Initially, it promised to be a grim year for Canadian cinema. For the first time in 12 years, not a single Canadian movie was selected for the official program at the International Cannes Film Festival in May. And after the Montreal-based producers of Bethune: The Making of a Hero privately screened their movie for distributors there, the beach was abuzz with rumors that the $18-million epic was a failure. But the real annual harvest of Canadian movies traditionally takes place at Canada’s own film extravaganzas.
This week marks the end of the Montreal World Film Festival (Aug. 23 to Sept. 3) and the beginning of Toronto’s Festival of Festivals (Sept. 6 to 15). And among the 40 Canadian features in their programs, there are some encouraging surprises. Under a cloud of controversy, Bethune made a respectable impression at its world première in Montreal. And the opening-night movie at the Festival of Festivals, a delightful comedy titled Perfectly Normal, marks an exciting breakthrough for English-Canadian cinema.
Over the years, movies from Quebec have been consistently strong and those from English Canada have enjoyed sporadic success. Quebec’s confident culture has fostered a strong community of film-makers and a captive audience for their work. Director Denys Arcand seduced Cannes with Decline of the American Empire (1986) and Jesus of Montreal (1989). Director Robert Ménard’s quirky Cruising Bar (1989) outgrossed Batman at the Quebec box office. But, in English Canada, there has been a lack of chemistry between art and commerce. Its film culture often seems split between ingenious art movies that few people see and sprawling period dramas, like Bethune, that threaten to collapse under the weight of overwrought ambition.
The progress from Bethune to Perfectly Normal illustrates a quantum leap in EnglishCanadian cinema. Bethune is a classic example
of a producer-driven project. It was the producers—brave but inexperienced—who forged ahead with an inadequate budget and a creative team founded on artistic differences. Regardless of whether they were justified in taking over the editing from director Phillip Borsos, the result is a movie that lacks a cohesive vision.
Thriller: Made for a trim $4 million, Perfectly Normal is a director-driven movie that displays the remarkable talent of Quebec’s Yves Simoneau, making his first feature in English. And its top-billed actor is a Scot named .Robbie Coltrane. Said Perfectly Normal’s Toronto-based
producer, Michael Bums: “In Canada, we can’t depend on established stars. Our cinema has to be totally a director’s medium.” He added: “Robbie Coltrane is in my movie, and I hope he becomes a star. But this movie will be sold as an Yves Simoneau movie, not a Robbie Coltrane movie.”
Charm: Although it has a French-Canadian director, Perfectly Normal is utterly EnglishCanadian—the story of a Toronto brewery worker (Michael Riley) with small-town dreams who plays in an industrial hockey league and cultivates a closet passion for opera, with encouragement from a failed Florida restaurateur (Coltrane). The movie’s ambitions are modest, yet amply fulfilled. And as a movie about ambition— about going beyond what Coltrane’s character calls “tiny little fizzy dreams”—Perfectly Normal serves as a metaphor for the Canadian movie industry.
The film’s local references are specific, but its charm is universal. Bums says that he is fielding generous offers from five American companies bidding to distribute it in the United States. The movie is scheduled to open commercially across North America next January, and Bums says that it should be advertised as “Perfectly Normal: The Story of Canada.”
The movie reflects a new energy in Canada’s film-funding agencies, according to Bums. He added, “Now, they’re investing in stories and the people they feel can deliver them, instead of in marketing people who think they can sell ice to Eskimos.” In fact, there have been changes in personnel and attitude at Telefilm Canada since it embarked on its Bethune adventure. Said Peter Katadotis, who became Telefilm’s national director of production two years ago: “The kinds of things that the government should be supporting are the lower-budget films that are different and interesting, films like My Left Foot.” Added Katadotis: “You have to be very careful in choosing the projects. In previous years, it really was first come, first served, and there was a hell of a lot of political interference.”
Since launching its feature-film fund five years ago, Telefilm Canada has invested in more than 80 English-language movies, but only one, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987)—a quirky fable about an aspiring artist that cost just $400,000—has made a profit. According to Telefilm executive director Pierre DesRoches, however, profitability “can only be a small element” of the agency’s priorities. “Otherwise,” he said, “you don’t make films in Canada, or you make films that don’t look like us.”
