Big-screen frontiers

Canadian movies display a new maturity

Brian D. Johnson September 18 1989

Big-screen frontiers

Canadian movies display a new maturity

Brian D. Johnson September 18 1989

Big-screen frontiers


Canadian movies display a new maturity

Searchlights roved the sky. Limousines disgorged movie stars into the white flash of photo opportunities. The occasion, marking the gala opening of Toronto’s 14th annual Festival of Festivals, was last week’s world première of In Country (page 75). And the man of the hour was Norman Jewison, In Country’s director, Canada’s most successful maker of Hollywood movies and unofficial godfather of the Canadian film community. Last month, while Jewison was putting the finishing touches on his movie—a $ 19-million drama starring Bruce Willis as a Vietnam veteran—he encountered some local filmmakers sharing the same Toronto postproduction studio.

They were completing a much smaller project, a heart-wrenching, $2.6-million drama about an Alberta native girl, titled Where the Spirit Lives. Although it was produced as a CBC TV movie, the film-makers thought that it was worthy of the big screen. After viewing it,

Jewison agreed—and lent them $12,500 to help prepare a theatrical print for the Toronto festival. “If you have a good film,” Jewison said in an interview last week, “why not spend a few more dollars and give it a chance to be seen around the world?”

For Canadian film-makers,

Toronto’s festival serves as a Cinderella ball, a chance to woo an audience that includes international critics and distributors. Although Hollywood movies continue to dominate screens in Canada—and elsewhere—local producers and directors are making a credible bid for attention. Organizers of the Toronto festival, which continues until Sept. 16, and of the Montreal World Film Festival, which ended on Sept. 4, included more than 40 new Canadian features in their programs. Ranging from Quebec’s satiric Jesus of Montreal to Alberta’s nostalgic Bye Bye Blues, several of the Canadian movies display

unprecedented maturity and ambition.

Delving beneath the unassuming surface of the Canadian psyche, film-makers are finding stories that resonate with unfamiliar tremors of passion and pathos. They tend to feature individuals on the frayed edge of a society that is less benevolent than it pretends to be. Three new movies deal with the issue of injustice to

native people; another three focus on the dilemma of immigrants. An awkwardness still inhibits the drama in some cases—but not all. Said Jewison: “In the past, Canadian films were too earnest, and that’s because we’ve inherited this documentary tradition. But I think we’re breaking away from that.”

Although rooted in situations that are decidedly Canadian—and often regional—the best of the new movies transcend their settings. As usual, a French-language picture from Montreal sets the highest standard. With Jesus of Montreal, which won international acclaim— and the Special Jury Prize—at the Cannes festival last May, director Denys Arcand has created a brilliant weave of satiric parable and high tragedy (page 74). After playfully dissecting sexual mores in his 1986 hit, The Decline of the American Empire, Arcand takes a bold gamble with religion in Jesus. “I knew it was a risky subject,” he said last week. “But I was fresh from the success of Decline and I wasn’t sure if I’d have the opportunity again.”

Most of the dramatic features from English Canada are period movies, based on personal reminiscence or social history. The year’s most lavish English-Canadian feature—with the exception of Bethune, an $18-million feature due for release in November—is Bye Bye Blues, a $4.9-million drama set during the Second World War. Directed by Edmonton-based Anne Wheeler, it is a vivid and sensitive romance about a resourceful Alberta woman named Daisy (Rebecca Jenkins). The story begins stiffly with a splash of postcard color from India—scenes of Daisy’s sudden separation from her officer husband, who is dispatched to serve with British troops in Singapore. Daisy then goes back, with two young children and a piano, to her parents’ home in a small Alberta town. In the golden light of the Prairies, the movie gradually comes to life.

f\n amateur pianist anci a promising singer, Daisy joins a local dance band, where she meets an attractive trom bone player named Max (Luke Reilly). They are drawn to each other. But, de spite having lost all contact with her husband, who has been either killed or taken prisoner, she still clings to the hope that he will come home alive. Jenkins, a Torontobased actress and singer, rises to the considerable chal lenge of the lead role. She also does an impressive job of singing 1940s music in her scenes with the band. As Dai sy's horn-playing suitor, Reil ly projects a quietly smoul

dering presence onscreen. And Vancouverborn Robyn Stevan almost steals the show as Daisy’s puckish sister-in-law.

