REVIEW: Being Canadian

Hot Docs 2015

6 mins read

Being Canadian

Canada, 89 min.
Dir. Rob Cohen
World Premiere

What is the Canadian equivalent to American cheese? We have Canadian bacon, sure, which tops a hamburger just as nicely as some fake cheddar does, but the Yanks even have us beat when it comes to finding a metaphor for our own collective national lameness.

That metaphor might find its best incarnation in Rob Cohen’s unabashedly and amusingly patriotic doc Being Canadian, which is the Score: A Hockey Musical! of documentaries. It’s film that sings of national pride in a tune that only a Canadian could love. If this entire introduction feels like a passive aggressively backhanded compliment, that’s appropriate, since these traits display several characteristics of quintessential Canadiana that Being Canadian adores.

Cohen, a Canuck by birth who found that all-Canadian promise of finding a better life elsewhere (re: America), sets off to define what it means to be Canadian after his ignorant American colleagues in writing rooms for sitcoms such as The Big Bang Theory and According to Jim, ask about his igloo back home one time too many. Cohen, like Joshua Jackson in the all-Canadian love letter One Week, embarks on a cross-country road trip to take in the sights and sounds of Canada. He interviews a host of characters along the way, most of whom are fellow Canuck comics who moved to Hollywood and share an affinity for the great white north.

The crazy Canucks of Being Canadian debate the essential characteristics that distinguish Canadians from their American neighbours. Our Canadian identity, according to the film, largely consists of stereotypes: guzzling maple syrup, adoring the Canadarm, wearing plaid, hunting moose, and loving Tim Horton’s putrid coffee more than life itself. After a while, the conversation turns to the larger ‘Canadian’ stereotypes, such as our incessant need to apologize (Catherine O’Hara sums it up best by saying that she says “sorry!” to the couch when she bumps into it) and our unshakeable inferiority complex when dealing with big, loud, aggressive America.

Cohen assembles a who’s who of Canadian comics including Eugene Levy, Seth Rogen, Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd and Michael J. Fox, along with other notable Canadians including former Prime Minister Kim Campbell (surprisingly funny), Alanis Morissette, and Alex Trebek, whose scene-stealing sweater might be the most ridiculously Canadian thing in the film. The film begs comparison to Alan Zweig’s When Jews Were Funny as the plethora of taking heads (including some Americans like Kathy Griffin and Ben Stiller) share a laugh over the absurdity of the need for a collective debate of Canadianness in the first place. (Isn’t that so Canadian?) The jokes draw out a layer of odd truth to the humour, though, as the laughs shared from the Canadian conundrum arise from experience.

Cohen adds a Wikipedia page thread of Canadian history along the journey to fill in the gaps in the story and show that Canada indeed has a rich cultural history. These episodes range from a trip to the Plains of Abraham to the Great Maple Syrup Heist of 2012,in which smugglers made off with $18M worth of maple syrup from the Fort Knox of syrup reserves and Cohen implicitly positions Canada as a rare example of a nation that simply hasn’t had to define itself by war and revolution. Perhaps it’s natural that all our signifiers of national identity are silly, sugary confections.

Being Canadian glosses over some essential aspects of Canadiana, though, in the act of telling a good joke. Les deux langues officiels, for example, get a quick mention during the episode of the Great Maple Syrup Caper in which Cohen notably uses English to converse with a francophone interviewee. The road trip inevitably forgets Newfoundland’s existence, too, for the film begins in Halifax and bypasses both Newfoundland and PEI, while the territories and Canada’s indigenous population mostly get shout outs in clips from Nanook of the North. The omissions themselves, ironically enough, seem especially Canadian.

Cohen narrates his Canadian odyssey with a droll self-deprecating humour that feels particularly Canadian. This fun, laid-back jaunt into our collective psyche rings truer as it becomes quainter and folksier: there isn’t an essential item, food, or phrase that typifies Being Canadian. Being Canadian, rather, is an attitude: it’s a sense of pride, even if this pride is nationalist backslapping for its own sake. Being Canadian is a humorous self-portrait of the maple leaf, eh?

Hot Docs 2015 Screenings
Sat, Apr 25 9:45 PM
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Sun, Apr 26 3:30 PM
Hart House Theatre

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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