Last year around this time, I applauded the Canadian Screen Awards for moving away from honouring Hollywood-esque productions and toward highlighting films as unfamiliar to the average Canadian moviegoer as the CSAs are to TMZ.
It would be easy for the awards body, administered by the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television (ACCT) and designed to honour film, television and digital media, to revel in commercial fare like, say, Little Italy – a movie that comes equipped with somewhat ratings-friendly faces but is otherwise indistinguishable from disposable American product. If the CSAs do not exist to spotlight uniquely Canadian work that would otherwise be lost in the shuffle, then why exist at all? Judging from the 2019 nominees announced Thursday morning, I like to think that the CSAs took my praise to heart – especially for those who live outside Quebec.
All five films up for best motion picture this year are French-language productions: Une colonie (A Colony); Chien de garde (Family First); Genèse (Genesis); Dans la brume (Just a Breath Away); and La grande noirceur (The Great Darkened Days). I would be lying if I said each movie is a worthy contender. The sad truth is that I’ve only seen La grande noirceur at this past fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, and I’d wager that few other English-language critics, to say nothing of audiences, have been exposed to the works. With a few notable exceptions, this year’s CSA nominees are the most obscure yet in the organization’s seven-year history. This is both excellent – and troubling – news.
On the one hand, Quebec filmmakers deserve far more exposure than they’re used to in English Canada. It is maddening that so many of this country’s best and most popular films – seven of 2018′s highest-grossing Canadian films were from Quebec – remain mysteries outside their provincial border. Chien de garde, for instance, was Canada’s official entry for best foreign language film at this year’s Academy Awards. It didn’t make the short list, but were it to have won, many Canadians couldn’t have been blamed for thinking that France triumphed at the Oscars, not Canada. Ricardo Trogi’s comedy 1991, up for three CSAs, is the top-grossing Canadian film of the year ($3.05-million), yet it hasn’t had a proper theatrical run in Toronto or Vancouver.
If the CSAs can break those invisible barriers, all the better, especially considering it’s not just one-night-only lip service. Through its new series, the Canadian Screen Arts Festival, the ACCT will screen five CSA-nominated films (the exact titles are yet to be determined, but will include some of the French-language contenders) in theatres across the country leading up to the live awards ceremony March 31.
Yet on the other hand, what does it say about the English-language landscape that its filmmakers can barely catch the attention of this country’s largest industry awards body? And that those who do, once again, tend to appeal to the hey-I-recognize-that-guy market?
There are promising outliers. Jasmin Mozaffari’s micro-budget Firecrackers (up for four nominations including best director) and Sook-Yin Lee’s queer-focused Octavio Is Dead! (four nods including best cinematography) are both fantastic productions, worthy of however large a marketing boost they may receive from the CSAs. But it’s disheartening when the next best English-language offerings are mostly unseen quasi-star-friendly projects (Jonathan Sobol’s thriller The Padre starring Nick Nolte, which I just barely remember and only because it’s my literal job) or totally unseen quasi-star-friendly projects (The Hummingbird Project, The Grizzlies and Stockholm, all of which have yet to open in theatres).
Okay, that last point requires clarification: Films are eligible for the 2019 CSAs if they play one consecutive week of screenings in a commercial theatre between Jan. 1, 2018, and March 31, 2019. The Hummingbird Project and Stockholm will both open by the end of March, though The Grizzlies has a release date of April 19. (According to the ACCT, distributor Mongrel Media originally intended to release The Grizzlies in March, 2019, at the time of submissions, but the release date was pushed after juried nominations were made.)
Perhaps it is just coincidence that those three films come equipped with recognizable faces in leading roles: Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgard and Selma Hayek in The Hummingbird Project; Ethan Hawke, Noomi Rapace and Mark Strong in Stockholm; and Will Sasso in The Grizzlies. (Yes, we could also spend endless days arguing about just who boasts what wattage of star power.) Although the CSAs have never been a ratings blockbuster – and awards show viewership is trending downward, a fact that the CSA has thankfully recognized, even if the Oscars refuse to acknowledge reality – a little star power would never be unwanted.
Perhaps next year, English-language cinema – either with “stars” or without – will make a comeback. The CSAs can only highlight what the market offers. What’s most important is that the CSAs have not tried to play Oscar and give the people what they think they want. Instead, the institution appears to be trying harder than ever to give Canadians, and crucially Canadian artists, what they need: recognition, exposure and whatever our humble definition of homegrown success is these days. At the very least, let’s be thankful that no one will ever have to utter the words, “And the winner is ... Little Italy!” That, in a way, is a reward all on its own.
The 2019 Canadian Screen Awards Gala airs live March 31 at 8 p.m. ET on CBC-TV.