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Cultural Concerns Temper Canada's Filmmaking Boom

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 29, 1997



VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA

Canadian movies are on a roll. The official program of the recent Vancouver International Film Festival listed more than 60 productions with Canadian roots - shot in Canada, financed with Canadian money, or made by Canadian artists and technicians. Or all of the above. Recent filmfests in Toronto and Montreal also presented dozens of Canadian pictures.

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These movies are as varied as they are numerous. At one end of the spectrum is the domestic drama of The Sweet Hereafter, about a town coming to grips with a tragic accident that struck several of its children. At the other is the dreamlike experimentalism of La Plante humaine, an avant-garde animation with an antiwar theme.

While most will find their greatest popularity in Canadian theaters, some will reach out to the huge American market and beyond that to overseas venues. "The Sweet Hereafter" is due on US screens later this year, to be followed by Love and Death on Long Island - a Canadian comedy despite its title - and others launched by autumn's annual one-two-three punch of major Canadian festivals.

The very existence of these large and widely influential filmfests - plus others with less international clout - demonstrates Canada's vibrant participation in the world-cinema scene. Yet despite these signs of robust health, all is not well with the Canadian motion-picture industry.

In the country's western half, filmmakers are experiencing "an unprecedented boom in production of all types," as the show-business paper Variety describes it, with several provinces - British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan - achieving record earnings in the past year or so. Adding more cheer has been the prospect of heightened investment by Telefilm Canada, a federally funded production company.

Funding is shaky

Countering this optimistic news, however, are negative reports about Canada's tradition of government support for cinema: British Columbia has subjected its film-funding budget to major cuts, and Alberta has abandoned its program of tax incentives.

Such developments curtail the financial stability of individual film companies, leading to increased reliance on investments from the United States and other countries. This trend has cultural as well as financial results, since it increases pressure on producers to make their movies less distinctively Canadian and more generically "universal" in style and substance.

Back east, many observers worry about the future of the publicly funded National Film Board of Canada, which has produced globally respected movies with specifically Canadian themes for the past 58 years. This has been another strong year for the NFB, which unveiled 15 new pictures - including features, shorts, and coproductions made with outside partners - at this fall's World Film Festival in Montreal, its home city. Yet budgets for the board have undergone substantial trims, and the future may not be so bright.

Added to monetary concerns is an artistic anxiety that has dogged Canada for years: the fear of losing its cultural individuality as a result of its proximity to Hollywood, still the most powerful, profitable, and popular of all media centers.

Lure of Hollywood

Such worries grow when gifted Canadian filmmakers migrate - or defect, as some critics say - to US studios in search of bigger, brighter careers. Atom Egoyan, creator of many respected Canadian movies including "The Sweet Hereafter," recently signed a deal with Mel Gibson's production company. Montreal-bred director Christian Duguay's latest movie is The Assignment, a Hollywood project starring Donald Sutherland, his Canadian compatriot.

In sum, Canadians see their cinema as facing a dilemma: US money is good, US influence is bad.

"My honest opinion is that we're in a time of trouble," says Alan Franey, director of the Vancouver filmfest. "We have filmmakers with international reputations, and we still have - despite all the cutbacks - a great deal of support from government and the private sector. There's been a general public trust that has supported cinema. But we've seen the temptation to be colonized by the easy money of American projects, in both film and television."

Vancouver provides a vivid example of this "colonizing" trend. More than 30,000 people are employed by the city's film industry, which hosts almost $500 million of annual production activity. But most are engaged in technical or "service" work for projects that are initiated by American companies and may reflect little of Canada's own personality.

"We have one of the biggest production centers on the continent," says Mr. Franey about this situation. "You can make a good living if you're an actor, a cinematographer, or a lot of other things.

"But you seldom see 'auteurs' develop out of the system," Franey continues, referring to artists who control the fundamental creativity of their projects. "There's a very high level of technical skill, but too little independence of mind at the creative source.... [Canadian directors] learn how to make big-budget films ... but they should be better informed about filmmaking outside the Hollywood model. We have so much activity that it takes a singular purpose, will, and commitment to take the harder road toward sovereignty....

"We think so much about our difference - or possible lack of difference - from Americans," Franey adds. "But if we are to do more than gaze into a shallow pool at our own reflection, we should take the opportunity to use the best of the Canadian experience, which is more a mosaic than a melting pot.

"I think we're becoming more like America all the time, but there is still the possibility that we'll be able to retain the virtues of a true mosaic, where other cultures are kept alive in a heterogeneous fashion. Our cinema should be informed by international culture, not just our own experience."