Tangible Canadianness: Previewing Canada's Top Ten

Deepa Mehta on the set of Midnight's Children

What constitutes a Canadian film? I ask this question because the elusive nature of Canadian film production was raised by Maclean’s editor Brian D. Johnson in his recent review of director Deepa Mehta’s film adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children. Johnson’s review erupted a flurry of debate on Twitter (the thread begins here) with author Salman Rushdie weighing in, as did actors Zaib Shaikh and Anita Majumdar who thanked the critic for inadvertently praising them on stepping out of their Canadian skin. (The controversy was also incensed by Liam Lacey’s review in The Globe and Mail, which suggested that white guys Michel Gondry and Terry Gilliam would have been better suited to direct.) All the responses provoke a necessary question: how do we define a Canadian film in the year 2012?

The question is worth exploring because Canadians are due to receive the annual list of the best in Canadian film from the folks at the Toronto International Film Festival. Canada’s Top Ten is an annual celebration of Canadian cinema put on by the TIFF Film Circuit. The Film Circuit is an invaluable branch of the TIFF group not only because it brings the best in independent and world cinema to venues across Canada, but also because it helps bring Canadian films to Canadians. As a result of efforts such as Canada’s Top Ten, Canadian cinema isn’t the same “invisible cinema” that Peter Harcourt observed it to be a three decades ago. However, a cloak of invisibility still needs to be lifted from the Canadian cinema, as suggested by the criticism of Midnight’s Children, and this layer is the all-important aspect of onscreen representation.

I will say up front that I am a fan of Rushdie’s novel and Mehta’s film. (You can read my review of the film here.) Additionally, I greatly admire Johnson’s work as writer and an advocate for Canadian cinema; moreover, although I disagree with some of his assessments of the film version of Midnight’s Children, I must admit that his review is generally fair, well-argued and, by its end, fairly kind to Mehta’s film in a backhanded sort of way. My interest in Johnson’s article, then, stems from his query—and seemingly dismissive assessment—that Midnight’s Children is not quote/unquote a Canadian film. This interpretation is wildly problematic because it reverts Canadian cinema to an arcane mould of prescriptive nationalism at a time when Canadian films—and Canadian culture more broadly—are benefitting from increased diversity.

Johnson begins his review in a fashion with which many critics approach an adaptation of a beloved novel. He notes the ambition and scope, but he then turns the adaptation process back on the film itself. This turn is notably problematic as one sees how the turn incorporates the cross-cultural journey of Midnight’s Children as a seemingly negative trait of the production. Johnson end his first paragraph of the review by saying,

Based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Salman Rushdie, it’s the most sumptuous, and ambitious, Canadian movie you’re likely to see this year. It may also be the least Canadian Canadian movie you’ll see this year. Aside from director Deepa Mehta, her producer/husband, David Hamilton, and the colour of the money from Telefilm Canada, there’s nothing visibly Canadian about this movie—at least not the lead actors, characters or locations.

It should be noted that Johnson revised the review following the Twitter backlash and replaced the “visible” word with “tangible” to avoid racial connotation. (Note: Liam Lacey’s review also contains an amendment, which refers only to the film’s running time.) The adjustment to Johnson’s review appreciated, but not quite enough since there is something “visibly tangibly Canadian” about Midnight’s Children if one looks at it objectively. Midnight’s Children is an especially Canadian film because its adaptation shows essential characteristics that have helped Canadian films reach the position of strength to which they have risen today. Johnson makes the argument himself in the final notes of his review by observing that Midnight’s Children follows a trend in Canadian film that has intuitively looked to the novel for cinematic inspiration. Johnson’s comment seems to have been lost amidst the controversy, so it is worth quoting in its entirety. Johnson writes

Our struggling English Canadian cinema, which never gets enough respect at home, has often looked for legitimacy in literary pedigree. Producer Robert Lantos has banked his fortunes on it time and again, from Black Robe to Barney’s Version. Sarah Polley launched her feature directing career with an Alice Munro adaptation, Away From Her, and will next tackle Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. Even Canadian movies not based on novels, those sprung fully formed from the dark matter of a Cronenberg or Egoyan, tend to mine their shadows from existential tunnels worthy of Nietszche and Beckett. So maybe Midnight’s Children is more Canadian than it seems. The feat of this film’s improbable production, saturated with such careful reverence for its literary source, makes you wonder what other country could have possibly made it.

