Light at the end of the tunnel

Canada's directors are famous for their dark, cerebral works, but the government wants to encourage more mainstream fare. Geoffrey Macnab asks, is that really a smart move?
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The Independent Culture

"The Americans are kindda like the older brother who is blond and drives a convertible," Lynne Stopkewich muses. "...and we're like the dark-haired recluse sitting in the attic writing strange poetry." The Vancouver-based director is explaining the vexed relationship between Canadian film-makers and their Hollywood brethren south of the border. "We live in a harsher climate, the population is a lot smaller," she continues. "We [filmmakers] want to show the other side of what it is like to live here, not the tourist propaganda."

Anybody trying to gauge Canadian character and culture on the basis of the movies distributed in Britain would come to some disturbing conclusions. If you disregard huge box-office hit Air Bud (a Disney-backed Canadian-US co-production about a basketball-playing dog), the traits linking most Canadian films seen in the UK are their shared morbidity, their fascination with voyeurism, their dystopian view of technology, their rejection of Hollywood-style happy endings, and their blithe enthusiasm for breaking taboos.

The work of David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Robert Lepage, with its chilly cerebralism, and often austere depiction of urban life, sets the template. As Shlomo Schwartz-berg, chief programmer of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, puts it: "We're outside the US, we get all their culture, all their TV, all their music, all their cinema, and we're always watching. It's not surprising that Cronenberg or Egoyan see things in that way. They sit in Toronto and look at the US with a probing eye. We're always analysing ourselves, analysing where we stand vis-à-vis the United States, trying to be not too American."

Lepage argues that Canadian cinema's fascination with abstract ideas owes as much as to the weather ("the relationship to the light" as he puts it) as to any adolescent desire to kick against Hollywood norms. "There's a certain influence in our cinema that comes from Tarkovsky, Bergman – these northern guys. We're not Russian but we share this culture of the north. The north is the north of our bodies too. It gives us more to time to think. Anywhere in the world, the southern part of the country is more passionate, also fascist. The North is more liberal and more cerebral."

If there is a certain glumness at the heart of Egoyan, Lepage and Cronenberg's oeuvre, the films of Stopkewich herself are hardly any more cheerful. Kissed (1996) dealt with necrophilia. Her new feature, the equally murky Suspicious River (opening later this summer, touches on everything from rape to child abuse. The work of other Canadian directors seen in recent years by British audiences may be marginally more upbeat, but it's certainly not more mainstream.

Take a random list of the better-known titles: François Girard's Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould was an ingenious but cryptic portrait of the great Canadian pianist, structured like an elaborate piece of music. Don McKellar's Last Night was a soap opera of sorts, but one set only a few hours from the apocalypyse. Guy Maddin's kitsch romance Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs was set in a mythical, faraway land where ostriches outnumbered people and where all the actors spoke with borrowed voices (the entire film was dubbed), Patricia Rozema's When Night Is Falling was a dark comedy about a lesbian affair between an academic and a circus acrobat.

"The thing about Canadian cinema is that it's very original," Schwartzberg reflects. "I don't at this point think it's good. The truth is, the Canadian industry is limited to one kind of film. The universe that Canadian film-makers inhabit is their own – perhaps it's a rarefied bubble."

Not everyone would agree that this is a problem. Many, indeed, are concerned that it's exactly this sort of film that's now under threat. Local screens are dominated by US product (much of it, ironically enough, shot in Canada, still one of Hollywood's favourite locations.) English-speaking Canadian movies have only a 2.5 per cent share of the overall box-office in Canada. Even a relatively mainstream effort like the recent teen werewolf flick, Ginger Snaps, struggled to find an audience. "It was one of few Canadian films that got a wide release with a lot of prints, but it still got creamed," says Schwartzberg. "Opening in the same week as The Mummy Returns didn't help."

Telefilm Canada, the federal film agency, has just launched a new $63m (£29.1m) fund to support more commercially oriented films. Instead of awarding money on a project by project basis, the agency will target producers who have already had box-office success. It's a risky strategy. By going after box-office success, the agency may strain out the perversity and sheer cussedness which currently makes Canadian cinema so distinctive. "The portfolio of films we support may become too widely mainstream," concedes Telefilm's Guy DeRepentigny, but insists there are separate sources of financing for the "dark-headed recluses" of Canadian cinema.

It's obvious, though, that distributors aren't able to compete with the American studios when it comes to marketing their wares. And, when US companies work on the publicity, Canadian film-makers aren't always happy with the results. Trailers will invariably focus on sex and guns, even if they're only seen in passing in the actual movie. Directors have complained about this in the past, but business is business, and their opinion rarely counts.

The fact that most film-makers rely on state subsidy also has certain consequences. When big-budget Canadian movies are made, they invariably star foreign actors. François Girard's new adaptation of Brian Moore's, The Magician's Wife, is just the latest example. In order to secure a $20m plus budget, the producers have had to cast Kate Winslet and Geoffrey Rush. "Unfortunately, there are very few Canadian actors who have the stature to trigger that money," admits producer Daniel Iron.

Atom Egoyan's career would certainly seem to bear this out. After his Birmingham-based William Trevor adaptation, Felicia's Journey, he is now on post-production on a new film, Ararat, about the Armenian Genocide of 1915. A contemporary story that "weaves between history in the making and the effects of history on modern culture," it has an international cast including everybody from Charles Aznavour to Christopher Plummer. Interviewed via e-mail, however, the director is keen to look on the bright side, claiming that Telefilm Canada hasn't until now caved in to the pressures of the marketplace.

"It is a sign of strength that a government can support film as a cultural product," he observes. "There is no question that our films can take risks that a market-driven project cannot openly aspire to. Our films do not need to be star-driven, or market-tested. They are made for smaller budgets, and don't have the pressures which have (in too many cases), homogenised film culture."

While English-speaking Canadian cinema now finds itself skewered on the horns of a familiar dilemma, torn between art-house and the commercial mainstream, Québecois film-making remains relatively robust. It runs the gamut from work by internationally acclaimed directors Denys Arcand (Jesus Of Montreal) and the late Jean-Claude Lauzon (Leolo) to hugely vulgar, hugely popular Cheech and Chong-style comedies like the Elvis Gratton series (about a dim-witted Elvis impersonator) or comedies set in the rough and tumble world of ice hockey. Quebec audiences, it seems, rally behind local filmmakers, whatever kind of pictures they make. "They do crass films. There's always been room for those. You never get those in English-speaking Canada because our films have to have meaning and depth,"complains Schwartzberg.

Robert Lepage is one Québecois who doesn't do "crass". His Possible Worlds is a quintessential Canadian film, complex, darkly humorous, with a chilly eroticism about it – and often verging on the incomprehensible. Lepage believes that audiences (in and outside Canada) are yearning for movies that tax them intellectually. "They want to use their brains. People's work is sitting by the computer so they want their physical energy to be used. That's the reasons why there are so many gyms now. I think there's something similar about their brains. A lot of people have jobs where their cerebral potential is not used or very little of it is used. They want to use it. They want to work out. That's where arts like storytelling, film and theatre are all about."

Film-making as intellectual workout? That, it seems, is Canuck cinema in a nutshell.