There is something rather unsatisfying about Canadian movies. A few defenders of them might enjoy an Atom Egoyan film festival, but no one can deny that the majority of Canada’s filmgoers stick to foreign imports for their entertainment and have done so since the dawn of cinema. Canadian films rarely make a name for themselves inside or outside of the country, while other nations such as Australia, New Zealand and Ireland have contributed memorable enduring works to world cinema for decades.
The definition of what constitutes a Canadian movie can vary but in a pure sense it is a film in which the director and writer are from Canada, major funding provided by Canadian sources, the film shot mainly in Canada (preferably without hiding the country’s identity), and with Canadian performers in prominent roles. The more a film satisfies these conditions, the more you may find them to be depressing, emotionally restrained, or possessing a perverse, awkward humor and themes that concern failure, illness, and isolation.
Canadian films usually fall into two extreme camps, dreary mundane docu-dramas and quirky comedies that appeal to very limited audiences, or low budget exploitation fare (although the most successful and enduring ones were almost invariably written and/or directed by non Canadians, i.e. Bob Clark, and starring non Canadian performers). Quebec film has supposedly been more successful in making normal movies(the ones I have seen, such as Night Zoo and Mon Oncle Antoine did not leave a positive lasting impression). For the sake of clarity I am mainly addressing English Canadian film.
Many have speculated on the reasons for this situation. The most popular arguments are that there is a creative brain drain-Canada’s best talents go to the US, that Canada cannot afford to make US-style movies, and that the US domination of our theaters prevents Canadian movies from thriving.
I think these answers are insufficient.
It is certainly true that many Canadian actors have gone to Hollywood, but writers and directors are not so numerous. The most famous are David Cronenberg, Ivan Reitman, Norman Jewison, and James Cameron, the “king of the world”.
To take the Cameron example first, it should be noted that he left Canada as a teenager and didn’t pursue filmmaking as a career until a decade later. While he was in country, it is more than likely that he had little exposure to Canadian media content. His work, while certainly popular, has very little to indicate a Canadian cultural influence. He may as well be classified as an Americanized Canadian.
Likewise, Reitman’s family emigrated from Europe, and one must question how much of an influence Canadian culture had on his future work (his early government funded efforts were, like Cronenberg’s, not well-received by official press). His output is mainly comedic, however, which does link him to the phenomenon of Canadian comedians which seem to dominate our contribution to Hollywood as well as our homegrown media.
Norman Jewison began his career in his homeland before reaching Hollywood, and has founded film institutes to develop Canadian filmmakers. He is more affectionately regarded by the government-linked Canadian media, but his work is rooted in reality and slice of life, not too surprising given the North’s tradition of documentary and down to earth drama.
Cronenberg’s early work combined the dreary coldness and illness obsession of the typical Canadian docu-drama film with the horror genre, and while being significant contributions to genre cinema, the visceral nature of them cannot be classified as mainstream, even for horror.
These four examples do not parallel the filmmaking profiles observable in other English speaking countries. One can cite numerous American and British directors, or those from Australia and New Zealand like Bruce Beresford, George Miller, or Peter Jackson as examples of filmmakers who established themselves in the country of their birth as well as having an interest in popular storytelling genres, even after emigrating to Hollywood.
In Canada, the filmmakers that would best match these would be those of “pioneer stock” generational ancestry, such as Bruce McDonald or Don McKellar, but their films are firmly locked into the docu-drama, experimental, or quirky comedic genres. What is seemingly impossible to find is an example of a Canadian filmmaker who makes mainstream movies in the suspense, thriller, science fiction or action genre without some narrative deficiencies unless the writer or director came from outside (the superior quality Rituals and Black Christmas are examples of films written by Canadians but directed by foreigners).
This leads to the next explanation-that Canada cannot afford to make “US-style” movies. This is a very flimsy excuse.
Many countries have, since the 1920s, made mainstream imaginative genre fare, horror, science fiction, action, suspense, or murder mysteries for 1/10th of the cost of an Atom Egoyan movie. Furthermore, if the issue was simply a matter of cost, why hasn’t Canada written popular genre novels or produced radio dramas as the US and Britain have done for decades? These efforts are immune to budgetary restrictions.
