HEY YOU DUMB ARTIST: A Little Note on Bias & #NSFilmJobs

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Let’s imagine that the Nova Scotia Liberal Government decided to reduce a tax credit for a (fictional) Nova Scotia Science and Technology Industry from 50% for Nova Scotian labour to 12.5%. Let’s pretend that this Industry existed most places in the World and that scientists from all over could do their highly skilled work anywhere, but when they chose to work in a particular city, enticed by that city’s tax credit, it generated millions of dollars of revenue for that city. It did this because, as they were researching, they were also spending a lot of money, money that they had raised themselves, pouring it into businesses in the chosen city. Imagine that Nova Scotia had once been a province of chosen cities and towns, but now, because of this reduced tax credit, it was not, and therefore, it wouldn’t be making this additional revenue from the spending scientists. To be clear: the tax credit reduction doesn’t make it “more difficult” for the Scientists to research, it just makes them choose somewhere else to go- so 12.5% of the Scientists aren’t now coming to Nova Scotia, 0% of the Scientists are coming.

The biggest losers in this scenario, obviously, are the Nova Scotian businesses who are losing the business of the Spending Scientists, and therefore also the GDP of Nova Scotia. Let’s say that in 2012 current Finance Minister Diana Whelan herself estimated that this Nova Scotia Science and Technology Industry contributed roughly $100 million a year to the provincial GDP and now that $100 million dollars will be completely erased. Now, Scientists come to Nova Scotia from all over the world to do their research, but since there are so many other places just as nice to go, they’re not devastated or outraged by this loss of Nova Scotia en masse. Yet, let’s imagine that there is a small sector of this large, international industry, who live in Nova Scotia. For these people, now that Nova Scotia isn’t filled with chosen cities and towns, they have to leave and go to other chosen cities and towns to do their research. They have to take their money and spend it somewhere else. These people don’t want to leave their home, so they begin to lobby to retain the tax credit so that it continues to make Nova Scotia a chosen place for their Industry to go to do research. They know it benefits Nova Scotia the most, but it also benefits them, because they like Nova Scotia.

Now, I want you to imagine that there is a Fishing Baron, and this Fishing Baron knows about his fishing industry and the business model that has made him a millionaire, but he is not a scientist and he doesn’t know anything about how the Science and Technology Industry works. This Fishing Baron assumes that the Scientist’s business model is the same as his own. He assumes that the Science and Technology Industry mirrors the Fishing Industry. Yet, as you can see from the depiction of how this Science and Technology Industry is laid out, it has a very unique business model, and it is not specific to Nova Scotia, it is set up so that it is compatible with the entire worldwide industry. Unlike the Fishing Baron’s local business, the Nova Scotia Science and Technology Industry isn’t independent or built around natural resources only found in Nova Scotia, it is a functioning part of a much larger infrastructure.

Yet, say the Fishing Baron is sure that the Liberal Government is showing prudence and fiscal responsibility in banishing the Spending Scientists from Nova Scotia and so he goes and tells The Chronicle Herald so. Now, I would like you to imagine that the Fishing Baron, a businessman, not only claims to know and understand the Science and Technology Industry better than the Scientists, but also tries to explain basic math and economics to them. This is the part of the story that is the most far-fetched, because it’s unlikely that a businessman, even a millionaire Fishing Baron, would assume that scientists don’t understand math. It is much more likely that when the Scientists explained how their Industry worked to this Fishing Baron, that he would at LEAST listen, likely even respectfully, and he might even give them the benefit of the doubt that they were telling the truth and that they understood the logistics of their own industry. He probably wouldn’t continue to debate with them based solely on his knowledge of fish. More importantly, even if this one Fishing Baron was still adamant that the Scientists were idiots, it is very likely that the majority of people, of all political stripes, in Nova Scotia, would tend to trust scientists to understand the way their own industry works before believing the opinions of people from other industries, regardless of how rich or powerful they purport themselves to be.

Why is it, then, that when the Industry is not one of Scientists, but of filmmakers, that it suddenly becomes acceptable to assume that they don’t understand how business works? That they don’t understand how politics works and that when they try to explain that the perception of what this tax credit is, the perception of the way their industry works, that is being perpetuated by the media and the government, and by people like John Risley, is wrong, they are ignored? The filmmakers have a loud voice when it comes to expressing their passion, the rally at Province House they staged has made that very clear, but as soon as it comes to examining the economics (which we know is what sways the politicians and the public), the filmmakers’ entirely valid, entirely factual, entirely knowledgable expertise of THEIR OWN industry gets shoved aside and drowned out. There are so many people in Nova Scotia who have formulated opinions, strong opinions, about this Tax Credit, who are assuming that the Film Industry and a business like Clearwater operate the exact same way— or that they SHOULD operate the same way- and they are completely oblivious to the fact that they have made this huge, and game-changing, assumption.

