Canada did not pioneer cinema the same way France or America did. The camera was not invented in Canada, the studio system was not born here, nor did Canadian filmmakers formulate the dominant modes of narrative storytelling or invent visual formats like CinemaScope. However, despite lacking the influence of the leading national cinemas in the world (French, American, and Japanese), Canada has still had a profound influence on the growth of international cinema.
This influence has primarily been applied by filmmakers like David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, and Allan King, who helped pioneer distinct modes of cinema, be it body horror, non-linear storytelling, or direct cinema. Canada has its fair share of cinematic trail blazers to be proud of. Whether these originally-Canadian traditions are still Canadian is another question.
Allan King died in 2009. Atom Egoyan has fallen from critical and commercial grace with a string of flops including Devil’s Knot and The Captive. David Cronenberg is still working, but he’s a septuagenarian and his new films have veered away from the venereal horror of his early features. Films like Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars are rich films in their own right, but they don’t resemble the blood and guts of Shivers or Scanners. More interestingly, while Canadian cinema can still lay claim to creating rich cinematic legacies, the heirs to these cinematic legacies are often no longer Canadian.
Take body horror, for instance, which was pioneered by David Cronenberg, the greatest of Canadian filmmakers. Cronenberg remains a great filmmaker to this day, but he no longer makes body horror films. The last film of his to even resemble body horror was eXistenZ back in 1999 (although the case could be made for Eastern Promises).
The closest contemporary Canadian filmmakers have come to taking up Cronenberg’s mantle for body horror are Jen and Sylvia Soska’s American Mary and Antiviral from Brandon Cronenberg (son of David). Both of these films made minor waves within the genre community and received warm reviews, but they were not harbingers of a resurgence of the body horror genre. As well, neither the Soska sisters nor the younger Cronenberg have future body horror projects on the horizon.
In fact, body horror as a genre has mostly petered out. Its heyday was the 1980s when filmmakers like Cronenberg, Clive Barker, and Stuart Gordon mined the transformation of human flesh for all its horrific worth. Films like Cronenberg’s Videodrome and The Fly, Barker’s Hellraiser, and Gordon’s Re-Animator remain high points in the horror genre. But this flourishing of body horror did not survive the changing of the decade. Cronenberg eventually shifted away from body horror, moving into more strictly psychological films like Dead Ringers and M. Butterfly, while Barker and Gordon rode the genre to diminishing returns. The increasing lousiness of Barker’s own Hellraiser series likely contributed to the genre’s decline. Nowadays, body horror is as likely to be mined for comic effect in films like Kevin Smith’s Tusk as to be taken seriously as a subject in its own right.
While direct cinema documentary filmmaking has not petered out like the body horror genre, the current roster of verite documentarians is mostly non-Canadian. The American Frederick Wiseman remains the world’s most esteemed documentarian of the style pioneered by the likes of Allan King and Michel Brault. His In Jackson Heights from last year proved that even at 86, he still has new stories to show audiences. No Canadian documentarian enjoys as high a profile as Wiseman. But documentary in Canada has always been strong and new filmmakers have not restricted the genre to one style of nonfiction storytelling such as direct cinema. The National Film Board of Canada still mentors documentarians even as it has shifted its focus to transmedia storytelling.
In terms of highly-edited, ideological documentary filmmaking, Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott’s The Corporation was a blast of righteous fury when it landed in 2004 and has only grown more vital each passing year. On the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum is Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes or Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky’s Watermark, which take documentary filmmaking to extreme stylistic ends, as much resembling avant garde art installations as the talking heads docs people usually associate with the genre. These filmmakers are some of many who represent Canada’s rich documentary tradition.
Contemporary Canadian documentarians are also not limited by the artificial constraints of the genre. In fact, two of the most lauded documentaries of recent decades were Canadian films that defied any easy categorization: Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg and Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. In My Winnipeg, Maddin exaggerates a more fanciful version of Winnipeg, Manitoba in order to capture a deeper truth about the city he loves. In Stories We Tell, Polley recreates the lives of her parents in order to examine the truths about her ancestry. Neither film trades exclusively in fact, but by being loose with reality, both films capture a higher truth about life and the way we experience it.
While Canada might be losing control of its older cinematic legacies, it’s also in the process of creating new ones. The world has changed over the past 50 years and Canadian cinema has changed along with it. You won’t find a recent Canadian film that captures the lower class experience quite in the same way Donald Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road does, but the modern lower class Canadian might no longer look like Nova Scotians’ Pete (Doug McGrath) and Joey (Paul Bradley). The “average” Canadian of 2016 is as likely to be of Indian or Chinese heritage as English or French. This fact is highlighted in the films of Deepha Mehta and Ruba Nadda, for example, which have broadened our definitions of authentically Canadian films, freeing modern day immigrant narratives from the confines of European or male perspectives.
Even French Canadian cinema—likely the most artistically consistent cinema in the country’s history—has evolved over the years. Esteemed directors like Denys Arcand remain working today, transposing classical French Canadian styles into the modern day. Filmmakers like Philippe Falardeau broaden the typical Quebecois perspective a little, making room for immigrant narratives while retaining the cinema’s strongly political bent. And love or hate him, Xavier Dolan has created a mode of cinema all his own: one of emotional hyperactivity and unmitigated egotism that can only be matched by the likes of Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
However, there is one aspect of Canadian cinema that has not changed over the past half-century: the fact that Hollywood continues to poach many of Canada’s best and brightest, luring them away from the north with massive budgets and lucrative contracts. Just as Norman Jewison and James Cameron left to Hollywood to make their biggest hits, filmmakers like Denis Villeneuve and Jean Marc Vallée have seen their biggest successes be films like Sicario and Dallas Buyers Club—American films through and through.
It’s also important to remember that our past cinematic legacies had no room for Canada’s indigenous peoples. The past few decades have seen the rise of the Indigenous New Wave, as we profiled back in November. Director Zacharias Kunuk might have been correcting some of the misinformation created about Inuit culture with his epic Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, but he wasn’t building on some past Canadian cinematic tradition: he was pioneering a new one.
Canada might not produce another David Cronenberg, but perhaps in 50 years, a future magazine article will ponder who the next Zacharias Kunuk will be. Canada’s past cinematic traditions are not dead, nor is its future doomed to only repeat the past. Canadian cinema might not lead the world in ways it used to, but it’s still capable of surprising viewers in form and content. It’s still capable of greatness.