Writer-director Wheeler, who made her feature-film debut with 1985’s acclaimed Loyalties, based Bye Bye Blues on her mother’s own romantic vigil during the war. At times, the

film-maker seems too closely wedded to her material. Indulgently long at almost two hours, the narrative sags in the middle. But the images are entrancing throughout. With cinematographer Vic Sarin, Wheeler captures the mood of the prairie landscape. Recalled Wheeler: “We’ve got the long dawns and long dusks and we really wanted to exploit that light.”

Where the Spirit Lives is another period piece set in the Prairies. Filmed on a Blood Indian reserve in southwestern Alberta, it is a powerful lament for native children who were taken from their families and placed in churchrun residential schools that sometimes resembled prisons. The year is 1937. A government agent,

Taggert (Ron White), flies to a remote Rocky Mountain settlement, where he uses candy canes to lure a group of Indian children into a floatplane. Among them is a 13year-old Blackfoot girl, portrayed with uncanny credibility by 22-year-old Michelle St. John, a part-Mohawk actress from Toronto.

Taggert takes the girl to a redbrick institution on an empty plain. There, school authorities give her a new name—Amelia. They also scrub her with lye and kerosene, forbid her to speak in her native tongue and beat her when she resists. Terrified, Amelia gradually surrenders to an alien world. She learns to trust a sympathetic teacher from Cape Breton (Ann-Marie MacDonald). But the school’s ruthless principal, an Anglican priest (David tiemblen), spells out his creed with a stern metaphor as he tends a garden of transplanted wild

flowers: “They are just weeds. When I gather them, I must scrape every trace of the old soil off their roots.”

The script occasionally reflects the episodic style of television, for which it was designed. And the white characters tend to lack depth. But after a while, none of that seems to matter. The native characters—all played by native actors—are utterly convincing. Once the story catches in the throat, it never lets go. Driven by Buffy Sainte-Marie’s haunting sound track, the movie builds to a tearful catharsis.

It is also beautiful to look at. With cinematographer Rene Ohashi, Toronto director Bruce Pittman has created a film truly worthy of the wide screen. Visions of the rolling prairie—with the school standing alone like a Victorian monument—imbue Where the Spirit Lives with the magic implied by its title. Avoiding a common Canadian pitfall, however, the film-makers do not let landscape overwhelm character. St. John’s mesmerizing performance remains its most indelible image. And, despite the period setting, it is impossible to dismiss the movie as a piece of well-burnished history after the postscript: “The last two Indian residential schools closed in 1988.” Justice Denied, a movie that airs on CBC TV this season, also raises the issue of native rights—in the form of a grimly effective docudrama. Starring Billy Merasty, a Manitoba-born Cree, it is the true story of Donald Marshall Jr., a Cape Breton Micmac Indian who served 11 years in a Nova Scotia prison for a murder that he did not commit. The first dramatic feature

directed by National Film Board documentary-maker Paul Cowan, it draws on court transcripts and testimony to expose systematic prejudice. “The biggest challenge in dramatizing the facts,” said Cowan, “was not in changing anything, but in making what actually happened believable.”

In recent years, the NFB’s beleaguered documentary heritage has been reincarnated in drama. With Welcome to Canada, NFB director John N. Smith tells a fictional story of a boatload of Tamil refugees who are I washed ashore at a Newg foundland outport. Inspired by two recent incig dents on the East Coast, ° the movie relies on nonprofessional actors recruited from Canada’s Tamil community and from the village of Brigus South, where most of the movie was shot. Smith simulates reality with such gritty naturalism that it is hard to believe the film is not a documentary. But after the novelty wears off, the flatness of his narrative becomes tedious.