We are all entitled to our opinions, sure, but that doesn’t mean that I am going to have the audacity to tell someone what it’s like to be black, or to be raped, or to be homeless, or to pontificate about government grants that Clearwater has received, when I (I admit freely) don’t know how Clearwater’s business model works. It’s not okay to make assumptions based on gender or race or sexual orientation… and it’s also not okay to make assumptions based on people’s careers. If you assume that artists are dumber than businesspeople, perhaps you should examine your own bias.

If you would listen with a genuine open mind to an award winning, highly trained, intelligent scientist in the above scenario then you should be listening to the award winning, highly trained, intelligent film industry entrepreneurs now.

On the Financial Worth of “Artists” & the Calamity of the NS Liberals

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the trailer park boys 

On April 9th, 2015 the Nova Scotia Liberal Party decimated Nova Scotia’s Film and Television Industry when Finance Minister Diana Whalen rolled out the Spring Budget and announced that the film industry tax credit will now only cover approximately 12.5% of Nova Scotia labour costs (salaries for people working in Nova Scotia), down from 50% in its current form. To say that those who work in the Film and Television Industry are angry and devastated is an understatement. If you look at the numbers, it is clear that the Film Industry Tax Credit is a worthwhile expense for Nova Scotians. When covering approximately 50% of Nova Scotia labour costs, this program costs the government $24 million dollars a year and in 2013-14 in generated $122 million dollars for the province. So, by slashing this Tax Credit, in the name of “balancing” the Budget, Whalen is not only slashing a $24 million dollar cost, but she is also slashing a $122 million dollar revenue. Next year the Liberals project they will only spent $6 million dollars on the Film and Television Industry in Nova Scotia. If the mass Exodus that is expected, and has already begun, of almost all Nova Scotia’s filmmakers, producers and production crews, happens, that $122 million dollars will go to Toronto or Los Angeles or Montreal as well. Yes, even though Diana Whalen claims Nova Scotia “can’t afford the Film Tax Credit in its current form” she is literally handing MILLIONS of dollars over to other provinces, effectively saying, “We don’t need this money. Here you go. Here’s Cathy Jones and Mary Walsh and The Trailer Park Boys. They can help generate revenue for you now. Merry Christmas!”

Unfortunately the problem here isn’t as simple as an ill-advised Finance Minister and an arrogant Premier who breaks his campaign promises at the first opportunity once he is elected, it is a more deeply engrained problem in our community and it is one that is not unique to Nova Scotia. It is easy for politicians to deceive the majority of the population into dismissing a cut like this one without a second glance because so many have been conditioned to see The Arts as being non-essential “Nice to Haves” and to see Artists, especially Film and Television Artists, as being rich, entitled drains on the economy, borne on the back of the honest working, badly battered, much beleaguered “average Nova Scotian.”