In the 1940s the government funded a radio series called Nazi Eyes on Canada, which imagined a future where the country had been conquered by Axis powers. It may be the closest thing to a serious science fiction radio drama produced in Canada, and yet was WW2 propaganda. Likewise, Canada funded a few patriotic superhero comics in the period, but dropped them at the end of the war, and when Canadians did return to the genre in the 70s, they were for the most part, comedic interpretations.
The lack of serious genre writing in Canadian literature is especially remarkable. Other than Honoré Beaugrand’s stories based on Quebec folktales in the late 19th century and A.E. Van Vogt’s pulp era science fiction tales, there is precious little to mark Canada’s contribution to fantasy.
Serious speculative work is readily embraced in other countries, while in Canada it is often rigidly channeled through either comedy or fiction intended for children, and while the US has Dorothy in Oz, and England has Alice in Wonderland, Canada’s most famous literary daughter is Anne of Green Gables, a stark difference in genre approach.
Cronenberg has remarked on the difficulty he had in obtaining funding for his horror films, since the government funding bodies were focused on documentary and slice of life depictions of working Canadians. He theorized that the country’s presbyterian roots might be a reason for this lack of interest in fantasy. Whatever the reason, the absence of fantasy and the emotional repression in Canadian stories is hard to overlook.
The author of the Bad Movie Planet website summarized our national cinema this way: “the typical Canadian movie concerns a turn of the century suicidal and terminally ill Saskatchewan farmer having gay sex with a dead moose.”
While I cannot name a specific movie with that plot, one can find elements of it scattered in various Canadian movies. The Quebec film Night Zoo tells the story of an ex-con (who experiences a prison rape before release), seeking to reconcile with his dying father–he accomplishes this by taking the wheelchair bound man to the zoo in search of a moose to shoot. Unable to locate one, they shoot an elephant instead. A similar use of violence can be found in the 1976 Why Shoot the Teacher? about a Depression era instructor who despises his rural students until their abrupt urge to chase down and rip the tails off prairie dogs makes him bond with them (the odd use of violence directed towards non human animals as comical intent in Canadian film and tv is the topic of an article titled Animals fer the Killin’ in Canadian Entertainment.
Bizarre sexual themes has been a facet of Cronenberg’s work but can be discerned in other Canadian film. Necrophilia pops up in Kissed and Fido (through the suggestion of a human-zombie baby). Foreign films have explored this subject, although not so directly or with an apparently non critical voice. Sexuality and lycanthropy was hinted at in the Howling, but in Canada’s Ginger Snaps it was more to the point, as a metaphor for puberty. Splice, by the same Canadian screenwriter, also explores the issue of sexual relations with a genetically engineered creature. Like the indifferent attitude towards animal suffering, such approaches to sexuality can leave a distasteful awkward feeling in audiences, and yet these films are allegedly Canadian attempts at being mainstream.
Is there an odd disconnect between Canadian filmmakers, their media and government supporters, and the general public about the kinds of movies they consider good?
One might get such an impression from perusing a poll conducted by a Canadian film industry journal, or a recent list of 10 “cool” Canadian movies which includes such fun subjects as drowning children and Alzheimer’s.
Another strange feature observed is that Canadian filmmakers will sometimes indicate their strong affection for blockbuster US films (Denys Arcand once said that Jaws was the most perfect film he had ever seen) even though their work has little or no connection to B movie sensibilities. Are they unable to make the movies they would really like to make in order to get government funding, or is such appreciation of Hollywood merely a marketing ploy?
Given the state of affairs the question becomes-what can be done about it? If this phenomenon is part of some northern climate-induced behavioral anomaly (I have investigated the media of Russia and Scandinavian countries and not discerned the same absence of popular narrative storytelling as we find in Canada) then perhaps nothing can improve the situation other than migration.
But I think a couple of suggestions would help. One is to refrain from seeing ourselves only in relation to the US. It is common for Canadian films and literature to make some reference to the US-often critically. Fido mocks a depiction of US culture in the 1950s (without ironically noting that Canadians were absorbing the same media products as their American neighbors since we didnt produce much or any of our own). It is possible to tell stories that have nothing to do with our Southern neighbor. The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the most famous science fiction novels from Canada, concerns a dystopian future where a religious dictatorship controls the United States. If the story was written in England, it may well have been set in that country i.e. 1984. Same for a US-written work. One could have easily imagined a future in which Canada was the location of this theocratic government. Is there a marketing/economic reason to set the novel in the United States, or is it merely a reluctance to imagine Canada in a critical fashion? For the sake of compelling drama, it would be a good idea to examine Canada itself, and not just in glowing tourism ads or hand-wringing films in which “genetically peaceful” Canadian soldiers lament their war activities (Canada committed atrocities in wartime as well, we just don’t hear much about it). Canada has had violence, murder, corruption, scandals–in other countries this would be fodder for artistic expression. In Canada, making artistic works from real life murders is rare or delayed (a dramatic depiction of a notorious and socially relevant Montreal school massacre took twenty years to materialize). Is there something about Canada that makes it exempt from the kinds of critical examination that other countries engage in more willingly? The October Crisis of 1970 was made into a couple of feature films in Quebec in the 70s, but in English Canada was not a subject for drama until the 2000s.
