Media Impact: prizes and awards (or how Monsieur Lazhar came to a theatre near you)

2012 foreign oscar noms

Have you heard of War Witch , the French Canadian film directed by Kim Nguyen that’s up for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film  this year? I hadn’t, I’m not gonna lie. Until it was nominated.

Even if I had, I would have had a heck of a time trying to find a theatre that would play it, since, barring a film festival or two, it hasn’t actually hit theatres outside of Québec.

Unfortunately this is no anomaly for French-Canadian films. The past two Oscar-nominated Canadian films, Monsieur Lazhar and Incendies , both ran in Québec  for months until they were nominated. Then, only after the hype from the Academy Awards, they hit theatres in the rest of the country, i.e. Anglo-Canadian theatres.

What this suggests is that a French-Canadian film has a much better chance of reaching English-speaking Canadian audiences if it’s won or been nominated for a major award; an Academy Award, or even a prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Genie Awards, or the Cannes Film Festival. And not to undervalue the prestige of festivals like TIFF and the Genies, but it’s probably safe to say that Oscar buzz will garner the most attention from English-speaking Canada. Let’s be honest.

It’s telling that many of us in English Canada will only discover a French-Canadian movie through an American lens, under the title of nominee for “Best Foreign Film”. It makes sense–maddening, but not surprising. It’s no secret that theatres in English Canada are dominated almost entirely by Hollywood. And most people won’t be so adventurous as to take a risk spending money and a hundred-odd minutes of their lives seeing something new and different, (and even with subtitles the language difference can be a big barrier for some), unless they have reason to believe it will be good-different. Ignore the critics, but you’re probably going to take someone’s word for it before you see it, and to paraphrase the meme, everything looks good and official with tiny leaves around it.

With the dominance of American culture it’s a marvel we get any French-Canadian films at all, but it is something to be grateful for. Whether we like it or not, awards and accolades are an opportunity for Anglophone movie-goers to tap into all the great stuff that our fellow Canadians have to offer. We can go on about how it shouldn’t be this way and that distributors of French-Canadian films should trust the proverb that “if you screen it, they will come”, and who cares about fancy awards anyway?

But to be fair, this process isn’t totally skewed. Although depending entirely on awards and prizes for validation may not be the best way to go about it, they can be helpful signposts for quality cinema. Of course politics are always involved, and of course some movies that get all the praise are way overrated. But I’m going to give the judges and juries the benefit of the doubt and say their tastes aren’t completely and utterly wrong. The biggest problem is that it these prizes and ceremonies may distort the amount of potentially high quality films out there, making it seem like a smaller number than it actually is, snubbing tons of perfectly good, entertaining, and daring stories.

An Academy Award nomination helped "Monsieur Lazhar" get recognition in English-speaking Canada.

An Academy Award nomination helped “Monsieur Lazhar” get recognition in English-speaking Canada.

And at the very least, if you screen a prizefighter, they will come. The stats on IMDb shows that while Incendies had a six-month run in Québec, it enjoyed at least a four-month run in both Canada and the United States. While Monsieur Lazhar opened in Québec  in late October 2011, it didn’t open in Toronto until January 2012 and then not until mid-April 2012, post-Oscars, in the U.S. running all the way until October 2012. Whatever cost-benefit analysis distributors will do, the box office attests that there is an audience for French-Canadian cinema. I’m not saying there are James Cameron-sized blockbusters among those films, but there are enough people hungry for them anyway.

I don’t mean to misrepresent the facts: an award isn’t the only way a Québec-made movie will make it to the rest of the country. It may not even guarantee box office success: Xavier Dolan‘s latest sprawling opus   Laurence Anyways , clocking in at 168 minutes, was awarded Best Canadian Feature Film at TIFF last year, and it only ran for three weeks.

French-Canadian cinema is for all intents and purposes a self-sustaining industry, with its own pool of talent, and it doesn’t necessarily rely on the rest of Canada or the U.S. to draw in an audience. But attention from the rest of Canada and the U.S. won’t hurt, either. And a nod from Oscar, or Un Certain Regard from Cannes, will help its chances even more.

Whatever the reasons a Québécois  film isn’t screened simultaneously in the rest of Canada, short of learning French and moving to Montreal those who want to see and devour and love French-Canadian cinema must wait for TIFF, or even as late as January to hear those Oscar noms. C’est la vie.

So until that glorious day that American films are no longer king of the Canadian box office (a guy can dream, can’t he?), when we can go to the pictures to catch the latest Villeneuve, Dolan or Falardeau  as easily as the latest Woody Allen or Coen Bros.–until that happens, what do we do? For starters, despair not. Like I said, a French-Canadian film may find its way to a theatre near you without any tiny official-looking leaves on its poster. But the onus is on those who know and hear about the festival heavyweights to make an effort to catch those Québec-made movies that make it to Toronto, or Calgary, or Saskatoon, by way of festivals and trophies. And really, the winners aren’t exactly obscure, so it shouldn’t be that hard. But let that be an opportunity to look into the previous work of those filmmakers, and maybe the work of their contemporaries (IMDb is great for that kind of thing). Awareness is always the best place to start. So, now you know. Go, watch, and be delighted.

Oh, and keep your fingers crossed for War Witch !


Liam is a writer and actor with a BFA from the University of Victoria. His lifelong love affair with film began when he saw Jaws at the appropriate age of 4. He liked it so much that he set out to draw a storyboard for Jaws 2, only to discover to his disappointment years later that somebody had already beaten him to the punch. His next love affair was with Star Wars and Jurassic Park, which he watched at least once a day, much to the chagrin of his parents. Liam has written for online publications such as The West of West Review, and Numero Cinq, and keeps a blog on arts and culture called The Tower of Babble.

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