In his recent essay in these pages, TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey challenged Canadian filmmakers to depart from making the personal coming-of-age films that typify our narrative cinema, and instead make films based on true Canadian stories, particularly those that tackle social and political subjects. To illustrate his point, Bailey provided examples of Hollywood films that he esteems, such as Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, The Social Network, Spotlight and Barry Jenkins's recent Moonlight.
One could reject Bailey's characterization of Canadian cinema, but I suspect most people within and without the industry would agree with him. As to why it's so, Bailey contends it's largely because it's easier to get funding for a filmmaker's first feature rather than a fourth or fifth, and those first features often draw on personal experience. Still, there are filmmakers in this country who have made multiple films: are they less politically and socially engaged than their international counterparts? Do they consider contemporary Canada too bland? Or have they contemplated and abandoned equivalent versions of Argo or Spotlight because they believe that there fundamentally isn't enough money to get such films produced? Because, fundamentally, there isn't.
Anyone working in film today knows that it depends inordinately on finding co-producing partners, attracting movie stars who appeal to foreign distributors, and moving large trucks around. That formula doesn't lend itself to a big-budget film about, for instance, missing and murdered indigenous women. Then again, is that reason enough to let ourselves off the hook? The same calendar year that brought us Spotlight also brought The Club, a Chilean film that treated similar subject matter and was produced on a far more modest scale. Perhaps as a consequence, it was a more complex and provocative film, focusing not on idealistic journalists but on a group of defrocked Catholic priests who have largely escaped justice. We could make that kind of film – and, of course, we have. (Polytechnique, My Internship in Canada and Hyena Road come to mind, as well as, on television, Mayerthorpe and the new CBC series Pure.)
But let's imagine we made more of them. Bailey suggests we would then reap two significant, and arguably related, benefits. Such films would help Canadians "tear open the ever-tightening social bubble that threatens to suffocate each one of us." And, based on a British study, they would better appeal to audiences – which is a perpetual struggle for our homegrown industry. In other words, if we succeeded in doing this, our cinema would resemble more closely the cinemas of countries like the United States, the U.K., Russia, France, Greece and Iran.
Bailey's essay is born of an anxiety that many of us share – not just artists but Canadians from all walks of life. We see the emergence of nativism around the world and wonder if we will fall prey to the same forces. We have spent the past year celebrating our openness and diversity, and now suspect we might have been a little too smug. As storytellers – not just filmmakers, but also novelists, playwrights, and television writers – we ask what role we can play in preserving the pluralistic integrity of the country we love.
In all likelihood – witness the U.S., U.K., Russia, France, Greece, Iran, etc. – making more films grounded in Canadian reality will offer no safeguard. So, why bother? Not for any logical or quantifiable reason. Time and circumstance dictate the art we make. Even the noblest rallying cry won't motivate a nation's artists to act if they don't feel genuinely compelled to do so. And it may be that we never feel that compulsion until it's too late. But if there's a lesson to be learned from Brexit or the U.S. election, it's that we should make a greater effort to understand the fears and frustrations that breed intolerance. For all its virtues, Canada isn't perfect. We have, as Bailey acknowledges, our own stories of "deceit, murder, betrayal and corruption." Some of these stories tend to elicit more compassion from the artistic community than others.
For example, alongside the tragic stories of missing and murdered indigenous women, we might be wise to also explore the stories of Maritimers and Newfoundlanders – and a great many other Canadians – who have sought work in the Alberta oil patch because of economic hardship at home. We should question our pieties and push ourselves to engage with the totality of our country's experience.
How we transmute that engagement into books, films, plays, podcasts and television shows will depend on us. If the need is strong enough, we'll find the appropriate means. And if that need corresponds to a hunger in our audience, the art we create will have a hand in influencing our country's future. Ultimately, we should resist the false comforts of cynicism as emphatically and empathetically as we can, recognizing that much is beyond our control, and that there's absolutely no guarantee we will prevail.
David Bezmozgis is an author and filmmaker. His most recent film is Natasha.