What makes a film Canadian? No one seems to be able to agree on this relatively simple question. Is it the presence of Canadian talent in key creative roles either in front of or behind the camera, such as the writer, director or stars? Does it need to be shot on Canadian soil? Or is Canadian content the requirement? And what exactly is Canadian content? Unlike most other nations, defining a distinctive Canadian film culture proves difficult. Part of this is our proximity to the United States. While we can probably all agree that Canada and Canadians are not the same as America or Americans, there is no denying that culturally there are many similarities, with the two blending together at many points. It doesn’t help that the two film cultures have a lot of overlap. Many talented Canadian filmmakers, writers and actors end up in Hollywood at some point in their careers and become American stars. Hollywood often uses Canada as a shooting location, employing Canadian background cast and crew. The melding of our industries is best summed up by the simple fact that the Americans consider Canada to be a domestic market.
There is also the question of whether a country as large and diverse as Canada can have a single unifying culture. Arguably, different regions of Canada are culturally distinct, although the same can be said for other countries that have a distinct filmic voice. Even taking the different regional cultures of the country into account, outside of Quebec, films that manage to capture the feel of a particular region are few and far between. And then there is the difficulty of defining the intangible element that is “Canadianess”. For some reason, the definition of Canadian culture is difficult to identify, where cultures like the Russians or Czechs produce films which carry a distinct look and feel that is uniquely theirs. Obviously there are films from these countries that fall outside of these easy definitions, but in Canada it is difficult to find a unifying identifier in film, one that both Canadians and the world can view and remark, “That was so Canadian.”
While we can probably all agree that Canada and Canadians are not the same as America or Americans, there is no denying that culturally there are many similarities. The melding of our industries is best summed up by the simple fact that the Americans consider Canada to be a domestic market.
With all this in mind, current attempts at defining a film’s “Canadianess” lies in the use of points systems developed by the Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office (CAVCO) and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) used by national funding bodies such as Telefilm and filmmakers for the purposes of applying for tax credits. This system awards points for key members of a production’s creative team, with two awarded for the director and screenwriter and one each for the two lead performers, cinematographer, art director, composer and editor. Films must receive six points to qualify for tax credits and eight points to receive Telefilm funding. Films wishing to qualify for a Canadian Screen Award nomination must present a letter of certification from CAVCO or the CRTC with their submission.
Within the industry, this points system is the be all and end all of a film’s Canadian designation; basically it comes down to where the money is coming from. While this provides a fairly black and white method to secure Canadian funding, and therefore designate a film as Canadian, it never addresses the factor of Canadian content or culture. Just because a film is made by Canadians does not necessarily mean the content itself is, or even feels like, Canadian. The problem is that there is no scientific formula to define culture. A film like Breathless is French because it just is. There is a sensibility to it, the way in which it handles sexuality and relationships that is completely unique to French culture. And if this intangible quality is difficult to define in a country with a strongly defined culture, it is near impossible to define within a culture like Canada’s which is so strongly tied to multiculturalism. This leads to films like Richie Mehta’s Amal receiving Canadian funding and therefore being considered Canadian by virtue of having a Canadian director and largely Canadian crew, despite being shot entirely in India and telling a story rooted in Indian culture.
However a film like Albert Shin’s In Her Place, which was directed and produced by York University grads and shot on location in Korea in Korean, wasn’t considered Canadian enough to receive Telefilm funding, but was still nominated for multiple Canadian Screen Awards. Clearly the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television considered the film to be Canadian, a requirement for nomination, but Telefilm, which uses similar guidelines, did not. Now in the case of In Her Place, the lack of Telefilm funding was due to the fact that the film was shot entirely in Korean, while Amal was a bilingual English and Hindi film and Telefilm requires a certain percentage of all films it funds to be shot in one of the official languages. While language is an important part of culture, the fact that in the case of Canada different groups treat the importance of language differently is telling. Even among the organizations that are tasked with developing and promoting Canadian audio-visual culture, the supposed experts can’t agree on the Canadianess of the film. How then is the general population to come to a consensus?
I’m not here to defend whether or not these films should or shouldn’t have received Canadian funding or to argue about how the Canadian Screen Award nominations qualify, but there is a disconnect between the films being produced in Canada and the representation of Canadian culture on screen. Our feature film industry is so small compared to the major players on the world stage. Domestically, Canadian films receive only 2% of the market share. Regardless of their content, the fact is that Canadians as a population don’t watch Canadian films.
Even among the organizations that are tasked with developing and promoting Canadian audio-visual culture, the supposed experts can’t agree on the Canadianess of a film.
From a filmlover’s perspective, I believe that we should support our filmmakers and the stories they want to tell, but I also believe that we need a stronger mandate to tell Canadian stories on film. We are not Americans and we don’t have the money to compete with Hollywood. The attempts of Telefilm to beat Hollywood at its own game can be summed up in four words: Score: A Hockey Musical, which performed horribly. The television industry has done a great job of late finding a distinctly Canadian quality with the success of popular genre shows like Flashpoint and Murdoch Mysteries. These shows provide a similar framework to American shows like CSI and Law & Order, but are entirely unique. They have managed to find their own voice and that is what resonates with audiences. Television uses the CAVCO points system to define Canadian content just like films do, but they have been more successful overall in finding that thing that makes us unique as a nation. This is what is missing in our film industry; that sense of who we are. Everyone want to see heroes that they can fantasize about becoming on screen, but they also want to see themselves. If our film industry can find its own unique voice, it is much more likely to be able to establish itself independently from Hollywood. Which returns me to my original question: what makes a film Canadian?
And the answer is we as a country and an industry are still searching for that answer. Unlike countries such as the United States, France, Germany, India, China or Japan, Canada’s feature film industry is relatively young. Our filmic history is rooted in documentary and National Film Board shorts, areas where we didn’t have to compete with Hollywood. Our feature film industry has historically been an offshoot of the American one, to the point where before the 1970s we had an agreement to not establish an industry as long as Hollywood would drop mentions of Canada into their scripts. (That’s why so many reporters were coming from Montreal or people were running away to Canada in old films.) Outside of film, we are a culture that is somewhere between the Americans and the British, with a few random elements like the word chesterfield, and a dash of the French. How that translates in the world of film is still an ongoing debate, one that I think we need to expand beyond the singular discussion of who paid for it.