Despite their commitment to taking artistic
risks, Telefilm executives seem to be increasingly attuned to economic reality. The agency—which invested $166.5 million in 325 Canadian film and television projects during the past year—has begun to put a heavier emphasis on marketing. It now has a special fund of $1 million to help promote Canadian movies in the United States. Said Niv Fichman of Rhombus Media, a Toronto-based production house: “I can feel the tension mounting at Telefilm. They’re under a lot of pressure to back commercially successful films. But you can’t legislate a hit.” He added: “The only way to make successful films is with a good script and director. Mermaids had that magic, which is partly luck and fluke.”
Murder: The Torontobased director of Mermaids, Patricia Rozema, says that the success of her first feature movie was a surprise to her as well. Declared Rozema: “I still don’t get it.” Her new movie,
White Room—a drama about murder and voyeurism—opens this week at the Toronto festival. “Mermaids taught me that you don’t need stars or a track record to get a film out there,” said Rozema.
“What you do need is money to let people know it exists. When an American film is lousy, it still gets seen.” She added, “What I adore about this country is its humility, but we still need a bit of hubris—advertising is hubris.”
Canadian movies account for only three per cent of Canadian box-office revenue. But, two years ago, the federal government shelved plans to legislate a stronger role for Canadian distributors after vocal opposition from Hollywood’s powerful lobbyist Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America. When English-Canadian movies do reach theatres, they still often fail to attract audiences. Said Telefilm's Katadotis: “We don’t have a very good record of supporting our own films, except in Quebec.”
In the past, attempts to win over audiences by packaging Canadian content in low-rent Hollywood style have failed. And like the world’s best independent film-makers, Canada’s most talented directors seem intent on developing their own voice. Said the National Film Board’s Cynthia Scott, who has made a brilliant feature-film debut with The Company of Strangers. “A lot of us don’t and never wanted to make American-type movies.”
The sole Canadian movie invited to this month’s annual Venice Film Festival, Company of Strangers—also part of the Toronto festival—combines documentary and dramatic styles with seamless magic. Much more appealing than it sounds, it is a drama about seven elderly women and their young female bus driver who are stranded in the country. The situation is fictional, but the characters are all non-actors who use their own names and talk about their real lives with engrossing candor. Most often, they improvise without a script.
The movie was produced by the NFB’s alternative drama program, in which Montreal directors John N. Smith and Giles Walker pioneered similar experiments in unconstructed drama. “The NFB is the only place where I can imagine getting this kind of film done,” said Scott, who won an Oscar in 1984 for her documentary Flamenco at 5:15. “I can’t imagine going to any producer saying, T want to do a film about seven old ladies lost in the woods and I’m not going to use actors.’ ” Even after completing her movie, Scott had trouble getting it launched. The Canadian preselection committee that chooses which films will be seen by programmers at the Cannes festival
rejected Company of Strangers. Said Scott: “They thought it was sweet, but not sexy enough for Cannes.”
The glamor of Cannes, the world’s largest talent contest for independent film-makers, can be as deceptive as Hollywood’s. Neither Company of Strangers nor Perfectly Normal was invited, but they are far superior to many of the movies that were.
With its Quebec director, Perfectly Normal is one of several movies bringing outside talent to the English-Canadian film industry. Another Quebec director, Claude Gagnon, is currently shooting an English-language coproduction with Japan. The movie, titled The Pianist, is the story of two sisters in love with a concert pianist, and is adapted from the novel A Certain Mr. Takahashi, by Toronto writer Ann Ireland. Also this fall, Toronto director Ryszard Bugajski—whose Polish movie Interrogation won acclaim at this year’s Cannes festival—will begin shooting A Dream like Mine, a harrowing story of native violence based on the 1987 novel by Toronto author M. T. Kelly.
Meanwhile, another violent drama in the bush starts shooting this month: Black Robe, based on Brian Moore’s historical novel about the Jesuits and the Iroquois. Jesus of Montreal star Lothaire Bluteau heads a cast directed by Australia’s Bruce Beresford, who made last year’s Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy.
Exotic: Both Black Robe and A Dream like Mineare violent departures from English Canada’s penchant for coming-of-age drama and period nostalgia. Budgeted at $14 million, Black Robe is the country’s biggest feature since Bethune. But its Toronto-based producer, Alliance Communications’ Robert Lantos, says that Canadian feature films are improving, although they still depend on television’s industrial base. “There is a growing, bona fide TV industry here,” he said. “There isn’t a film industry—I’m not sure there ever will be.”
But there is a film culture. Nourished by public money and such institutions as the 21/2year-old Canadian Centre for Advanced Film Studies, it has a greenhouse existence. And sometimes, in the face of an inhospitable market, it bears exotic fruit.
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