At this point, there is a part of me that wants to point out that many of the people who work in The Film Industry, people who are losing their jobs in Nova Scotia because of Diana Whalen’s budget, are carpenters, engineers, technicians, accountants, businesspeople, electricians, graphic designers, hair stylists, and marketing executives. Yet, to do this suggests that this offensive prejudice is true- that writers, filmmakers, actors, composers, editors and directors somehow are less deserving of their jobs then the others. First of all, there are a great many people working on both sides of the camera in the Nova Scotia Film and Television Industry, citizens of Nova Scotia and tax payers here, who are employed full-time by this industry. Does Diana Whalen think that there are so many surplus jobs in Nova Scotia, especially for young people, that she can afford to take jobs away from those who are steadily employed? What is she expecting will happen to these people? Either they will move away and they will pay taxes elsewhere and make money for another province, or they will stay in Nova Scotia and struggle to find employment, neither of which are a stimulus for an already sluggish economy. Second of all, these artists are people who are creating products that are being consumed, not just by Nova Scotians, but by people across the country and in some cases, beyond. One only needs to look at the support The Trailer Park Boys have gotten from American celebrities and eons of fans, to see irrefutable proof that this Nova Scotian Production is not a drain on this Province, but a source of pride! It is a testament to how creative and funny and talented Nova Scotians are. It is a testament to the fact that, just like we can enjoy a series imported from Los Angeles, that people in Hollywood are enjoying something imported from Nova Scotia. Why would we want to drive this Production elsewhere? What is the benefit to Nova Scotia of The Trailer Park Boys being filmed in another province, Diana Whalen? How is this helping Nova Scotian families? Think about TV shows like Sex in the City and Seinfeld, even though New York has been the backdrop of thousands of films and television programs since the Film Industry began, these television shows have helped to make an already booming NYC tourism industry even MORE profitable. Think about the people who make pilgrimages to the Full House house in San Francisco or the Home Alone house in Illinois or O’Hare Airport in Chicago, or Rodeo Drive in Hollywood because they have seen it portrayed on a beloved television program or movie. It matters where a successful TV show or film is made. Tourism can make a massive positive impact on the economic prosperity of a province. Prince Edward Island is a terrific example, it is not just Lucy Maud Montgomery’s estate that benefits from the World loving Anne of Green Gables. Lucy Maud Montgomery was an artist, a novelist, but her success (success she had over a HUNDRED years ago) still benefits all the people who own restaurants, stores, hotels, and businesses of all kinds all over Prince Edward Island. If we had a Provincial Government that was really looking out for the Interests of Nova Scotians and wanted Nova Scotia to meet its outstanding potential as a World tourist destination and a place where incredibly talented and intelligent people, in all sorts of different industries, work and thrive, they would be investing in Nova Scotia’s artists, just as Prince Edward Island does. Just ask three generations of Cape Breton’s musicians how much they benefited from investments in their Culture, Heritage, and Music during the 1980s and 90s, which helped make countless Nova Scotians international music stars. Not only is a success for Cape Breton’s artists advantageous for Cape Breton, it benefits the entire Province, and the momentum continues now thirty years later.

In fact, Nova Scotia also benefits this way from its Film and Television Industry. For example, due to the success of The Book of Negroes Miniseries, filmed in Nova Scotia and seen by viewers in Canada and the United States, those in the NS Tourism Industry have said that they expect to see more Americans visiting this summer, inspired by the series. That’s means more people staying hotels, eating and drinking downtown, shopping along the waterfront, getting Cows Ice Cream, going on the Harbour Hopper and Theodore Tugboat, eating lobsters and oysters, buying from fishermen, visiting Peggy’s Cove, going to the Casino, attending music concerts (including the Jazz and Buskers Festivals), going to the Art Gallery, Museums, Pier 21 and the Seaport Farmers’ Market. Isn’t that exactly what our Government should be doing everything in its power to encourage? Yet, the filmmakers of The Book of Negroes have also said that with the current tax credit cuts that they would not be able to film the second instalment of the series in Nova Scotia. This is a loss for the entire province, and all who live in it, it is in NO WAY just a loss to “the artists.” In a city like Halifax that can’t hold onto a clothing store, a sandwich shop, or a bookstore, on Barrington, or any street surrounding it, to save its soul, it seems like a disaster to be chasing revenue-generating businesses away with a broom.

Some people argue that because Artists do the work that they “love,” this work is less valuable than the work that others do entirely because it is an economic necessity. The argument is that there are people toiling away in jobs they hate providing us with goods and services that are essential, while the Artists are off feeding their souls and having a lark for something that is not. Yet, how many of us can really claim that our jobs are essential to life? The theatre existed, after all, before there were doctors, trains, or complex agricultural or educational systems as we have come to know them. People were going to the movies long before there were people working at the Apple Store. Who is to say whose job is more essential than another? Not to mention that there are people who “love” their jobs in every industry. What are we to do about them? Do you really want to picture a world in which there are no movies, no television programs, no novels, no plays, no dancing, no paintings and no music? Even if you have food and water and oxygen in that Hell, I fear your soul would die, of boredom, if nothing else.

If the Liberal Government wants to perpetuate the fatalist myth that Nova Scotia is doomed to be the welfare province, that we have no choice but to go lame at the loss of our youth, and no recourse but to complain about how unfair our lot is, and whine that we “can’t afford nice things,” and that we are all miserable doing jobs we hate, while doing everything in our power to maintain the infuriating status quo, then they are, indeed, the most ill-suited collection of people to lead our beautiful peninsula. Industries like Nova Scotia’s Arts, Culture, Heritage, Tourism and the development of small, local businesses have been leading the way in proving that the people who live in this Province are just as smart, capable, innovative, talented, creative, ambitious, hardworking and skilled as people across the country and around the world. To insinuate otherwise is a blatant lie and an insult to the people who live and work here. Investing in the ingenuity of the Nova Scotians whose passion and care have built these industries reaps deep and plentiful rewards for Nova Scotia.

