When discussing influential Canadian cinema, Donald Shebib’s name is usually part of the conversation. After producing several award-winning documentaries, he eventually made the transition to feature films. Shebib’s most well-known work is undeniably Goin’ Down the Road, which made him a common name and garnered him much critical acclaim. The Canadian Film Encyclopedia describes Shebib as a “chronicler of individual alienation and collective Canadian angst.” This statement holds true as one goes through his impressive filmography; it is clear that he is preoccupied with notions of identity and exploration in his works. Although Shebib’s films are not usually similar in subject matter, they often share a few common threads. A lot of the underlying themes remain relevant through the decades and the characters remain relatable. Shebib offers vignettes of life in various locations in Canada, whether rural or urban, and captures their charm for older and newer generations alike to appreciate.
Goin’ Down the Road
Released in 1970, this film follows two men from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia who decide to travel west to Toronto in search of better jobs and more prosperous lives. With just under $30 between the two of them, they soon find that the jobs that they had counted on are no longer guaranteed. As it is too late to return to the Maritimes, they decide to try their luck in the new metropolitan landscape and hope for the best; however, after struggling to make ends meet, they come up with a crazy plan to turn their luck around.
This film was a fundamental journey narrative for Canadians in the ‘70s. It presented to audiences issues which were relevant to the time: those of unemployment and the pursuit of better opportunities out west. Many Canadians living in the Maritime regions were making similar moves during this time because of Ontario’s thriving economy, in spite of having no prior experience and very little knowledge of Toronto. Shebib presented a view into the big city and did so realistically. This is not a film which glorified an American Dream (or a Canadian Dream); instead, it painted a raw and realistic picture of contemporary situations.
Shebib aimed to tell a story about regular people whose dreams did not come to fruition the way they might have hoped. In a 1978 interview, he said, “It was really based on an experience of my cousin on my father’s side of the family—my father is from Cape Breton—who came up to Toronto when I was still in college and stayed with us for a month or so … It was in part based on problems he had existing. He ran into the same story as those guys right down the line.”
Goin’ Down the Road is considered a triumph and speaks to the Canadian spirit; the very fact that Shebib made it on a very low budget from grant funding is significant in this regard and ties into the raw, unglamorous tone of the film. Furthermore, the themes still remain relevant decades later, which is why it is an essential part of Canadian cinema; audiences nowadays deal with the struggles of getting by, chasing dreams, and of course, unemployment.
Although this film was Shebib’s next feature after Goin’ Down the Road, the two differ greatly in subject matter. Rip-Off is a coming-of-age film about a group of teenage boys in Toronto. As they are about to graduate from high school, they face the pressures of adulthood and uncertainty about their futures, all while trying to get sexual experience with girls (it is a ‘70s teen film, after all).
Rip-Off did not bring Shebib the same level of success as Goin’ Down the Road; however, it is notable in its own right. This film also deals with angst, albeit of a different kind. Furthermore, Shebib continues to explore and incorporate a variety of Canadian landscapes in this film. The Torontonian characters spend a portion of the film in a rural site and entertain the idea of starting their own commune in the plot of land to avoid going to university.
This dichotomy between city and country serves as the backdrop for the themes of the film, similar to the journey in Goin’ Down the Road. Differences in Canadian landscapes allow for the characters to come to realizations about themselves and about their lives. Shebib’s preoccupation with these locations and with a collective sense of angst comes through in both of these films. While they differ in subject matter, they share the common underlying ideas about the search for identity, uncertainty about the future, and fear of change. Like Goin’ Down the Road, Rip-Off remains relevant to this day because of its subjects: teen angst and the fear of adulthood.
Of course, Shebib has directed a number of other feature films, many of which were more popular and more critically-acclaimed than Rip-Off. Between Friends (1973) was part of the 23rd Berlin International Film Festival and Heartaches (1981) won several Genie awards, for example. Shebib also directed a number of television series and television movies. Goin’ Down the Road brought him the public’s attention as well as critical acclaim. It served as his transition from documentaries to feature films. It was also a turning point in English Canadian cinema, and his raw and socially relevant narrative voice carried through to many of his following works.
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