To see Midnight’s Children as a Canadian film therefore requires one to look beyond the surface of the story that transpires on screen. Midnight’s Children is marked with a poignant note of Canadian heritage itself, since Deepa Mehta proudly introduced the film to the audience at Roy Thomson Hall during the film’s TIFF premiere by saying that the experience of shooting Midnight’s Children abroad finally allowed her to realize that Canada is the country she calls “home.” Midnight’s Children, a story about a country in a time of change, undoubtedly touches a large portion of Canadians affected by the diaspora. As products of a multicultural society, Canadian films can speak to various experiences without actually setting their stories within the Canadian borders. A film of epic scope and immense cultural significance, Midnight’s Children affords the kind of solution to the age-old art/commerce debate that traditionally plagues Canadian films, for tax dollars go towards a project with obvious artistic merit while the ready-made audience of fans of the novel provides a degree of financial security. Likewise, Midnight’s Children grants Canadian cinema a significant step in that elusive foothold of nation building inspired by cultural works as it shows an attempt to project a more culturally diverse idea of Canada. If one looks at Midnight’s Children intuitively, it is as Canadian cinema as, say, Don Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road.

It seems that Midnight’s Children is the proverbial stroke of midnight for Canadian films. Just like the history of India in Mehta’s film is marked by the dual birth of Saleem Sinai and his alter-ego Shiva, so too has Canadian film allowed for two Canadian cinemas to live side by side. (Like the relationship of Saleem and Shiva, the co-existence of the two Canadian cinemas will have a rocky start.) Canadian films have enjoyed an escalating blend of the two poles in recent years, with films like Incendies blending Greek tragedy with a story of migration, or with Monsieur Lazhar teaching a class of Canadian children about cultural diversity. Likewise, films such as Take This Waltz have brought attention to Canadian treasures like the Centre Island Scrambler thanks to the invaluable participation of foreign stars like Michelle Williams.

The success of Canadian films with foreign stars reveals a double standard that’s often imposed on Canadian films. Johnson’s review of Midnight’s Children, even the revised one, cites the nationality of the film’s lead actors as a negative mark against the film’s Canadianness; however, the Maclean’s review of Midnight’s Children is paired with a review for Robert Zemeckis’s Flight. Flight stars Denzel Washington as an alcoholic pilot who befriends a drug-addled woman played by Kelly Reilly. Interestingly enough, even though Midnight’s Children loses some points for not having Canadian lead actors, the review of Flight says nothing of the fact that Reilly is a British actor playing an American junkie. The assessment of quality and national character seems to be intertwined only in the criticism of English-language Canadian cinema, which, as Johnson himself notes, “never gets enough respect at home.” It’s true that Canada will never develop its own stars if it neglects to provide them with strong roles, but the presence of international stars often brings indispensable exposure to films. Moreover, as the casting of Kelly Reilly in Flight suggests, the nationality of the star does not override the essential traits of a character.

Midnight’s Children makes a notable leap forward for moving the story of a Canadian film beyond the TransCanada Highway. However, it is as much at home as are the stories we tell within Canadian cities. This year’s Canada’s Top Ten will presumably be marked by the widest range that Canadian cinema has enjoyed so far. The increase in onscreen diversity (or, as some say, “internationalization”) of Canadian films has brought a wave of films that have benefitted from the resources of international coproduction and from international recognition. Moreover, Canadian films that assert their Canadianness quite overtly, or are marked by a tangible sense of place, are likewise enjoying more success and recognition than ever, as intuitive filmmakers continue to realize that the reach of a local film can be global when a film speaks straight to the heart. The best lesson that Canada’s Top Ten can teach us is that an assessment of a film’s national character should not be conflated with an appraisal of the film itself.

