On Caring About Canadian Film

Charlie Zone_Still_3iN12_WEB_0

amanda crew & glen gould in charlie zone

On March 4th, 2013 The Globe and Mail published an article about the inaugural Canadian Screen Awards that began with the line, “The fact most Canadians never heard of the films and TV shows being feted didn’t stop the show’s producers from staging a glitzy Hollywood-style awards show.” The line was tossed lightly into the introduction to the piece, as though to suggest that the following critique was extraneous because “no one cares about Canadian film or television anyway.” Writer Andrew Ryan mentions Sarah Polley’s attempt to breathlessly thank everyone in her acceptance speech, compares Martin Short to Billy Crystal (is that an insult?) and even limply writes “there were plenty of glamorous people sitting in their best tuxes and frocks.” Perhaps his point is that the Awards were as mundane as his article, but it is entirely unclear whether he is seeking to cite these examples as being the evening’s highs or the evening’s lows. That’s okay though because, as he points out by citing the arrival of the Canadian “celebrities:” “Alan Thicke! Cheryl Hickey! George Stroumboulopoulos! That guy from Mr. D! We have arrived”- no one cares anyway, right?

Wrong.

Writers like Andrew Ryan and The Globe and Mail in general are actually a giant part of the problem that Canadian film and television and the artists who work tirelessly in these industries face every day. These writers would rather feed Canadians the myth that everything that happens here is inferior to the point of embarrassment in comparison to what happens in the United States than show any interest or pride in Canadian achievement or in Canada’s rich artistic community at all. For example, some recent headlines from The Globe and Mail include “The Highs and (Many) Lows from the Canadian Screen Awards”, “Sorry, Toronto: No one Cares that you’re now the fourth largest city in North America” and “We Don’t Need the CBC to Mythologize Our Politicians.” There is an obvious theme here, The Globe and Mail is committed to painting a picture of Canada where Canadians do not care about their cities’ accomplishments, about their history, their politics, their artists or their stories. I have news for you, Globe and Mail, the Canadian Inferiority Complex is the most boring news angle on the planet. It is just lazy journalism and it says more about your writers being passionless and cynical to the point of ennui than it reflects the remarkable communities that make up our country.

What Ryan’s article fails to point out is that the Screen Awards attracted 2.9 million viewers for the CBC with 11.8 Twitter impressions over the weekend. According to Academy CEO Helga Stephenson, “There’s never been so much buzz about our films, our shows and our digital content.” That sounds like people caring to me. Where Ryan’s article really fails is that he does not address the gravity and the essence of the problem that he so glibly cites in his introduction by thinking about it critically, asking pertinent and interesting questions or doing any sort of investigative journalism. The question is: WHY haven’t most Canadians heard about the films and television shows that were being celebrated that evening? And, more importantly, what can we do to change this?

The most important distinction to make to Ryan’s claim here is that just because Canadian films are not widely known, circulated or seen by the public does not necessarily mean that they are of inferior quality to films from different countries that are more famous and immediately recognizable. In the same way that just because a film is famous does not necessarily mean that it is a masterpiece. I am the first person to admit that I do not see as many Canadian films as I would like to and it is something that I am actively trying to change and something that I am somewhat ashamed of. Yet, to be fair, if you are not in the industry,it is often difficult to see them. The best place to see Canadian film is at Film Festivals like the Toronto International Film Festival and, here in Halifax, The Atlantic Film Festival. When I am in Halifax I find it difficult to attend AFF because it is immediately after the Atlantic Fringe Festival and I am usually close to comatose. In Toronto I find TIFF a bit overwhelming and expensive. Canadian films rarely get screened in large, mainstream Cineplexes, nor do they get advertised to the same extent as American films, and when they are screened they typically pop in and out of movie theatres so fast they are gone before most people even know they were playing- unlike American films that stay in theatres for months- sometimes even after they have been released on DVD. With the disintegration of the movie rental houses, Canadian films being more expensive to buy than their American counterparts and less widely available on Netflix, ITunes and in places like HMV, if they are released on DVD at all, Canadian films are not easily accessible to the public. This is true. Yet, of all the Canadian films I have seen most of them have been astonishingly beautiful. Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz is one of my favourite films of all time, Away From Her is also beautiful, Marion Bridge and New Waterford Girl are intimate and gritty portraits of stories about home in Cape Breton, and I love Atom Egoyan’s Exotica and Don McKellar’s Last Night. The clips from the Canadian films nominated for Screen Awards immediately captivated me; so much more than the trailers for Hollywood’s hackneyed gigantic budget blockbusters that I am constantly inundated with. Who doesn’t want to see War Witch (Rebelle) after it won ten awards!? I know that Canadians can make beautiful films and they do make beautiful films, but it is clear that the Canadian film industry is not being invested in the way that the Americans invest in Hollywood so they are unable to market and distribute these films in the same way. It is not because we do not have the talent and the fact that it is so often insinuated that that is the case, that the artists here are inferior simply because they are Canadian, is both absurd and infuriating.

