Félicitations Are In Order

February 1, 2012

Over a week ago I posted about Philippe Falardeau’s film Monsieur Lazhar and its official-entry status for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.  The next day it was announced that Falardeau’s film is now an official Oscar nominee (félicitations!)  This news is now stale and I apologize for even mentioning it (apparently stale news is ever so annoying to savvy interneters).   However, I feel that I can be somewhat forgiven, since this post is now about giving props to Canadian filmmakers past and present, as it was announced yesterday that another Quebecois film-maker, Michel Brault, will be honoured with the Outstanding Achievement award at this year’s Hot Docs film festival.

Brault (who had a hand in September 5 at St. Henri) has had a long and illustrious career in film-making, a good part of it spent with the National Film Board of Canada where he was instrumental in formulating the “Direct Cinema” style of film that the Board became known and well-regarded for in the 60s.  While Direct Cinema’s aims were to present subjects objectively and truthfully, some of Brault’s best films had narrative elements that combined the real with the fictional.

Pour la suite du Monde is a documentary that follows a group of men from an island village in Quebec who agree to be filmed while attempting to capture Beluga whales by employing traditional methods used by their ancestors.  The scenario is constructed, but the action is not.  It is a fascinating look at a group of men who, through rediscovering their past, are taken on a journey that brings them face to face with progress (they journey to New York to bring their captured whale to an aquarium).   On the other hand, Les Ordres is a scripted drama presented in documentary style and written about an actual event: the October Crisis.  Once again the line between fiction and reality is blurred and the results are stunning.   Les Ordres is probably Brault’s most well-known and celebrated work, and for good reason.

Michel Brault is a pioneer of Canadian cinema, and the recognition of his films by Hot Docs is well-deserved.  His work and the work of others have created a strong foundation for Canadian film that continues to evolve, producing impressive results, as the example of Philippe Falardeau’s recent achievement demonstrates.  I’ll be looking forward to the Oscars, as well as the Genie’s (the Canadian Oscars, if you will) where many of the nominated films this year are pretty durn great.  It’s nice to see Canadian film in the spotlight and I wish all the nominees the best of luck.


Only Connect

January 23, 2012

The Toronto International Film Festival recently celebrated the best Canadian films of 2011 with their annual Canada’s Top Ten program.  In total I saw five of the top ten films, three of them during the festival.   One of those films was Monsieur Lazhar, a complex story covering themes such as coping with death, the immigrant experience, and the inability to express ourselves as a result of language degradation and fear of demonstrating emotion.  The film is Canada’s official Oscar selection for the category of Best Foreign Language Film (it isn’t yet nominated but is part of a short-list of entries… fingers crossed!) and is well deserving of the recognition.

But this post isn’t really about Monsieur Lazhar or Canadian film, it’s about a book.  The book was featured in Monsieur Lazhar and was read by the film’s title character during his quest to learn more about Quebecois culture (he is an Algerian refugee).  And since learning more about Quebec culture is an interest of my own, I couldn’t resist the temptation to track down a copy of the novel.

Dragon Island by Jacques Godbout follows Michel Beauparlent as he attempts to defeat William T. Shaheen Jr., an American businessman whose company is responsible for constructing Controlled Atomic Dumps in pristine, “poetic” environments.  Shaheen’s company has a record of displacing people from their communities, destroying landscapes that connect people to history and to nature, and offering precarious employment in return for self-sufficiency, and dignity.

First published over 35 years ago in 1976, the novel’s themes seem all the more relevant today.  The proposed Keystone XL and Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline projects remind us of the dominance of commerce over the environment, and recent disasters such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown and the BP oil spill serve as sober reminders of the consequences of reckless consumption and blind trust in technology.  While this book’s themes stem from anxiety on the part of post-Quiet Revolution Quebecers about losing their culture, language, land, and identity to outside corporate interests, this book is topical and will resonate with anyone who recognizes that greed and rampant consumerism are leading to a wealth of problems, including environmental destruction, and income inequality.

Interestingly, as I endeavoured to find out more about the book and its author, I ended up serendipitously finding my way back to Monsieur Lazhar.  Jacques Godbout contributed to a 1962 NFB film about the St. Henri neighbourhood in Montreal (a polluted working class neighbourhood described in the film as being surrounded by “the industrial wealth of other men”, demonstrating thematic similarity to Dragon Island).  Hubert Aquin was also a contributor to September 5 at Saint-Henri, and Aquin’s novel Next Episode happened to be another of the books read by Monsieur Lazhar whilst learning about his adoptive culture!  I’ve demonstrated this cycle in the below (hastily-assembled) diagram.

