The decade of Canadian film, from 1977 to 1986, can best be summed up by this very abbreviated Charles Dickens quote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It all depends on how you view things. If you were looking to get a break on those annoying taxes everybody has to file yearly, the Tax Shelter era in Canada was in full effect. If you were hoping that same Tax Shelter would create an amazing film industry, much like the government did when it established the act, you were disappointed. There were few films worth mentioning, unless you happen to be a fan of horror, and the decade ended on an extremely sad, and now slightly tainted, note.
The Tax Shelter era reached its peak in the late ’70s, but would come crashing down in the very early ’80s, after it was discovered that at least half of the films produced in 1979 were never released. What was meant as a way of stimulating film production and distribution was ultimately abused and, by 1982, the 100-percent deduction was reduced to 50-percent and the Tax Shelter era was over. It wasn’t a complete loss though — it gave rise to “Hollywood North” and established Canada as a viable filming alternative. Even though many behind the scenes may have been using the tax breaks for personal gain, with little interest in the film industry, it’s hard to say what the impact was on those who worked on the actual movies. The booming industry would at least give individuals a chance to work in film and gain valuable experience.
The holiday classic A Christmas Story arrived in 1983 to begin a yearly viewing tradition in many Canadian households
Two genres of film did emerge from the Tax Shelter era: comedy and horror. As well, this decade saw one of the most well-known Canadian director’s output go into overdrive. David Cronenberg directed seven films between 1977 and 1986 — some of his greatest works. After moving from shorts and TV films to Shivers (1975), Cronenberg directed Rabid (1977), Fast Company (1979), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Dead Zone (1983) and The Fly (1986). For Canadian horror fans, there wasn’t a better decade. Although The Fly marked the end of Cronenberg’s work in the “body horror” category, these films were so influential that 30 years later, we’re still referring to him as the king of that sub-genre.
Ivan Reitman also rose from the Tax Shelter era with Meatballs (1979). Although he relocated to the U.S. afterwards, it’s this work and his previous Canadian entry, Cannibal Girls (1973),which paved the way for him to direct some of the greatest comedies. It’s just too bad we can’t call them ours. On the other side of the spectrum is Bob Clark, an American who came to the Great White North to create some of Canada’s greatest hits. 1981 saw the release of Porky’s, which would be the highest grossing Canadian film for years. Clark followed that up with the less successful Porky’s II: The Next Day (1983), before crafting seasonal fave A Christmas Story (1983).
It’s not just comedy and horror that Canada excelled at, which we see when we look at that decade’s Oscars. Our work in short film, both animated and live action, as well as documentary, didn’t go unnoticed at the Academy Awards. The Sand Castle and I’ll Find a Way took home Oscar gold in 1977 for Short Film — Animated and Short Film — Live Action, respectively, kicking off a string of wins over the next decade. Short Film — Animated winners include Special Delivery (1978), Every Child (1979), Crac! (1981) and Charade (1984). Short Film — Live Action winners also included Boys and Girls (1983), while Best Documentary — Short Subject winners included If You Love This Planet (1982) and Flamenco at 5:15 (1983). The decade closed with Time Is All You’ve Got taking home the Documentary — Feature award in 1986. Canada continues to excel in documentary and short film to this day, so it wasn’t surprising to see so many Academy Awards given to Canadians in these areas.
The Dog Who Stopped the War is just one of the great Canadian films for kids to come out of Quebec in the ’80s
French language film is notably absent for much of this decade. The Tax Shelter era didn’t provide the same benefits to French language film due to its limited market, with many Quebec films created without the help of the Tax Shelter. In 1983, the Quebec Cinema Act came into effect, in an attempt to boost the production of French language films. It’s hard to imagine Canadian film without the Quebec film industry, which continues to dominate the film landscape. It’s as if Quebec exists outside of the rest of Canada, as their films are consistently profitable and popular, despite the attitude many English-speaking viewers have towards their efforts.
Some wonderful children’s films have come out of Quebec as well, and the end of this decade saw one of the most memorable, although slightly depressing, efforts: La guerre des tuques (1984). English speakers will know it as The Dog Who Stopped the War, but we all remember the rather sad note it ended upon. The Peanut Butter Solution was also released in 1985, and while it didn’t have the impact as The Dog Who Stopped the War, it’s still fondly remembered.
Unfortunately, the decade ended on a sad note when director Claude Jutra was reported missing in November 1986. The director of Mon oncle Antoine (one of the most highly regarded Canadian films in history) had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and took his life. Even more heartbreaking are the recent allegations that Jutra engaged in sexual activity with underage boys, causing his name to be removed from the Prix Jutra, the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television’s Claude Jutra Award, as well as many streets and parks in the Montreal area.
As you can see, this was a decade of highs and lows. Horror and comedy fans were treated to some great Canadian efforts, but the Tax Shelter era also produced a number of flops, as well as establishing a system that was basically begging to be misused. Great things came from this time though, and it certainly spurred growth in the Quebec film industry. Every cloud has a silver lining and this decade is surely one of the major reasons why our film industry continues to grow to this day.