According to a 2006 article in MacLean’s Magazine that I reccomend you read for far more insight into the logistics of the industry by those who know better than I do, “Quebec has a diverse, thriving, remarkably self-sufficient cinema. Hits such as C.R.A.Z.Y. and The Rocket have had massive success with local audiences. Last year, Quebec movies counted for 26 per cent of our French-language box office. In English Canada, only 1.1 per cent of the box office went to Canadian films.” Once again the question is: WHY does Quebec cinema thrive while English Canadian cinema does not? Well, for one thing, Quebec invests zealously in its culture and its heritage, which includes all of the Arts. Quebec takes pride in its accomplishments, its history, its language and in the achievements of its citizens. I have never seen a headline coming out of Quebec reading: “Sorry Montreal: No One Cares About Being Francophone” or “Does Anyone Really Know Who Robert LePage is?” Caring is the first step toward building something incredible and why The Globe and Mail (“Canada’s National Newspaper“) seems so adamant to fervently dissuade English Speaking Canadians to care about their culture is baffling and sad. If California didn’t care about Hollywood the entire infrastructure would have crumbled decades ago. We, as Canadians, contribute to the success of the Hollywood machine every day because WE care about it; we care about Jennifer Lawrence being adorable in the media room after the Oscars or Seth MacFarlane’s misogyny. We care about these things because the media, our media, has conditioned us to behave this way. (And interestingly, while I had never heard of War Witch before the Screen Awards were broadcast I will admit I had never heard of Seth MacFarlane before the Oscars either because I don’t follow American television. Does my not knowing who he is make him any less famous? Or any more or less talented? Or is it just a reflection on my not caring about American television?)

How much money do we pour into the American economy every day when our caring prompts us to watch their television programs and their films instead of our own? How much money (and how many jobs) do we take out of Canada and give to Hollywood because our media has decided for us that that is the better investment? Why do we allow our companies to be bought and to be controlled by American satellite companies that limit our autonomy and our ability to invest in our own culture and to tell our own stories? And why are so many Canadians willing to accept the lies that we deserve to be slaves to the American media because our own is inherently inferior? Why are journalists like Ryan still perpetuating this myth?

I recently went to the movie theatre and saw Michael Melski’s new independent film Charlie Zone, which was filmed in Halifax and I know that it is a small miracle that the film was even made, let alone released in Halifax, Sydney and Toronto to dozens of rave reviews, and extended in Halifax. It is a crime thriller with a universal and wildly captivating story centering on a kidnapping, a mystery and many twists, turns and murders along the way, but rooted beautifully in themes that are pertinent to our city- of the Aboriginal experience and of poverty often overlooked on the sidelines. It features a powerhouse performance from Glen Gould and a beautifully nuanced performance from Amanda Crew. Both are intensely riveting and at times heartbreaking in the midst of a gruesome and action-packed thriller. These are stories rarely seen reflected in films and they are important. These intimate performances are often lost in larger budget films that focus more on special effects and less on story and character. These qualities in film are more important than a male centric prequel to The Wizard of Oz, or a filmic adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey. Canadian films deserve to be seen. They deserve to have life and they deserve to have journalists writing about them who don’t dismiss them with a glib and general roll of the eye simply on the principle that they happen to be Canadian.

In his farewell letter Stompin’ Tom Connors wrote about devoting his life to singing “about [the] people and places that make Canada the greatest country in the world.” We could all benefit from living by his example. Apathy isn’t cool anymore; it’s the caring that counts.

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