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A History of Canada on Film
by Richard Stanford
2011-04-15 08:04:01
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Can one learn the history of Canada by watching films?   Documentary films are an obvious answer.  “Canada – A People’s History”, for example, told the entire history of Canada exceedingly well and is considered a benchmark in our understanding of where we came from and where we are going.  There are hundreds of other documentary films that have attempted to do the same thing while focusing on individuals or specific events.

road_1But what about feature length fiction films?  We tell ourselves that fiction is not factual and therefore not true.  Fiction is an ‘imagined’ world and somehow cut off from reality.  Non-fiction, on the other hand is considered the carrier of fact, an expression of reality, and thus of truth.

In “On Equilibrium”, John Ralston Saul poses the question: “How can ‘fiction’ be capable of delivering truth in a timeless manner?”  His answer: “It is an expression of intuition…Writers have expressed a broad, profound range of truths through a story which animates reality.  A timeless, not a factual, reality.  They have simply bypassed the clunky mechanisms of linear argument and fact.”

To put it another way, we read Jane Austen or Charles Dickens not only for a great story but also for their authentic portrayals of life in 19th century England.  We would hardly go to any of the non-fiction accounts of the industrial slums of England, indeed if any are still in print.  If we say Hugh MacLennan,  Robertson Davis, W.O. Mitchell or Mordecai Richler, Canada comes alive before our eyes.  The image of ourselves as a people in fact and in myth is embedded in fiction.

John Ralston Saul goes on to say that fiction “often becomes our principal source of understanding for its period and place.  And it often reveals to us a greater understanding of our own society as it functions today…Great fiction can be true for its time, as well as somehow timeless, and true for our time.”

While film is largely a collaborative enterprise involving the creative input of producers, directors, actors, cinematographers and a host of crewmembers, fundamentally everything flows from the written script.  What we see on the screen is a visual interpretation of the written script.  Without the scriptwriter, the film would simply not exist.   

The films discussed here do not constitute the definitive, comprehensive, no questions asked, ‘no holds barred’ history of Canada on film.  No, nothing so noble, or so impossible in this nation of two or more solitudes.  In these films, the filmmakers did not have history as their primary concern.  The films are certainly set in a particular historical context or period, and therefore require historical accuracy, be it the style of a dress or the model of a car.  The primary concern in these films is the telling of a story, or maybe several stories.  It is the storytelling that reigns supreme and the historical context may be nothing more than a convenient backdrop, a servant to the characters moving through its time and space.

Each of these films are fundamentally Canadian-made productions.  Some may have had non-Canadian directors or actors and some are co-productions where a Canadian production company will partner with a non-Canadian company in order to finance and distribute the film.  The one characteristic common to all these films is that they tell a story about Canadians.  But I do not want to get bogged down in all the definitions of what constitutes a Canadian film.  Let’s put it this way:  We know it when we see it.

If you wanted a ‘snapshot’, a slice of life, of a moment in the history of Canada in a time, in the words of Gordon Lightfoot, “long before the white man and long before the wheel”, you could not find a more beautifully epic work than the internationally acclaimed Atanarjuat the Fast Runner (2000).  Directed by Zacharias Kunuk, this film is Canada’s first feature-length fiction film written, produced, directed and acted by Inuit.  The story itself is the myth of an Inuit legend - of a shaman who tragically affects the lives of a nomadic Inuit community.  The vistas are spectacular - rendered without special effects - revealing in raw detail the overwhelming scale and power of the tundra.  It also depicts a way of life before the coming of the Europeans, before the history of Canada as a nation was even recorded.

Fast forward to 1634 - Black Robe (1991) would be a good choice.  Adapted from the Brian Moore novel and directed by Bruce Beresford, this film tells the story of Jesuit priest Father LaForgue as he journeys through the Canadian wilderness with the help of Algonquin Indians who become increasingly distrustful of the strange man they call Blackrobe. LaForgue’s journey is a mythic search into another ‘heart of darkness’.  Black Robe is also about the clash of cultures, about what native people may have thought and acted towards these strange men and their even stranger ideas, such as their desire to conquer and exploit the land and its ‘godless’ inhabitants.  As for the slice of life, you can virtually smell the smoke, feel the cold and the loneliness, and sense the fear both cultures experienced upon the first contact.

Séraphin: Heart of Stone[un homme et son péché] (2003) takes us to the backwoods village of St. Adèle in the late-19th century and is the story of villains, suffering heroines and noble youth that seems straight from the silent era.  Adapted from the novel by Charles-Henri Grignon and directed for the screen by Charles Binamé, it is the story of Séraphin, the miserly mayor, who has swindled the whole village into his private fiefdom.  He blackmails a local storeowner to hand over the merchant’s beautiful daughter whose true love must be sacrificed.  Behind the action and the human drama, this village is literally being built: wood is being cut and cabins constructed; the earth is being tilled for the first time and crops are being planted; and everywhere there is smoke and fire.  Life here is tough, dirty and tenuous.

