Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Spoon Feeding Canadian Nationality

I love films. There's little I enjoy more than curling up with a decent movie and spending an evening swept away by a film-maker's skillful execution of a story. Very frequently I'll find myself on the opposite side of popular opinion on a movie (particularly genre entries, for some reason).

The much maligned Freddy's Dead is among my favorites of the series. Up there too is Aliens Vs. Predator. Extreme examples, of course, but I stand by them.

And conversely there are a few things which irritate me to no end that go by unnoticed by most others.

Chief among these is something I'm going to call Mandated Nationality. I won't be so conceited as to say this only happens in Canada, but it's the occurrences in Canadian productions which irk me.

Mandated Nationality happens when a Canadian film's financing depends on government grants. See, in order to qualify for these Grants, productions need to prove how Canadian they are. Influence from this ranges from requiring a percentage of key positions being Canadian to the numbers of Canadian flags needing to appear.

In the States, the process to make a movie goes like this: a producer pitches a story to people with money and convinces them to invest based on the strength of that story. It could be about a Tibeten spiritual leader, or an Indian revolutionary, or even a Russian submarine and it'd have a genuine chance of selling.*

I understand it. Honest.

Films from Canada have to compete directly with films from Hollywood. Add to the mix our lower budgets, smaller population, and shared language and it's little wonder the vast majority of Canadian films don't even break even, let alone make a profit.

So with profit realistically taken out of the equation, the motivation for funding films for organizations becomes about 'preserving cultural identity'. Or 'exploring the Canadian experience'. That translates to ensuring the stories that are told are Canadian stories; often filled to the gills with Canadian iconography.

But here's the thing; Canadians aren't interested in CANADIAN stories, they're interested in HUMAN stories.

Time for examples.

The idea of having a Quebec cop and an Ontario cop forced to work together is actually a clever idea. The situation is both uniquely Canadian, yet stems from human interaction. It allows the film to have a lot of interesting undercurrents related to the political and social differences between English and French Canadian cultures.

But then... the villain.

For those who haven't seen this film I'm not going to spoil it, but the villain and much of the plot revolves around something so ridiculous that it could only have come out of a bunch of people going "How can we make this movie about Ontario and Quebec detectives MORE Canadian?".

An otherwise fun film.

Hockey. The Musical. Ugh...

Bubble gum songs (with no lyricist) and a plot straight out of the 1950's musical era. This seems more of a joke of what a Canadian musical would be than a real movie, but it's played straight.

This is the only film on this list I have not seen.

This is a story about a man who goes on a road trip across the country after learning he had cancer and the lives he touches on his journey.

Well, in theory.

The issue I have with this film, directed by Michael McGowan (who was also behind Score), is that the character arc doesn't ring true to me. Ultimately he's running away from his problems, and beyond deciding to undergo treatment he doesn't fundamentally change.

A better way to put it is that the whole story feels shoe-horned in as an excuse to show as many Canadian landmarks as possible. And what qualifies as a Canadian landmark? A really big chair, some statues and the Stanley Cup. It doesn't really compare with Mount Rushmore as far as iconography goes.

This movie too I'll admit to being overly harsh on. The whole thing is scored with some great tunes, it's inventive, and the narration is reminiscent of Pushing Daisies or Amalie. It is actually really enjoyable.

None of that changes how much it pisses me off, of course.

The truly ironic thing is that these movies make such an effort to be Canadian that they end up representing little more than a steriotype of the country; they offer empty platitudes rather than saying anything new or meaningful about the Canadian experience.

It's not like movies about Canadians can't be good. Both Shake Hands With The Devil and Scott Pilgrim trump any doubts about either the variety or quality potential of our stories.

And Canadian films don't consist exclusively of Bureaucratic compromizes. Despite the hurdles, the Canadian arthouse scene is actually considered one of the most exciting in the world right now. Directors like Atom Egoyan, Guy Madden, and Deepa Metha are continuing to win near universal accolades.

And the mainstream is certainly not without quality productions, either. Films like Suck, Pachendale, and A Simple Curve are proof enough of that.

In other words, it can be done.

Until next time, I'm the Trenchcoat Anti-Critic.

NOTE: It needs to be mentioned that this article is strictly refering to English speaking Canada. Quebec has a thriving and self-contained film industry. That's a topic for another day.

*Kundun, Gandhi, and K19: The Widowmaker respectively.


  1. It's always interesting to explore and take a look at cinema's perspective from another countries, (you know I try to do that). Personally I hate the limitations you guys got, it really lowers the creativity, I'm a bit curious about Quebec having a whole other film industry, are their movies handled differently?

  2. Jerry - yes. It's complicated, but basically Canadian French cinema doesn't have to compete as directly with so-called Hollywood productions because of the language barrior.