Canada’s Top Ten of 2015 represents a very strong slate of films. Yet it doesn’t quite reflect the diversity and originality of Canadian films last year.
Last year was an incredibly strong year for Canadian film, but this isn’t entirely reflected in Canada’s Top Ten — an annual list compiled by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Group. Ostensibly, it’s a list of the best Canadian films of the year. In practice, the list tends to be populated with films by established Canadian auteurs or that have already received international acclaim. Though this year’s Top Ten is solid, it doesn’t reflect our country’s diversity, and many great films were overlooked.
The most obvious criterion for placing a film on the list is if it is Canadian. If the film is made by a Canadian citizen or permanent resident, regardless of subject matter or where it was shot, TIFF considers it Canadian. TIFF programmer Steve Gravestock has suggested that this is related to Canada’s multicultural population. Engaging with other cultures around the world can be crucial for immigrants, especially, to understand their Canadian identity. But TIFF’s definition is still fairly vague and focused around creators rather than content. It doesn’t account for whether a film addresses uniquely Canadian issues or culture.
Our cinemas are already inundated with American films. To quote Cameron Bailey, “Hollywood has colonized our imaginations.” So it seems vital that we support cinema that grapples with what makes Canada different from the U.S. and other countries. We should be supporting films that reflect our country back at us in a way that American or even international cinema can’t. We should also be helping great Canadian films to find their audience to counteract Hollywood’s influence. But this year, only four of the films selected deal with specifically Canadian issues.
Mina Shum’s documentary Ninth Floor and Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr both grapple with the legacy of Canadian racism and how it’s still pervasive today — even though we like to think we’re an accepting culture. Both films expose embarrassing parts of our recent history. Guantanamo’s Child also addresses Canadian islamophobia through an incisive character study of Omar Khadr, a gentle, deeply empathetic young man who was Guantanamo’s youngest inmate for years.
The subject of Alan Zweig‘s HURT is a former Canadian hero. At just nineteen, Steve Fonyo finished what Terry Fox couldn’t: after losing his leg to cancer, Fonyo ran from coast to coast to raise money for cancer. He was awarded the Order of Canada for his efforts. But being lauded for this achievement — and his inability to keep up this façade of heroism once back home — ended up crushing him. When we meet Fonyo in present day, over 20 years later, he’s on the verge of homelessness, a drug addict stuck between bad relationships. Although Fonyo’s disability is never addressed, Zweig makes it clear that it’s had a lasting emotional impact on him. The film is a clear-eyed portrait of a man caught up in his own bullshit, who can only move forward if he learns how to cut through it.
My Internship in Canada is probably the list’s most unabashedly Canadian and Québécois film. Set in rural Quebec, it’s a hilarious political satire about an ex-hockey player and ex-Liberal member of parliament who must cast the deciding vote on whether to send Canada to war. Armed with an optimistic, Rousseau-quoting intern from Haiti, he’s forced to decide how to vote while coping with local drama. A First Nations roadblock to protest the forestry industry leads to another roadblock by retaliating truckers. Having opened just before the federal election, the film was a particularly timely takedown of the problems with Canadian politics and Stephen Harper while still being a hugely patriotic film.
Ironically, the films on the list by the most famous Canadian auteurs, included to lend the list legitimacy, also have the least to say about Canadian identity. Although Patricia Rozema’s Into the Forest stars Canadian Ellen Page, it’s set in the United States, based on an American novel, and seems intended for an American audience. Set in the aftermath of a continent-wide power outage, it’s a thoughtful if flat dystopian story of how this would affect the lives of young women. Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room may feature Roy Dupuis in a beaver hat, but its story is an old-timey blur. It’s an impressive technical achievement, but there’s little to make it uniquely Canadian. There’s certainly an argument to be made that you can’t mark a year of Canadian film without mentioning the latest by Guy Maddin. But neither of these films needs the publicity the list affords, nor do they diversify a list that is already composed of mostly white filmmakers.
If there’s only room for one experimental film on the list, I’d have chosen Isiah Medina’s 88:88 over The Forbidden Room. It’s a formally inventive film by a person of colour that deals with a very real Canadian problem — homeless youths in Manitoba. Though highly praised by critics at TIFF, and programmed by prestigious international festivals like Locarno and Berlinale Critics’ Week, it still doesn’t have distribution. 88:88 would have benefited greatly from the publicity boost accorded to films included on Canada’s Top Ten.
By far the weakest film on the list is first time filmmaker Andrew Cividino’s The Sleeping Giant. Although this queer coming-of-age story is set in Cottage Country Ontario, with all the rituals that implies, it’s still another story about a white boy maturing. Closet Monster, also on the list, does this better and more creatively and it’s set in the underrepresented Canadian Maritimes. I’d have taken Adam Garnet Jones’ Fire Song, about a Queer Native teenager considering leaving his reserve where suicide is pervasive, over The Sleeping Giant. Fire Song is a better film that also happens to tell a First Nations story by a First Nations filmmaker. But it couldn’t compete with the international recognition of The Sleeping Giant.
Fortunately, this year’s list is getting something right when it comes to spotlighting new Québeçois auteurs. First time filmmaker Phillippe Lesange’s The Demons and Anne Émond’s Our Loved Ones are two of the most emotional, formally disciplined Canadian films of the year. Yet neither film has distribution in English Canada. Including them on the list both gives them a boost and gives people in other Canadian cities on the Top Ten tour the opportunity to see them. Our Loved Ones is a straightforward family drama about cycles of grief set in rural Quebec. Both show a mastery of craft and ask us to grapple with difficult questions implicating aspects of Canadian identity.
Despite being the only film on this year’s Top Ten not to screen at TIFF in September — it premiered right after at San Sebastian — The Demons still made the cut, and it’s the biggest discovery of the year. The film is a truly original wonder. Shot with rich colours and a largely locked down camera, it presents an unsentimental portrait of childhood: the casual cruelty of children, the bond between siblings, the confusion of half-understanding the adult world, and the embarrassing mistakes borne of curiosity and ignorance. It’s insightful about the minutiae that define childhood but that films tend to ignore.
We don’t tend to take our own national cinema seriously until it receives an international imprimatur. As the only Canadian film to screen at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, The Sleeping Giant was included on the list despite its mediocrity. Winning awards at TIFF practically guaranteed spots for Alan Zweig’s HURT and Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster. But relying on international recognition for the list means playing it safe: we’re only rallying around films that have already achieved approval by consensus. The result is we’re failing to recognize some of our most promising auteurs who are not yet well known enough. 88:88, This Changes Everything, and How Heavy This Hammer were among the best reviewed films at TIFF in September, yet these don’t appear on the list.
But even critical acclaim is a problematic standard, because the largely white and male establishment tends to reward films by and about white men. To some degree, this year’s list steers clear of this pitfall. There are four films directed by women and two films directed by queer white men. But as a multicultural country of immigrants, it seems criminal that there’s only a single film by a person of colour when there were so many great candidates — many that were better than films that made the list.