Another film also set in the late-19th century is J.A. Martin Photographer (1976).  The combination of magnificent cinematography and the sensitive direction of Jean Beaudoin tell a moving ode to the beauty of the Canadian countryside filtered through a tale of a husband and wife who leave their five children behind to tour the country as photographers.  This, too, is how we see the country as it was growing and unfolding through the eyes of a very new technology where the camera’s viewfinder shows the world upside-down.

It was an American, Bill Miner, who orchestrated Canada’s first train robbery in 1904.  It was, however, a Canadian who told the quintessentially Canadian story of Miner’s two years ‘on the lam’ in the British Columbia interior: The Grey Fox  (1982), directed by the late Phillip Borsos.  The piercing, beautiful images of The Grey Fox are animated by romantic affection for the pioneer communities of B.C.    There is also a wonderful air of authenticity infusing the images as they tell the film’s other story: the coming of the 20th century, the fascination with photography, the motorcar, and the seething power of the locomotive.  Bill Miner comes from another century, another era, a fact which is told in a telling moment while Miner sits across from a salesman on a train.  With a hand-cranked device the salesman peels the skin neatly off an apple while bragging, “…in the next few years we’re going to see new products that’ll make your head swim.”  Miner (as played by Richard Farnsworth) is perplexed, his head already swimming.  He does not yet realize it but the world has passed him by and no matter how many trains he robs, he will never catch up.

World War I was a pivotal time in Canadian history and The Kid Who Couldn’t Miss (1982) provides a fascinating account of one of the legendary figures of the time, Billy Bishop.  This brash kid from Owen Sound became one of the leading fighter pilots of the war and to tell his story, director Paul Cowan created a docudrama combining elements of both reality and fiction.  The film has been the subject of controversy since its release as it does not pretend to be a biography of Billy Bishop but rather uses certain characters to express doubts about Bishop’s exploits.  Regardless of the debate, Billy Bishop remains a seminal figure in our history and Canada’s most decorated soldier.

Set in the 1940’s in East Broughton, Beauce County, Québec, Mon Oncle Antoine (1971) is a vivid portrait of the province’s asbestos-mining region.  Directed by Claude Jutra, this film classic is the coming-of-age story of young Benoit who, on Christmas Eve, sets out on a journey with his uncle in a horse-drawn sled to retrieve a dead body.  The times and the conditions of the people of this village are much more than a backdrop to the story.  Through Benoit’s eyes the company town comes to life, a town run by a single man – the mine owner, always an Anglophone – who holds sway over a group of non-unionized workers, many of whom suffer from a deadly industrial disease, asbestosis.  The authenticity of the characters and situations stands as their benevolent trademark, and the fact of they’re having been ground up by life confers on them an undistorted honesty.

 The internment of Japanese-Canadian in prison camps during WWII is the historical context of The War Between Us (1996) directed by Ann Wheeler.  This dark period of our history is seen through the eyes of the teenage Aya Kawashima as she and her mother, father and sister are stripped of their human rights, their home, their livelihoods, shipped off to a dreary mining camp in the interior of British Columbia and declared the “enemy”.  It is World War II on another front, in another kind of battle: the battle against racial prejudice.   Without being melodramatic, Wheeler weaves a compelling story of how the Kawashima family maintains their dignity in the face of adversity. 

Firmly rooted in the urban Jewish milieu of 1940’s Montréal, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) is dominated by the stormy magnetism of Duddy, played with manic obsession by Richard Dreyfuss.  The novel by Mordecai Richler was already a literary classic by the time it was adapted by Richler and director Ted Kotcheff.  They do a masterful job of painting a vivid portrait of the excitement and turbulence of post-war Montréal as the French, English and Jewish cultures mixed together in a dynamic cultural ragout.

It is a much tougher, more violent world that is depicted in Canada’s Sweetheart: The Saga of Hal Banks (1985).   No panoramas here of the vast white countryside; rather, this is a gritty urban landscape of the piers and ships of the harbour where violence and corruption dominated labour-mangement relations from the late-40’s to the early 60’s.  Directed by one of Canada’s pre-eminent documentarists, Donald Brittain, this is the true story of Hal Banks, convicted felon and union strongman, and his attempts to crush the Seafarers’ International Union while the government silently condone his brutality and protect him from prosecution.  There was a lot more of ‘lost innocence’ to go around.     