With this diversity in Canadian cinema in mind, let us look at what features could be named Canada’s Top Ten when TIFF unveils the list tomorrow. I suspect that there are three sure things headed to the Film Circuit: Stories We Tell, Rebelle, and Laurence Anyways. After these, there is a string of possibilities and hidden gems. Regardless of what ends up in the top ten, it’s safe to assume that we will see an assorted list of films that highlight how 2012 was strong year for Canadian movies. There will be no Hobo with a Shotgun this year!

Predicted Canada’s Top Ten:

The best Canadian film this year, Sarah Polley’s intimate documentary shows that a film can tell any story so long as it tells it well.

Our worthy Oscar contender, Rebelle is another Canadian film that transcends borders and touches viewers around the globe.

Perhaps the most over-hyped Canadian film of the year, Laurence Anyways deserves credit for its intelligent, if flawed, character study that celebrates marginal voices. At least more moviegoers will get to see Suzanne Clément’s tour-de-force performance.

Michael McGowan seems to have rebounded after Score! A Hockey Musical (which I liked simply for how much it reeked on self-ironic nationalism) with Still, a mature love story between an elderly couple played by James Cromwell and Geneviève Bujold. 

David Cronenberg’s best Canadian film in years, his brilliantly brainy take on Don DeLillo’s novel pits a roster of major stars and up-and-coming Canadian talent in a limo ride through Toronto, which is thinly disguised as New York.

The most talked about Canadian debut, Antiviral offers an excellent marketing opportunity by bringing two generations of Cronenberg to the Film Circuit. (What works for Cannes could work for TIFF!)

Deepa Mehta’s film came with the high expectations thanks to the strength of its source, but she delivers a tale as epic and magical as Rushdie’s novel.

One of the most-buzzed Canadian titles at TIFF was hidden in the Wavelengths programme, so hopefully the Film Circuit will once again bring the bizarre world of Denis Côté to Canadian moviehouses.

I really regret missing Blackbird at TIFF. This acclaimed film about a school shooting tied Antiviral for Best First Feature, and it’s been gaining strong notices since at other Canadian festivals.

Inch’Allah would have been my personal choice had I picked a film to send to the Oscars. Writer/director Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette does a commendable job of straddling incredibly complex politics by keeping the film firmly rooted in the hazy perspective of its Canadian protagonist Chloé, played by an award-worthy Evelyne Brochu.

Other contenders:
-Camion: This film joined Rebelle and Laurence Anyways as a finalist for our Oscar submission.
-The World Before Her: Provocative doc about cultural struggles in India, as told through the juxtaposition of a beauty pageant and fundamentalist training camp.
-The End of Time: Peter Mettler’s mind-bending doc earned raves at TIFF.
-All That You Possess: Did anyone else review this film? It might be the best French Canadian film of the year. People deserve to see it!
-Picture Day: I was very sad to have missed this comedy at TIFF, but it just scooped 1st prize at the Whistler Film Festival, so it could also have some fun on the film circuit.
-Legend of a Warrior: Corey Lee’s emotional journey with his father is a compelling portrait of retracing one’s roots.
-China Heavyweight: With his one-two punch of China Heavyweight and The Fruit Hunters, Yung Chang confirms himself a serious Canadian talent.
-Payback: What would a Canadian 'Best of' list be without a little Margaret Atwood?
-Barrymore: Christopher Plummer proves that he is Canada’s most talented actor in this one-man performance that showcases the best work of his career.
-Francine: Audiences on the Film Circuit could be wowed by Melissa Leo’s impressive performance.
-Inescapable: Ruba Nadda’s mild-misfire about a Canadian kidnapped in the Middle East.
-The Lesser Blessed: A heavy, but important look at the scars of the residential schools.
-Burlesque Assassins: Probably not going to happen, but I would love to see this film present… just imagine the tie-in merchandise! TIFF tassels!

I'm not forgetting the shorts, either, but they're so hard to predict. In that case, I'll just cross my fingers in hopes that Frost, Margo Lily, Kali, and Let the Daylight Into the Swamp are among the top ten!

What are your thoughts?