Two other new movies dramatize immigrant viewpoints. Foreign Nights is about a girl rebelling against her overprotective Palestinian father. Directed by Izidore Musallam, a Palestinian born in Israel who moved to Toronto in 1973, it offers some rare insights—but suffers from crude execution. Brown Bread Sandwiches, by Italian-born Toronto director Carlo Liconti, is more accomplished. A comedy of errors seen through the eyes of a six-year-old boy, it is about a family of Italian immigrants and their neighbors in 1950s Toronto. With fine performances from Canada’s sultry Kim Cattrall and Italian star Giancarlo Giannini, Liconti creates an amusing series of vignettes. Still, Brown Bread is slight fare, lacking the fibre of a strong narrative.

By contrast, American Boyfriends, Vancouver writer-director Sandy Wilson’s sequel to 1985's My American Cousin, lacks the innocence that makes nostalgia palatable. Transparently contrived, it offers a medley of stock memories from the 1960s. Vancouver’s Margaret Langrick returns in the role of Sandy Wilcox. And, although he is the second-billed star, John Wildman makes only a brief reappearance as her American cousin, Butch. An invitation to Butch’s wedding lures Sandy and a girlfriend to California. Inheriting his red Cadillac convertible, the girls encounter redneck surfers, a radical folksinger and their first black man. But the script is weak, and Langrick’s considerable talents are wasted in an aimless odyssey through American cliché.

Langrick, 18, also stars in Cold Comfort, a darkly comic psychological drama based on a stage play by Toronto writer Jim Garrard. Shed-

ding her childlike image and her clothes, Langrick portrays Dolores, the daughter of a towtruck driver named Floyd (Maury Chaykin), who lives as a recluse on the Prairies. Rescuing a travelling salesman (Paul Gross) from a ditch during a blizzard, Floyd presents him to his daughter as a birthday gift. Cold Comfort suffers from an obvious lack of natural snow—and from an eventual loss of momentum. But it has captivating moments. As Floyd, the shambling psychotic, Chaykin gives a performance full of sinister wit. And Langrick makes the most of her disarming sex appeal.

Termini Station features sylph-like Megan Follows, the star of television’s Anne of Green Gables, as a dirty-mouthed punk prostituting herself on the streets of Kirkland Lake, Ont. Her Green Gables co-star, Colleen Dewhurst, plays her mother, a gin-soaked harridan with a passion for opera. It is perverse casting, and both actresses meet the challenge head on. But the movie, by veteran director Allan King, is disappointing. Adapted by Canadian writer Colleen Murphy from her own play, its stagy melodrama is too strident for the screen.

English-Canadian directors tend to find their stories beyond their immediate lives—from a stage play, a historic episode or a chapter of autobiography. Meanwhile, the few who are making contemporary movies about their own world seem to have abandoned conventional narrative. The Top of His Head, directed by Toronto’s Peter Mettler, unfolds a stunning succession of images, a psychological landscape of dreams, trains and video intrigue. But the movie’s visual strength is betrayed by a pedestrian script. Atom Egoyan, a 29-year-old Toronto film-maker, has won international acclaim for his self-conscious experiments in lockjaw drama. His latest movie, Speaking Parts, is an austere tale of paranoia and video voyeurism set in a hotel. Its images are disturbing and beautiful. But, in the end, Egoyan seems to paint himself into a corner: the film suffocates in its own wilful claustrophobia.

Canadian cinema follows regional contours. In Toronto, Mettler and Egoyan explore the membrane of alienation. Under the big-screen sky of Alberta, Wheeler conjures a heroine from the Prairie past. Arcand weaves one of the Western world’s oldest stories through the distinctive loom of Quebec culture.

Still, film-making remains a cottage industry in Canada. The private sector is still slow to take risks, letting government funding agencies bear the responsibility for supporting production. The quality of the movies continues to improve, but Canadian cinema is still searching for its subject—and its audience. The unresolved issue of aboriginal culture offers an obvious touchstone, as it did for a generation of Australian film-makers. Creating their own alternatives to Hollywood formulas, Canadians are beginning to find their own voice. To find its source, said Arcand, “you have to dig into yourself—and if you go deep enough, past the cuteness and the local color, you attain the sort of universality we’re all reaching for.”