One of the offshoots in the diagram is a “remake” of sorts of September 5 at Saint-Henri called Saint-Henri, the 26th of August, which was filmed in 2010 and shows a gentrifying Saint-Henri; a Saint-Henri where rich live next-door to poor, and where the fate of the poor in the neighbourhood is uncertain.  I have also included in the picture The Tin Flute, a novel by Gabrielle Roy, which portrays a Saint-Henri similar to that displayed in September 5.  While the people of Gabrielle Roy’s novel may have positive attitudes, they do not ultimately control their own destinies.  They struggle to maintain their dignity and look for meaning in religion, the armed forces, degrading relationships, and dangerous work that tears them from their families but in their minds, gives their lives purpose and hope.  That desperation can spur such actions is not surprising, but the portrait Roy paints of a simple, hard-working, well-meaning family and the hardships that befall them through little fault of their own is simultaneously heart-breaking and thought-provoking.

I have read or seen all of these works and love that there are all of these connections among them.  The works themselves each provide a look into a specific time and place and present their own themes and ideas, but taken together they tell an even bigger story about the human condition that transcends boundaries.  The specific becomes the universal.  Our world-view changes.  Art illuminates life.

Maybe this post isn’t about a book, afterall.

Get it Out, Get it all Out

October 26, 2011

Canadians are a pretty self-deprecating bunch, especially when it comes to our artists.  The frequency with which Canadian television, film, music, and literature is put down in the media or in everyday conversation is striking.  One of the best reactions a Canadian artist can hope for is “I didn’t know it was Canadian!”  This attitude, which seems ingrained in the Canadian psyche, is unfortunate; not only because great Canadian art is in fact being made and deserves to be supported, but also because Canadians are missing an opportunity to see and celebrate their own stories in these works.  Luckily there are those like the First Weekend Club who are committed to promoting Canadian art – in this case, film.

Funny? Yes. Accurate? No way.

First Weekend Club’s mission is to raise awareness about Canadian film releases in order to generate interest that translates into ticket sales on the first weekend a film is in theatres.  The first weekend is crucial for a film, as it determines whether it will continue to screen beyond the first week.  The goals of First Weekend Club are to assist in the promotion of Canadian film, which generally has less advertising behind it, and to change people’s perceptions about Canadian film.

Great Canadian Film… It’s Out There.

First Weekend Club is now looking to create a Video On Demand streaming service for Canadian film, and they are looking for help funding it.  Their goal is to raise $20,000 to kick things off, and there are currently 36 days left in their campaign.  They have a way to go still, and could use your help if you think this is a worthwhile endeavor.  I’ve contributed what I can, and here’s why…

The High Cost of Living- A great Canadian film.

As a person who has for a long time had an interest in Canadian film, I know that I am very fortunate to live in a city like Toronto.  Venues such as the TIFF Bell Lightbox and NFB Mediatheque, and festivals like TIFF and the yearly Canada’s Top Ten mean that I have access to a rich selection of Canadian film.  Unfortunately, not many markets in Canada can support smaller-budget, smaller-audience films, so streaming video is a cost-effective way to reach people.  The National Film Board’s success in this realm provides a perfect example.  Their website is hugely successful, and while its mandate is not to generate revenue, it clearly demonstrates that there is an interest in, and therefore likely a market for, Canadian film.

Mambo Italiano – Another great Canadian film.

So if you are already a fan of Canadian film, or if you think you could become one, consider donating a few dollars to First Weekend Club’s project. And spread the word! A lot of people giving a little can make all the difference.  Your contribution could allow the world to see more Canadian film, and would provide filmmakers with a new way of getting their films to an eager public who might otherwise never have an opportunity to see them.  Take a look at this list.  Personally, I think they could have done better, but some of you are probably surprised that it is even possible to come up with a list of 45 English Canadian films. Either way, it’s clear that there is a wealth of material out there, and that you can help with that wee little distribution problem by First Weekend Club’s initiative.  You’ll also personally benefit by gaining access to a whole new world of film.  Trust me – you’ll be glad you did!