Then, of course, there are the critics. Not the professional critics, I’m referring to the ones who post comments in favour of the budget, who purport to know everything there is to know about the Canadian Film and Television Industry because they once watched half of Corner Gas. These are the people who say things like, “Who cares? Every TV show that is made in Nova Scotia [insert Canada here too, if you’d like] is terrible. Why are we wasting our money on crap?” Let me be honest with you, I will be the first to admit that we, Nova Scotians [and Canadians], have produced some terrible television shows and some terrible movies. (So, has the United States). Yet, a huge reason why a show often doesn’t reach its potential HERE is because everyone involved in making it is already on far too tight a budget. According to Thom Fitzgerald “New York state remitted $462 million in Film and TV tax credits last year, to smash hits like Orange is the New Black, The Good Wife, Girls and Nurse Jackie.” $463 million dollars, as compared to Nova Scotia’s $24 million dollars. These American television shows are not given this massive amount of money by the state because they first arrive perfect and completed on silver platters, these shows are able to reach their potential because they are given the budget to take risks and to take time and be diligent and meticulous- to aim for the highest degree of excellence. Nova Scotia’s film and television artists aren’t given a fighting chance to compete on a equal playing field. Yet, their potential to do so is just as promising as artists anywhere else in the world. This means that when a show comes along like The Trailer Park Boys and This Hour Has 22 Minutes, that it is a testament to the fact that the artists who live here are among the very best in the World, because they are able to make something wonderful out of nearly nothing. What this also means is that Nova Scotia’s actors, filmmakers and writers are not rich, flamboyant, entitled celebrities. In fact, they make a salary very similar to the rest of the “honest working, badly battered, much beleaguered ‘average Nova Scotians’ who work here in industries that aren’t valued as much as they’re worth.

Nova Scotia has its budding Walt Disney, its George Lucas, its Lorne Michaels, its Tina Fey, its Sarah Polley, its Shonda Rhimes, its Orson Welles, and its Oprah Winfrey. Think about how much money the Walt Disney Company, Star Wars, Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, Grey’s Anatomy and The Oprah Winfrey Show generated for the cities from whence they came. It’s not just about the films and television shows themselves, it’s about the spin off industries too- advertising, and merchandise, it’s about tourism and all the service industries that thrive on a hot tourist destination. This includes most of the population of these cities. Can you imagine if Walt, George, Lorne, Tina, Sarah, Shonda, Orson and Oprah had been forced out of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago by short-sighted politicians? What if they had all, instead, taken their business up North to Halifax, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver? How different would the dynamic in North America be, with just that one switch in direction?

Diana Whalen and Stephen McNeil are ensuring that, without a doubt, our brightest and best filmmakers, the people with the best ideas and the ingenuity to turn their ideas into tangible, successful, ventures, will not make their lives in Nova Scotia. They will be like Lorne Michaels and Jim Carey and Mike Myers and Martin Short and Ellen Page and Sandra Oh and Matthew Perry and Michael J. Fox and all the other, countless, exorbitantly talented Canadian artists who slipped through our fingers because we couldn’t afford to keep them… even though they’re now making another country a fortune.

I encourage Canadian artists to continue to fight this, visit Screen Nova Scotia’s website and see what you can do to help, read this letter from Jonathan Torrenswrite to your MLA, to the Premier and to Finance Minister Diana Whalen with your concerns and your outrage. I also encourage the Provincial Liberals to fix their mistake and to admit to it, without insincere excuses or platitudes. But, mostly, I encourage all Canadians to see this current Liberal Budget as a reflection of the party’s values, and not just Stephen McNeil’s Liberals, but Justin Trudeau’s Federal Liberal Party’s values as well. After all, Trudeau campaigned zealously with McNeil in Nova Scotia, this Budget absolutely has the Liberal Party of Canada’s stamp of approval. So, I encourage all Canadians to keep this in mind for future elections, both Provincial and Federal, and to make sure that they vote for the candidate that best reflects their values, both in what they say and what they do. Actions, after all, speak volumes louder than words said to win an election.

On Caring About Canadian Film

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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.

Roller Town is an Excellent Source of Potassium

mark little & kayla lorette

According to this bittersweet interview with Andrew Bush and Mark Little from Toronto Standard, Roller Town, the multi award winning first feature length film from Halifax’s own Picnicface, may be the sketch troupe’s last project as a unified collective. I definitely recommend heading to your local movie theatres across the country and checking it out.

