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Director Jeff Barnaby’s Indigenous zombie thriller Blood Quantum secured 10 nominations.

Prospector Films

Things are looking a little different this year for the Canadian Screen Awards. And not only because of you-know-what.

On Tuesday, the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television announced its full list of nominees for the 2021 CSAs: 1,258 individuals across 141 categories celebrating movies, television and digital media. In the feature film arena, director Jeff Barnaby’s Indigenous zombie thriller Blood Quantum led the pack with 10 nominations (although it’s strangely not up for best picture). On the television front, Schitt’s Creek ruled with 21 nods. And for digital media, CBC’s short-form series Bit Playas scored six nominations to lead that section.

So far, so good. Yet a closer look at this year’s nominees reveals that the old, familiar CSA narratives are being rewritten this time around. In ways surprising and strange.

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Quebec, for instance, no longer dominates the film category as it did in years past (most notably 2019, when Quebecois productions completely owned the best picture slate). Also: Instead of barely- or yet-to-be-released movies populating the list, there is a good chance that Canadians might have actually seen some of this year’s nominated films. But the industry is also going to have to once again ask itself the uncomfortable question of what exactly qualifies as a “Canadian film,” as opposed to international fare that has Canadian money attached. Fun times, people!

Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy has grabbed nine nominations including Best Picture.

Hamilton-Mehta Productions

On the good-news front: Blood Quantum, Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy (nine nominations, including best picture), Sean Durkin’s The Nest (five, including best picture), Viggo Mortensen’s Falling (five, including best actor for Lance Henriksen), Evan Morgan’s The Kid Detective (four, including best original screenplay), and Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor (three, including best director) all received decent, well-marketed releases. And if you haven’t heard of these films until the preceding sentence, well, you can watch all of them right this very moment at home.

Sure, the average Canadian moviegoer has little to no awareness about such yet-to-be-released in English-Canada titles as Tracey Deer’s Beans (five nominations, including best picture), Charles Officer’s Akilla’s Escape (eight, including best actor for Saul Williams) and Sophie Dupuis’s Underground/Souterrain (four, including best picture). But the traditional CSA complaint of, “Who has even heard or seen of any of these movies???” simply doesn’t apply this year as much as previous go-rounds.

Blame, or rather credit, the pandemic. Like the Academy Awards, the 2021 CSAs arrive later than usual – the awards ceremony, “featuring a curated selection of prominent awards,” streams live May 20 – with eligibility rules shifting to accommodate the lack of a true theatrical marketplace. This resulted in an increase in submissions (194 films were entered for consideration this year, compared to 178 in 2020) and the added audience awareness that comes with a few more months of films being out there in the world, promoted on Crave, CBC Gem and the like.

But this year’s slate is also resurfacing an issue that the CSAs had left behind in recent years: the question of what makes a Canadian film Canadian enough. In 2015 there was much hand-wringing about whether movies like Room and Brooklyn – productions partially financed with Canadian money, but driven by international creative teams – genuinely represented the best of domestic cinema. Subsequent years muted this concern, with thoroughly homegrown fare like A Colony, Family First, Antigone and The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open scoring lots of CSA love.

Jude Law, center right, and Carrie Coon, center left, in a scene from The Nest. It is an open question whether The Nest, shot in Canada by a Canadian-born director, might be considered part of the Canadian cinema canon.

The Associated Press

Yet the robust number of 2021 nominations for The Nest, Falling and French Exit should revive the debate. Academy rules state that any film with certification from the Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, Telefilm Canada or a letter of “certification stating the Canadian percentage and other if the film is an official Canadian Treaty Co-Production” qualifies. And if a film is a “minority co-production” but “the director and/or screenwriter(s) are Canadian,” then the title will be deemed a “majority” Canadian co-production in the film categories.

All of which means that The Nest (shot in Canada by a Canadian-born director who made his career stateside, starring an international cast and taking place in Britain), Falling (shot in Canada but directed by an American, starring Americans and taking place in America) and French Exit (shot in Canada, written by a Canadian, but directed by an American, starring Americans and taking place in America and France) fit the bill. It is an open question, though, whether they might be considered part of the Canadian cinema canon.

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On the television side, the no-surprise success story is Schitt’s Creek. Given how the CSAs have long been fond of the CBC sitcom, it would look tremendously odd if the Academy were to now suddenly develop an allergy to the Emmy and Golden Globe winner. I’m certain it’ll sweep almost every one of the 21 categories it scored nominations for.

But the real TV intrigue belongs to Trickster, and its 15 CSA nominations. First: There is a bitter irony that the CBC’s biggest CSA success this year behind Schitt’s is a series that the network decided to cancel after one season. But also curious is the complete absence of Michelle Latimer’s name from Trickster’s nomination haul.

Latimer, who resigned from the production in December after questions were raised about her Indigenous ancestry, was a driving creative force behind the series, co-creating it and directing all six episodes. But this year’s nominations for best direction on a televised drama instead went to episodes of Diggstown, Frankie Drake Mysteries, Transplant and Coroner.

One thing that is guaranteed at this year’s Canadian Screen Awards: whoever wins, across all categories, the industry and audiences are guaranteed a healthy amount of drama.

Highlights of 2021 Canadian Screen Award Nominations

Best Motion Picture: Beans, Funny Boy, The Nest, Underground/Souterrain, and Nadia, Butterfly

Achievement in Direction: Deepa Mehta for Funny Boy, Pascal Plante for Nadia, Butterfly, Sean Durkin for The Nest, Brandon Cronenberg for Possessor, and Sophie Dupuis for Underground/Souterrain

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Best Drama Series: Burden of Truth, Cardinal: Until the Night, Departure, Transplant, and Vikings

Best Comedy Series: Baroness Von Sketch Show, Kim’s Convenience, Letterkenny, Schitt’s Creek, and Workin’ Moms

The Canadian Screen Awards will be live-streamed May 20 at 8 p.m. (academy.ca)

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