While Canada is not a prolific film culture, there are more than enough films to look at to do a survey of how the multicultural fabric of the country has changed the stories we tell on screen. It would seem, however, that Canadian fiction films looking at the lives of immigrants who are new to Canada are out there, but not in the numbers that one may expect from a country that is so incredibly multicultural. There are a vast number of foreign born Canadians (as well as first or second generation Canadians) in the film industry, and they make some of the most fantastic films Canada has to offer. It just seems that very few of these films are focused specifically on the immigrant experience in Canada.
Documentary films on the subject, however, seem to be growing. This is less surprising when you start to look at the history of Canadian film, with its and how it’s really dominated by documentary work. The industry really began in 1897 with a series of films detailing life on the Prairies by James Freer, a Manitoba farmer. These films, including Arrival of CPR Express at Winnipeg, and Six Binders at Work in a Hundred Acre Wheatfield were so popular that the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) sponsored a tour of England for Freer and his films. Right from the beginning, documentary was the choice for filmmakers, and it became an incredibly important part of Canadian cinema.
The realization that documentary was the genre to begin with in Canada isn’t that much of a revelation. Our country continuously creates some of the best documentaries in the world, and the Hot Docs film festival is one of the largest in Toronto. What’s interesting to note is how these early films were actually created to encourage immigration to Canada. In 1902, after seeing success with the films of James Freer, the CPR hired a British company to bring filmmakers together and create Living Canada. This series of films was used to promote immigration to the Canadian west, and was successful enough to get the CPR to continue producing these types of films well into the 1930s.
Immigrants living in Canada weren’t really the focus of these early films, as their main purpose was to bring people to Canada. The world of fictional film gained the odd film here and there in Canada, but most of the resources in the world of film were dedicated to documentary. Canada did become a place where Americans would come to shoot films, especially if they took place in the wilderness or used Natives in the story. It appears few things change, as Canada still plays host to a large number of American film productions.
When the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) was created in 1939, film production increased dramatically in Canada, but many of these films were made morale boosting propaganda films during the war. Outside of the NFB, film production sputtered. Many Canadian directors simply left the country to create films elsewhere, including America and Britain. There just wasn’t a large film industry in the country for many years.
Fast forward to more recent times and we can see that film production has certainly picked up in the country, although it still doesn’t really reach the heights that it does in places like America. What’s fascinating is how the world of documentary film is now focused on immigration, much like it was in the first films created in Canada, but in a very different way. While those early films promoted immigration, many documentaries now look at the experiences of immigrants living in Canada. This isn’t something that occurs in a lot of fictional films from Canada, but it’s certainly something we can see in the documentary genre.
While the initial idea was to examine how immigrants were portrayed in fictional Canadian films, the real impact of the immigrant experience was being felt and portrayed in Canada’s favourite genre; the documentary. To be honest, many of these films focus on the negative aspects of immigration in Canada. While our country has some of the highest numbers of immigrants entering, it also seems that we may have some of the most problems when dealing with newcomers.
Seeking Refuge (2009) looks at a group of asylum seekers in Canada who await their hearings, as well as those who have been denied asylum. Another example is Access Denied (1996), a film that looks at the problems that foreign trained professionals face when coming to Canada, as their credentials are frequently ignored, leaving them without the option to work in the field that they’re trained in. The more recent short documentary Oil Calling looks at immigrants who are going to work in the oil and gas industry. While they’re excited at the opportunity that a select few have a chance at, it also comes with problems raised by the fact that they’re not from Canada.
Another aspect that is covered a large amount in documentary film in Canada is the ways in which various cultures try to preserve things that are important to them. With the film 9-Man, audiences learn about a unique form of volleyball that is played in Chinatowns across North America. This sport has strict rules allowing only those with Asian heritage to play, thereby assuring the cultural aspect of the sport. The documentary Everything Will Be looks at Chinatown in a Vancouver neighbourhood as the city changes around them, and perhaps may change Chinatown forever. They’re struggling to maintain their identity in a rapidly changing world, and this concept becomes the focus of many documentary films in Canada.
While there are examples of Canadian films that look at immigrants adapting to their new life in Canada, it’s really the world of documentary film that offers the more interesting look. The Canadian film industry began by producing films that encouraged immigration to Canada and over 100 years later, we’re now seeing documentary films that look at the challenges of immigrating to Canada, or how these new citizens face challenges in preserving their culture. With a film industry that was truly built on the this specific genre, it’s fascinating to see how it has evolved through history in that same genre. Canada has become of of the must culturally diverse countries in the world, and the film industry is a fantastic representation of that aspect. Canadians working in film come from all parts of the world or come from families who immigrated to Canada, and that includes such recognizable names as Ivan Reitman or Neil Blomkamp to name a very select few. Directors like Blomkamp or Deepa Mehta create films that feature their cultural background, giving Canada one of the more diverse film environments in the world. Not only is that inspiring for people are the world, but it’s also a multi-cultural delight for Canadian film fans across the country.