“The official number is 1700, but it’s actually more like 1800,” says Jack Blum, executive director of REEL CANADA, about the number of screenings for this year’s special Canada 150 edition of National Canadian Film Day [NFCD 150]. It’s a whopping event—literally the largest film festival the world has ever seen.
This year’s festival is an stunning expansion of a grassroots initiative that’s exploded in just a few years. “The first year we had 70 screenings,” notes Sharon Corder, artistic director of REEL CANADA. “Then 170 and then 400 last year.”
“We started in 2014,” says Blum, “but we always had our eye on the sesquicentennial.” Adds Corder, “We wanted to see if we could do it.” The pair agrees that the 150th anniversary of the Canadian federation proved a true challenge of ambition, logistics, and, above all, passion.
To illustrate the sheer scale of this year’s event, a member of the NCFD 150 communications team displays a fancy new Google Map that charts the 1800ish screenings happening around the globe. 1800 sounds like a lot of screenings, but the visual impression of so many dots around the world is awesome.
Canadian films are screening in all corners of the globe on April 19. Blum points out a screening of Anne of Green Gables in Bangladesh and a showing of the Maurice Richard drama The Rocket in Kazakhstan. There’s a picnic lunch with The F Word in South Africa and, for doc fans, a screening of Guantamo’s Child: Omar Khadr in Flin Flon, Manitoba that’s paired with a chili cook-off. Vienna’s Festival du Film Francophone is even making a rare exception to its opening night tradition of kicking off the festival with a French film by starting the festival with a screening of the François Bouvier drama Paul à Québec. (There’s also a special panel discussion on great Canadian docs at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema hosted by POV.)
National Canadian Film Day is a concentrated extension of REEL CANADA, which puts Canadian films in high schools so that students may see their lives reflected onscreen. “REEL CANADA started 13 years ago when we had a meeting with then-mayor David Miller,” explains Corder. “The film industry had come together to complain. It was 2003 and the situation was terrible. The dollar had tanked and SARS had just happened. There were new regulations. The industry really was in trouble.”
Corder and Blum realised that the problem didn’t have an easy solution. In frequent discussions about Canadian films, Corder noticed that people in the industry were quite often not viewing the features she and Blum were seeing at festivals. “If the people who are making them aren’t seeing them, that is a serious problem,” she says. “At one point, I just said that I wished we could take our well-made films out to young people because I thought they’d really like them.”
Blum says that the effort to bring Canadian films to students challenged the barriers that members of the industry often perceived to exist. “In the high schools,” Blum explains, “students did like the films and we could come out to the industry and say, ‘Guys, look at this. This audience actually enjoys what is being made in Canada, but you’re not reaching them in the marketplace because it’s too jammed with Harry Potter—‘
“—and too much money we can’t compete with,’” adds Corder.
From REEL CANADA’s roots in the adolescents of Canada has come National Canadian Film Day. At least for one day of the year, Hollywood has to compete with us.
“What we’re doing is telling everyone in the country to let us know which Canadian movie they want to see. We’ll find it, get the rights for it, and ship it to you along with some goodies,” says Corder. “It’s like creating from scratch an alternative distribution wing,” adds Blum.
Central to National Canadian Film Day 150, and essential for facilitating outreach with so many screening partners, is the list of 150 Canadian Films. It’s not a best-of or must-see list, but rather a springboard of Canadian titles that are—and this is significant—available to general audiences who can’t hunt down an archival print or dusty VHS in the archives. Among the titles are films such as Alanis Obomsawin’s Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, Peter Lynch’s Project Grizzly and Allan King’s A Married Couple.
One surprise hit is Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit’s The Whale, a doc narrated by Ryan Reynolds about an orca named Luna who is separated from her family and searches the waters for a reunion. Blum and Corder note that the film plays especially well with new Canadians who relate to its fish out of water scenario.
“We’re not saying these are historically or essential films,” notes Corder. “Internally, we call it ‘the people’s list.’ There’s going to be something in here that you like.”
The list also serves as a handy guide for Canucks who want to join the party on April 19, but can’t make it out to a screening. “Doesn’t matter where you are,” says Blum. “The line is, ‘On foot, on line, on air.’” With broadcasters like CBC and streaming platforms showcasing Canadian content as part of the NCFD 150 effort, Canadian films are available pretty much wherever and however one wants to see them.
On the doc front, Reel Injun is a popular choice, as Corder and Blum note, along with Guantamo’s Child, the collected works of Alanis Obomsawin, and the double dose of Hurt and Vinyl from Alan Zweig. One of the most popular titles for National Canadian Film Day 150 is Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s festival circuit sensation Angry Inuk. The doc has over 50 screenings on April 19.
“There is something about Angry Inuk very specifically because it just opens everybody’s eyes,” says Corder.
“It’s like going to dinner,” Blum says when asked how movies Angry Inuk help open the eyes of moviegoers. “We’re festival rats and have been going to TIFF for decades. We have some sense about what Iran, Poland, Iceland, or Burkina Faso are like through the movies. This is entirely what sparks all of this: our shared love of what film can do by way of opening doors.”
The popularity of Angry Inuk on the big day is significant given the uncomfortable tension of addressing the sesquicentennial when Indigenous and Inuit inhabitants were here long before colonialism—and saw devastating consequences for their cultures in the process. National Canadian Film Day 150 confronts this dynamic head-on.
“Going back to our educational base,” explains Blum, “we’ve been showing Indigenous work to the high school audience. Sharon saw that there were these communities that had no reflection.” Adds Corder: “They were divided and not even speaking to one another. “What better way than movies to let Indigenous kids see themselves reflected.”
“Last year, in the wake of Truth and Reconciliation,” continues Blum, “we recognised that the demand [for Indigenous films] was really strong because almost all the recommendations are about education. We formalised our Indigenous programme and that coincided with the 150 / National Canadian Film Day push.”
The pair explains how Indigenous programme manager Denise Bolduc led a major effort to unite Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences through film. “That push has to do with speaking to the Indigenous community—and to say we understand that there’s discomfort around the 150, and ask how do we give everyone a voice,” explains Blum.
“We decided we wanted to do a film summit and spotlight,” says Corder. “Our partnership was with the Vancouver International Film Festival and Vancouver is a non-ceded territory, which means it was never given away. We called our spotlight Beyond 150: An Acknowledgement of Cinematic Territory and they led us.” The event featured prominent filmmakers like Alanis Obomsawin, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Amanda Strong and Lisa Jackson.
Uniting Canadians in these shared experiences, even uncomfortable ones that have been hidden for too long, is crucial in light of this significant milestone.
“There’s an intangible that has to do with participating in something at one time across the country knowing that everyone else is doing it too,” says Blum. “There is no way to predict what that is. It’s the knitting of a fabric, a very precarious fabric.”
Corder puts it another way: “Patrick Huard [of hits like Bon Cop, Bad Cop and My Internship in Canada] was at our launch at the Lightbox. He talked about how movies are our family photo album. You go through and you look at all the different pictures and you see where you were, where the people you know were, and what people you’ve never met look like. And that’s what movies do.”
National Canadian Film Day 150 is April 19.