Roller Town, written by Bush, Little and Scott Vrooman and directed by Bush, is a pastiche of the roller disco films popularized in the late 1970s, including Roller Boogie and Skatetown U.S.A, which have since achieved cult status with audiences in the nostalgia and uber-cheese department. The film centers on a young orphan named Leo, played by Little, The King of the Roller Disco, who falls in love with a classically trained skater named Julia (Kayla Lorette) and together they fight to save Disco from being murdered by a gang of powerfully connected thugs seeking to brainwash the young with video games.

Andrew Bush has captured much of the campiness and the trademark antics of the roller disco film in Roller Town, while shooting it in vivid, bright colors, which accentuate the characters’ amazing wardrobes of short shorts and tube socks, while the special effects and cutting together of most of the more stylized aspects of the film are intentionally rough, abrupt and often animated in classic 1970s two dimensions. This is also a familiar trademark of most of Picnicface’s Internet and television sketches. It is interesting that, within the pastiche context, many of the conventions the troupe has been using since 2006 fit here quite naturally and actually make more sense as a stylistic choice.

I don’t think that Roller Town is supposed to be a serious satirical commentary on the state of humanity and it certainly isn’t, but I do think that it revels in its own silliness in a very endearing and playful way, often reaching for the absurd but sometimes touching, albeit gently, on more solemn issues. The love story, for example, between Leo and Julia is allowed some genuinely touching moments so that the audience is led to root for their eventual triumph over her repressive parents and the gangsters poised to kill them both. Delving a little deeper, while Roller Town does poke fun at the heightened naivety and innocence of the Disco Age, it also plays on the same nostalgia that draws so many to films like Roller Boogie and Skatetown U.S.A. At the very core of Roller Town there is a certain wistfulness for a simpler time. After all, the war in the film is ultimately waged between a social physical activity from the past and an isolating computer-generated sedentary experience that has become so much of the fiber of our present. Of course, whenever solemnity persists beyond a moment, as in The Muppets, someone quickly rectifies the situation with a swift kick of ridiculous. Keeping faithful to its Disco ForeDogFather’s, the balance between the solemn and the insane is always in check.

There are some great performances in Roller Town. Mark Little is delightful as Leo; he is just good hearted enough to win sympathy while still being a complete doofus. Kayla Lorette is adorable awkwardness at its very best as Julia, who largely reacts (or doesn’t react fast enough) to Leo being a doofus, while still managing to develop some chemistry and real affection for him. Brian MacQuarrie has some great bits as Julia’s belt-crazed Grampa. Scott Vooman’s straight superciliousness as classically trained King of the Preppies, Davis, while at the same time always managing to look seconds away from crying, is beautifully ridiculous. Andrew Bush has a wonderful cameo as a Forest Hobo who becomes the Yoda to Leo’s Luke. Pat Thornton is essentially Bobo the Bear from the Muppets humanized as the moronic villain sidekick Beef, but Thornton’s comic timing is excellent and, like Bobo, by the end you almost feel sorry for the guy. He just wants to read his book on How to Eat Jam in peace and he IS having a pretty crappy day.

While I thought the film was well cast, both using the strengths of the troupe and bringing in guest artists from both the Halifax and Toronto theatre and comedy scenes, I thought that the talents particularly of Bill Wood, Evany Rosen and Brian MacQuarrie were not used to their full comic potential. I think that the film could have benefited from either developing these three characters further or having Wood, Rosen and MacQuarrie play multiple secondary and cameo characters. I was sad to see that Wood’s brick throwing nymph was almost completely cut from this more streamlined version compared to the one screened at the Atlantic Film Festival a year ago and the cuts left the film with some strange loose ends and spurts of stark randomness.

The entirety of Roller Town exists in the same realm as the very last moment in Grease when Danny and Sandy’s car suddenly lifts off and they fly on into their future together, the realm where the crazier the premise, the more likely it is to materialize. It also remains quite faithful to the dynamic and the brand of comedy that Picnicface has developed on YouTube since its inception eight years ago. If this is truly the troupe’s last project together (and I hope that it will not be), it is a worthy place to end this adventure and, as for Roller Town, I think it is well on its way to becoming a cult classic in its own right. But, don’t wait for the videotape release, head to your local movie theatre and check it out today!

Roller Town is playing in movie theatres across Canada. Please check your local listings or visit this website.

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