s Island) is, in some ways, a British film, while the latest English-Canadian film (Deepa Mehta’s Earth) is, in some ways, an Indian film. That shift in definitions of trans-national connections speaks volumes about the evolution of English-Canadian culture over five decades. Given these sorts of connections, I do not feel that the exclusion of either Maddin or Cronenberg is a fatal loss.

Something similar is going on with the first and last films of the Aboriginal section. The Hunters and Whale Hunting are made by Inuit filmmaker Mosha Michael; they are in some ways part of the ancien regime, being produced as part of a National Film Board programme operating in the Northwest Territories, which was then a gargantuan, sparsely populated and nearly ungovernable territory taking up a third of Canada. The last film in the this section is Zack Kunuk’s Atanarjuat, a film made in the new territory of Nunavut (carved from the eastern half of the NWT in 1999 as part of a ‘Home Rule’-style agreement with the Inuit) by Kunuk’s independent production company. Like the shift from British to Indian references of the English-Canadian section, the shift from the NWT to Nunavut speaks volumes about the transformation of Aboriginal politics over the course of two decades.

In between these two films, I have tried, as with the English section, to choose films that connect with each other in interesting ways. You Are On Indian Land and Dead Man are both made by outsiders (Americans!) committed to collaborating with their subjects and pushing against the conventions of their chosen forms (documentary and narrative, respectively) in order to do that. Foster Child and The Learning Path both use essayistic documentary to examine the complex web of allegiances that Aboriginal Canadians have created. Bearwalker and Kahnasatake both draw on the emotional power of carefully-crafted drama to give us a sense of their territories’ cultural conflicts that is as highly detailed as any conventional documentary.

Aboriginal cinema is not well-known outside Canada, but given the degree to which it intersects with the broader concerns of filmmaking here and makes contributions that move the conversations about these concerns forward in significant ways, it clearly requires a third of the book.

Until the 1960s, Québec was known as a conservative, closed society, rigidly Catholic and disproportionately agrarian. That began to change in 1960, the beginning of the period known as the ‘Quiet Revolution,’ the name given to Quebec’s period of modernisation and secularisation. The period between 1936-1959, on the other hand, is known as the ‘Great Darkness,’ marked by the rule of the anti-Semitic and corrupt regime of Maurice Duplessis as Premier (Duplessis was out of power briefly during WWII).

The earliest Francophone film in the book, then, is a work that is very much a product of the Duplessis era, En Pays Neufs, a documentary commissioned by the government to promote its colonisation scheme in the west of Quebec; the latest film in this group is Le Confessionale, a re-consideration both of the Duplessis era and the legacy of modernisation that supposedly redeemed it, shot in a style of high artifice that rejects Quebec’s legacy of realist filmmaking which, in the 1960s, became synonymous with radical filmmaking.  

The other Francophone titles I have chosen are similarly engaged with the crucial formal and thematic issues that have preoccupied Quebec’s cinema. Pour la Suite du Monde and On Est au Coton are both early examples of cinéma vérité but both are also highly manipulated films, constantly moving back and forth between subjectivity and the search for a new truth about Quebec life. Sonatine and Mourir à tue-tête are similarly gripped with a desire to re-frame the truth of women’s lives in post-Quiet-Revolution Quebec, but both do so by combining naturalism and artifice in equal measure. La Fortresse and Decline of the American Empire both ask, across a historical and in many ways a cultural chasm, what kind of cultural and emotional work a straightforwardly narrative practice can perform during periods of transition in Quebec’s evolution.

The cinema of Quebec has certainly earned its reputation as highly engaged with the evolution both of film aesthetics and its domestic culture; what I have tried to acknowledge here is that it is very closely linked, via its engagement with issues of realism, narrative and cultural identity, with its sister cinemas in English and Aboriginal Canada.  

I feel, then, that it’s time to take a look at Canadian cinema in a way that takes account of recent, well-known achievements and of lesser-known and often more formally eccentric works. These 24 films provide a necessarily incomplete view of Canada’s three national cinemas. But they provide a view that, hopefully, will inspire greater interest in the cinematic complexities that can be found north of the 49th parallel.

This is an abridged version of the introduction to The Cinema of Canada, edited by Jerry White and published in the Wallflower Press 24 Frames Series (