Canada is not America, and the Canadian Screen Awards – as its critics will gleefully tell you – is certainly not the Oscars. But on Sunday night, the parade of women who took the stage at Toronto’s Sony Centre to claim their CSA statues illustrated that, as Hollywood responds with painful slowness to the demands for more female voices, Canadian filmmakers have already proven that stories created by and about women can be both box-office hits and award-winners.
Even as the #MeToo movement continues to rattle Hollywood’s power centres, the vast majority of the most prominent films in this month’s Oscars were stories about men created by men.
Up here, however, the nominees were starkly different: Five of the seven films in the running for the best-picture CSA were stories about women or girls. Four were written by women; four were directed by women. In the end, Maudie – a drama about the Nova Scotia folk artist Maudie Lewis – took home all seven awards for which it was nominated, including best picture, director and original screenplay, all of which went to women.
The television categories were also dominated by stories of women and girls. The rebooted Anne of Green Gables known simply as Anne – created by a pair of powerhouse Canadian female producers, Moira Walley-Beckett and Miranda de Pencier – nabbed the best-drama award, while Alias Grace, an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s bestseller by screenwriter Sarah Polley and director Mary Harron, won for best limited series.
But while the CSAs reinforced the fact that women’s stories can resonate with a wide audience, on Monday afternoon, Maudie producer Mary Young Leckie reflected on what she believes is the greater significance of her film’s success: It was a rare home-grown box office success.
“I have to say, what was the most important thing about last night is that we got English-Canadian audiences out in droves to see an English-Canadian film,” she said, noting that Maudie’s box office in Canada approached $3-million. (Maudie was also the first English-Canadian film set in Canada to win a best-picture CSA, or the award’s predecessor, the Genie, since Paul Gross’s Passchendaele in 2009.)
“The [Quebec] producers and creators are brilliant filmmakers, and they’re also very fortunate because they’re beloved by their audiences. Because we sit next door to Hollywood, it’s a lot tougher for us to entice our English-Canadian audiences into the theatre, and so the fact that we got them there and they had a wonderful, satisfying, moving experience, I think is amazing, because I think that’s going to open doors for a lot more Canadian filmmakers and Canadian films.”
Leckie’s comments serve as a reminder that this country’s film and television industry has been supported from its earliest moments by the federal government to help carve out a space for Canadians to see themselves represented amid the ubiquitous American culture sweeping across the border.
Still, Canadian skepticism of the marketability of Canadian stories has been tough to shake. Leckie noted that decades ago, when she was developing a film about the scuttled Avro Arrow fighter jet, Telefilm Canada told her it was prepared to support a TV mini-series, but not a feature, because the agency didn’t believe Canadians would turn up at cinemas to see such a film.
That same skepticism, which marginalized communities and women have faced for decades, is now being shattered. On Sunday evening, actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who plays a Korean-Canadian shopkeeper in Kim’s Convenience, gave an impassioned acceptance speech explaining the importance of people seeing themselves on screen.
”Representation matters,” he said. ”When people see themselves and their communities reflected up on the screens, it is an inspiring and a very powerful moment for them, because it means they’ve been moved from the margins into the forefront, and it gives them a voice and it gives them hope. When you give people voice, other people start listening. And when people start listening, things start to change. And we need change.”