Reel Books: One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema

A review of George Melnyk's new book

6 mins read

What does a body have to do to get noticed around here, anyway? In a contribution to Canadian film history, One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema, George Melnyk attempts an answer.

National identity is a slippery notion in this bi- polar country of French and English influences liberally affected and challenged by immigrant voices, which lives, like a mushroom, under an American shadow. While Melnyk admits that a book like his will omit much more than it encompasses, “one should think of this text as a kind of translation of the writings of others on Canadian film into a synthesized narrative.”

One of the interesting aspects of his narrative is how the documentary tradition is treated equally and in tandem with feature film. From early on, the United States, as a bigger, wealthier country monopolized the feature film industry with the creation of Hollywood. This we know. But Melnyk adds to the mix.

A basic tenet of the free market economy is the creation of niche markets. If the neighbour to the south has the biggest and best lollipop, well then, it makes sense to harvest something else, like broccoli—documentaries. Yet, Melnyk shows how this logic failed Canadians for several reasons. The most important of these reasons was that documentaries just do not have the mythological punch that fiction films do. “It can be argued that it is the feature film that has made the greatest impact on a nationality’s popular psyche and not the documentary.” And, too, the shelf life of documentaries is considerably shorter than a feature film with its embodiment and often compelling dramatization of themes that speak to the body and mind on cellular, subconscious levels.

Melnyk also adds another interesting element to this picture of cultural subjugation. Everyone knows how effective the United States can be in planting democracy, free trade and culture in its wake. The after-effects are quite obvious, like those of other more natural disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis. What is less obvious is how the momentum was gathered in the first place for this change to take effect.

After the Second World War, “the Americans forced the French to sign an agreement restricting French feature film production in favour of American films, in exchange for forgiveness of French war debts and postwar loans. The end result was over 1,500 American feature films being screened in France between 1946 and 1948 compared to 233 French films.” No wonder the French were moved to invent the auteur theory!

In 1948, the Canadian government made a deal with the U.S. along similar lines “that would preclude the creation of an English-Canadian feature film industry for another two decades.” Quebec’s nationalist concerns would not allow them to sell their own culture down the river, and so their provincial industry did not suffer from this same fate, but Melnyk points out that a truly Canadian film industry remains the stuff of dreams. “In the period from 1991 to 2001, Quebec produced six of the top ten grossing Canadian box office films, all of which were comedies with an average box office per film of about $3.5 million. All of the money came from Quebec because none of the films was screened elsewhere in Canada, except at film festivals. Basically, English Canada did not see (except in video or on television) the country’s top- grossing films.”

So, while English and French Canada have been busy (or not busy) making films and documentaries throughout the last century, each in their own small corner, Melnyk details how sub-groups within the country begin making their mark —from independent producers like Budge Crawley who gave the NFB a run for its money to male auteurs like Cronenberg and Egoyan to feminist filmmakers like Anne Wheeler and Lea Pool to immigrant filmmakers like Mina Shum and Deepa Mehta to Native voices like Alanis Obomsawin. All are significant filmmakers or documentarians but they are little known within their own borders. This irony we know well, too. It’s a depressing state of affairs, but to continue with the psychological analogy: if you repress something, it will pop up elsewhere in unusual and unexpected ways. Melnyk makes no predictions for the future nor does he have any answers. He is just another messenger of this chronic state of affairs, but in his walk through the Canadian wilderness so well trodden by American film crews, he points out to us the many rare mushrooms that grow underfoot. I guess it’s true: you can’t keep a good thing down.

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