At this year’s Canadian Screen Awards, Québécois filmmakers made a huge impression, dominating the best-picture category and … wait, where is everyone going?
Alright, some real talk to begin this column: There is little that lulls English-Canadian moviegoers to sleep faster than the words “Canadian Screen Awards” and “Québécois filmmakers.” The disinterest in the former is somewhat understandable – having recently concluded its seventh annual ceremony this past March, the CSAs are still figuring themselves out. But the ignorance of the latter is extraordinarily puzzling.
Consider the fact that seven of last year’s top 10 highest-grossing Canadian films were from Quebec, yet all those titles – including Canada’s No. 1 movie of the year, Ricardo Trogi’s comedy 1991 – remain complete mysteries to English-Canadian audiences. Or look at how strongly Québécois filmmakers have been performing on the international film-festival circuit, earning rave reviews everywhere from Berlin to Locarno, yet have been virtually ignored by English-Canadian fests and critics. And, if we must, witness this past spring’s Canadian Screen Awards, where all five nominees up for best motion picture were French-language productions, yet almost no one outside Quebec had the opportunity to view the contenders in an actual cinema.
Simply put: Quebec cinema does not exist in the rest of Canada. But one upstart distributor is aiming to change that dispiriting fact. At least, un peu.
Starting July 5, Game Theory Films is hosting Quebec on Screen, a three-day series at Toronto’s Royal Cinema showcasing three of the most acclaimed Québécois productions of last year: Maxime Giroux’s La Grande Noirceur (The Great Darkened Days), Philippe Lesage’s Genèse (Genesis), and Genevieve Dulude-De Celles’s Une Colonie (A Colony), the last of which won the best-picture award at March’s CSAs. Each film will screen twice over the weekend, with all three directors participating in live Q&A sessions. The series will then expand to the east coast the next week, with screenings of Une Colonie and La Grande Noirceur in Halifax and St. John’s July 8.
“It’s tough for us to say why Quebec films haven’t had much exposure elsewhere, but we can look at this as an opportunity,” says William Woods, president of the Toronto-based Game Theory, which launched this past January. “We have a great partner with [Montreal-based distributor] FunFilm, which is the rights holder for all three of these films, and for us it’s just great to showcase what we think are amazing films.”
The filmmakers participating in the series, though, have more than a few theories as to why their work is typically unable to escape their provincial borders.
“It’s easier for us to exist within Quebec because we make films in French for a French audience and we have our own star system. In English Canada, we’re in direct competition with not only the American market, but the rest of the world cinema, too,” says Giroux, whose film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, yet has only played scattershot screenings outside Quebec since. “We also have something special here, SODEC [Société de développement des entreprises culturelles], which allows us to have more money to make films, so it’s easier for us as a community to make art, to have a career. We’re lucky that way.”
Lesage, whose coming-of-age drama Genèse was rejected by TIFF for 2018′s festival, yet was then selected by the organization for its annual “Canada’s Top 10” program later in the year, agrees that Québécois filmmakers are lucky when it comes to financing, but feels the community suffers from a curious lack of interest from the rest of the country.
“There are two separate solitudes, and it’s very complicated. Even the films that get into TIFF, that get awards, they cannot get distributed outside Quebec,” says the director, who is no stranger to the dilemma, having previously gone through the exact same challenge with his 2015 film Les Démons (The Demons). “It’s as if Quebec distributors see the rest of Canada as another territory. There is no publicity, no advertising, nothing to push to help people be aware of a film. With [Les Démons], that was catastrophic because the talk about it was zero. It got better with Genèse, but there’s no real will to get these films out there.”
There is also a sense that the CSAs, even in a Quebec-heavy year, are failing to make an impression on English-Canadian markets.
“I’m happy for Genevieve this year, but does it have an impact in terms of the curiosity of those in the rest of the country to see a film or not? I don’t feel it, no,” Lesage says.
Adds Giroux: “It’s not that big a difference when you win a prize or don’t win a prize, which is a shame. But it is more important when we win or are nominated in Quebec for [the Prix Iris awards] than in the rest of Canada.”
Occasionally, the cultural specificity of Québécois cinema is also cited as an obstacle to wider exposure. Yet Canadian audiences do just fine with regional cinema from around the rest of the world – the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto frequently programs foreign-language cinema, for instance – and the latest acclaimed Québécois films are also profoundly universal, Dulude-De Celles argues.
“My film is a story that takes place in a particular community in the countryside of Quebec, but it’s also a story that everybody who was a teenager will relate to,” she says. “We’ve had success in festivals around the world, yet it’s just so hard to cross the frontier between French and English Canada.”
Game Theory’s Woods notes that changing audience behaviour also plays a part in the marketplace. Forget about seeing French-language films in a theatre outside Quebec – getting audiences to go to a cinema for any independent film at all is a challenge.
“We want to start small, have these screenings well-attended, and hopefully that dialogue and excitement translates into digital views,” he says, noting that Game Theory is working with iTunes to receive optimal placement on the platform. “The ways in which people are increasingly watching cinema at home is just the reality, so we need to make it about people seeing the film on the medium they’re most likely to watch.”
But on the streaming front, too, there is skepticism.
“I refuse to see something like Netflix as the saviour of our cinema," says Lesage. "It’s a good thing they can come in and finance films that are not able to find money elsewhere, but the risk then is that the government goes, ‘Okay, we don’t need to support Canadian cinema because Netflix is taking care of it.’ That would be completely devastating.
"Then again, if Netflix came to me and said they’d give me carte blanche to make my next film, of course I would say yes.”
All of which adds up to the filmmakers being grateful that an event such as Quebec on Screen exists in the first place.
“We’re a small community, Québécois directors, but we’re all supportive of each other and we have a lot of energy coming up, so something like this makes me feel good about the future,” Dulude-De Celles says.
“It’s a real effort, and it’s also courageous to do that as a distributor, and as a theatre,” Giroux says. “They know it might be a tough sell, but they have to do it. My film is about to be released in France, but I’m more excited about showing it in Toronto. It’s way more complicated and rare to screen it in Toronto than Europe.”
Quebec on Screen runs July 5-7 at The Royal Cinema in Toronto (theroyal.to), while Une Colonie and La Grande Noirceur will screen July 8 at Cineplex Cinemas Park Lane in Halifax and Cineplex Cinemas Mount Pearl in St. John’s (cineplex.ca).