In the United States, it was Easy Rider (1969) – two young men on motorcycles searching for America in a drug-induced haze – while in Canada, it was Goin’ Down the Road (1969) – two young men in a beat-up jalopy heading down the highway to Toronto searching for work in a beer-induced haze.  Maybe Canada is simply too big and too cold to think about such a mythological journey or maybe we know exactly where our country is and therefore our concerns are more basic, such as survival.  When Joey and Peter leave their Nova Scotia homes and head west, they are disillusioned but they do not wallow in self-pity.  They are tough young men accustomed to hardship yet somehow maintaining a warmth and sincerity equaled only by their lust for life.  Unlike the two heroes of Easy Rider who end up dead, director Don Shebib’s vision in Goin’ Down the Road is far more positive:  no matter that Joey and Peter must literally escape from the dream that was to be Toronto, there is still a home for them somewhere else down the road; maybe Montréal in October.

There is no doubt that the October Crisis was a pivotal moment in our political history.  But more than that, innocent people seemingly distant from the crimes were swept into the maelstrom and it would affect them for many years.  Les Ordres (1974) is the story of five people who were arrested and imprisoned under the War Measures Act in October 1970.  The film blends fiction and documentary realism in a chilling portrait of what can happen to a liberal democracy when the state imposes its power.  The five prisoners are held incommunicado but assume they will be quickly released.  However, they realize they are to be held indefinitely, without charge and denied access to lawyers, family and friends.  Subjected to solitary confinement, fake executions, and other forms of psychological torture for several weeks, they are just as suddenly released without explanation or apology.  While director Michel Brault focuses on the effects in human terms of the loss of civil rights, there is no let-up of the all-pervasive fear.

Long before Erin Brockovich (2000) made environmental activism sexy, Robin Spry’s One Man (1977) told a more compelling and realistic story of corporate negligence.  As told through the eyes of a crusading Montreal TV reporter who makes the fatal error of getting too close to the story of a social worker who reveals the carnage created by a company dumping deadly toxic waste and the poisonous effects being felt by children living nearby.  It seems like a straightforward piece of investigative journalism until the reporter realizes the corporation is using ‘dirty tricks’ to discredit him in the eyes of both his boss and his wife.  His responsibility as a reporter to inform the public, the public welfare and his emotional protection of his family makes this a far more intense story of the times than anything in Erin Brockovich. 

No one case so unsettled the criminal justice system as the case of Donald Marshall and I think it raises a very fundamental question: How far have we come since the days of Black Robe in our attitudes towards Native people?  While the language may have changed, prejudice is still prejudice and Justice Denied (1989) is a searing indictment of ‘white man’s justice’ that traces the events leading to Marshall’s arrest, trial and his eleven years in a maximum security prison for a murder he did not commit.  As we watch the racial stereotyping inflicted upon Donald Marshall, and the attitudes of distrust, fear and paranoia directed towards Native people at all levels of our society, it is clear that not much has changed since the times depicted in Black Robe. 

There now comes the point where history is no longer history but simply yesterday and the future as Don McKellar, the director of Last Night, saw it in 1997.  This is the world at 6 pm on December 31st, 1999 – six hours before the planet will cease to exist, and so too history as we know it. As the film follows several characters in their desperate attempt to live out their last perfect night on earth, we see a view of the technological urban world at the end of the 20th century.  It is not a pretty sight and even though Director Don McKellar never offers a reason for the impending doom there is a sense in the omnipresent fog of humankind’s nasty hand.

We have come a very long way from the time of Atanarjuat, from the time before time to the end of time.

Given the almost total domination of our film theatres by the Hollywood juggernaut (a mere 4% of screens in Canada devoted to films by, about and for Canadians) it is a wonder these films were ever made at all and insofar as many of these films, and scores of others, have received international acclaim and distribution outside our borders, it is a miracle of stubborn tenacity that any part of our history has been rendered and interpreted at all.  This of course begs the question: if so many film audiences around the world find our films and our history exciting and interesting, how come we don’t? 

It is indeed a wonder and a miracle; more so because I am certain that as you read through this article your reactions may have been along the lines of: ‘Wait a minute, you forgot…’ or ‘No way, a much better film is…’ or ‘You completely missed out on 1955’s …’; or ‘What about Manitoba?’  The question then is not whether filmmakers in this country have made engaging films about our people and our history, rather it is whether we can see them on the ‘big screen’ and continue to see them.  The more difficult it remains to have Canadian films screened in Canadian cinemas, the more difficult it will be to make those films.  That would be a great loss not just to our film community but to our history as well.  That is why a Canadian film that does get made and seen is truly a wonder and a miracle.

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