Also, if Canada wants to improve its motion picture profile on the world stage or at least for homegrown economic reasons it needs to do so with sincerity and passion. Canadian filmmakers shouldn’t make films because they want to counter US content, or simply to make money with genre productions because they heard that they are popular, they should do it because they enjoy telling such stories.
And they really ought to express normal human emotions and behavior. Anger, greed, jealousy and ambition are common elements in narrative storytelling dating back to ancient times (as a recent document on the NZ film industry observes Hollywood film is based upon principles of Greek drama, not US created ones, thus other countries shouldn’t shy away from telling such stories out of fear of being too American). Failing to acknowledge these qualities in human character leads to boring narratives, or the urge to rip the tails off prairie dogs or bash in the skulls of baby seals. The seal hunt is one story that surprisingly has never been addressed in Canadian media other than documentary, despite being one of the most iconic symbols of Canadian culture outside the country. Chances are such a work if funded by government would portray the seal pups as some kind of demonic entities.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was started not by a desire to bring new media to Canadians as one finds in the UK or the US or Australia, but only after the government panicked when they realized that television was not the short term fad they expected it to be and in an effort to curb US influence, hastily established the network. According to legend, the first broadcast had the titles upside down. Canadian film has been upside down for a long time.
Update January 2017:
As mentioned above, Canada did attempt to foster a domestic film industry between 1968 and 1985. You can find more on this period at the Canuxploitation link below. After 1985 the Federal Government changed rules on the funding of Canadian film to make it impossible to compete in narrative dramatic film with Hollywood or any other country. The Telefilm rules for screenplays seeking full funding in Canada say:
“The primary objective of the CFFF is to increase Canadian audiences in theatres for Canadian feature films.”
But it also says the film must “conform to the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) Code of Ethics and to all other programming standards endorsed by the CAB or the CRTC, and not contain any element that is an offence under the Criminal Code, is libellous or in any other way unlawful.”
This apparently means that a film cannot contain fantasy elements that show theft or murder. In essence it means the system is rigged against Canadian filmmakers.
You can see this for yourself in films that have received full funding from the Canadian government. The 1988 film Pin: A Plastic Nightmare is a textbook example. Although slickly-made, it manages to avoid depicting the kind of suspense we take for granted in non-Canadian cinema. This all but assures failure to generate good word of mouth and audiences. Thus the claim that the government seeks to generate audiences for Canadian film is dishonest.
While Canadian filmmakers face this obstacle, US films by the big 6 corporations are free to be filmed in Canada and receive massive amounts of Canadian tax money and in content violate the criminal code as much as they like, and then they dominate Canadian screens.
Although the situation seems dire, there is some hope. Technology has changed to the point where someone, for well under $10 000 Canadian, has access to technology that would have been unavailable to even the largest Hollywood studio 20 years ago. The limitations are few, the creative potential is vast.
I believe that the big 6 corporations that control most mainstream media are in a decay phase which they may not recover from. They have become dominated by a business philosophy that seeks to pander to a global audience and shut out cultural distinctiveness and intellectual exploration.
As the New Zealand film industry paper mentioned, Western narrative cinema traces back to Ancient Greece (by way of Shakespeare and Marlowe) and the best examples of dramatic fiction film will show the range of human behavior and ideas that you find in Greek tragedy or Elizabethan theater. This human quality is increasingly missing from the major studios’ films they fund or distribute, replaced by political correctness and insincere themes of family unification and self-discovery.
My hope is that due to the technological availability we now enjoy, we may see a resurgence spirit of creative ingenuity and traditional classical narrative styles in cinema, perhaps one that has a regional character as opposed to the monocultural one forced upon us from Hollywood.