As we head into the final two-week stretch leading to this year's Academy Awards, here's a brainteaser: Which of these two multinominated, Montreal-shot films is Canadian? Last year's American immigrant tearjerker Brooklyn, set in 1950s Ireland and New York, written by an Englishman and directed by an Irishman; or Arrival, this year's cerebral and thrilling meditation on the benefits of globalism, helmed by a Quebec director?
Okay, it's a trick question. Legally speaking, Brooklyn is the Canuck, though you'd never know it unless you were the sort of cinemagoer who performs close reads of end credits and are fluent in the bureaucratese of international film industry treaties such as those between Canada, Ireland and Britain that allowed the movie to claim citizenship of all three countries that contributed to its production.
Which is to say, most viewers don't care about a film's official country of origin. But the issue of what, exactly, makes a film or TV show genuinely Canadian is suddenly gripping the industry, after a series of government moves to shake up long-standing regulations. Creators are worried the moves, which would allow even more American talent into our movies and shows in the name of making the content more likely to sell internationally, will water down the distinct Canadian perspective just when it is finally starting to gain real traction around the world.
Last week, as hundreds of producers and other players convened at the Westin in downtown Ottawa for an annual industry confab known as Prime Time, four of them took to a ballroom stage to debate whether the angels dancing on the head of a pin should have to wear red Hudson Bay mittens, carry hockey sticks and order double-doubles before we can call them Canadian.
Not really, but they may as well have: In fact, they were wrestling over the various 10-point systems used by a clutch of government agencies to determine how much financial support and protection different projects deserve. (The nationality of writers, directors, actors, production designers, cinematographers, composers and editors can each contribute to a show's potential "Canadianness.") Levels of support – which might include financial incentives for producers and pats on the head from regulators for the broadcasters who air the shows – vary depending on whether a project scores six, eight or 10 out of 10 points.
But now, with Heritage Canada in the midst of a top-to-bottom review of the country's media ecosystem to help it reorient in an era of instantly accessible global content, many are concerned the government will throw up its hands and let the market call the shots.
As actor Peter Keleghan (The Red Green Show, Workin' Moms) and the producer Scott Garvie told the room, the decades-old system has helped to spawn a multibillion-dollar industry and ensure that, even as the United States has flooded our airwaves and our minds with their American Dreams, we could still carve out a place to talk about the issues and stories we think are important, still find a way to tell each other our own dreams. (After Tatiana Maslany won an Emmy Award last fall, a number of top producers suggested that, if Orphan Black hadn't been required to have a Canadian in the lead role in order to secure government support, international buyers would have forced it to cast an American.)
"Murdoch Mysteries is seen in over 100 countries worldwide, and averages a whopping 1.4-million viewers per episode here at home," Keleghan noted. "HBO Canada's Call Me Fitz has aired in 192 countries. Orphan Black in over 150 countries. Heartland in almost 120, Degrassi in 140. The Listener in 180. To name a few. It's worth noting that all of these TV series are '10 out of 10' productions."
Arguing alongside producer Christina Piovesan (The Whistleblower, Amreeka) for the current rules to be relaxed, David Zitzerman, the head of the entertainment-law group at Goodmans LLP, noted that the Canadian points test was created in 1976, when "Canada was a closed media system. Everybody watched television on television sets only and they got it from regulated Canadian broadcasters, and if you went to a theatre to see a feature film, the only way you could see it was if the rights had been licensed to a Canadian exhibitor."
With content flooding in over Netflix and YouTube and Instagram and Snapchat, etc., is it really still the best approach to define a Canadian TV show or film "in terms of Canadian individuals involved in key roles?" he wondered.
After all, even though the 2007 comedy Juno was directed by the Montreal-born Jason Reitman, starred Halifax's Ellen Page and Brampton's Michael Cera, was shot in and around Vancouver, and possessed what many of us felt to be a whip-smart Canadian irony, it didn't have enough Canadians in key roles, and was therefore not deemed one of ours. (Meanwhile, the classic American high-school comedy Porky's remains the top-grossing "Canadian" film in history, for reasons I have never comprehended.)
The basic test of whether something is Canadian, said Zitzerman, "does not involve Canadian books, it doesn't involve stories set in Canada, it doesn't involve Canadian characters – none of that." Perhaps it would be better to consider the points systems in places such as Britain, where a feature film passes the "Cultural Test" if it is awarded at least 18 out of a possible 35 points.
There, a film's setting, lead characters, and underlying material can each count for up to four points; use of the English-language gets you up to six points; you can get points for British "heritage, diversity and creativity"; more points are available if the production is done in the United Kingdom; and the nationality of those on the production crew can get you up to another eight points. (The test ensures that a talent must be a resident of Britain or one of the European Economic Area countries. In legalese that would do Mike Duffy's inquisitors proud, it even spells out the definition of "ordinary residence" as "a regular habitual mode of life in a particular place" that is "lawful" and was "adopted voluntarily.")
The German test is even more detailed. (Of course.) Zitzerman noted that feature films are deemed sufficiently German if they are awarded at least 48 out of a possible 94 points.
After the conference, I took a look at the German guidelines; they make for fascinating reading, especially in this moment of growing isolationism. For there, in dry bureaucratic language, is what you might consider an articulation of contemporary liberal German values. Among the characteristics of a film for which points are awarded: not just the use of German heritage landmarks and German-born talent, but also the use of European landmarks and European talent; including a contemporary artist "from areas other than film"; referring "to a historical event in world history or a similar fictional event (e.g. the conquest of Troy)"; a film being based on "literary material"; and dealing "with issues of religious or philosophical beliefs or issues of current social or cultural relevance (e.g. Islamic head scarf, refugee problem etc.)."
This is, of course, fraught territory nowadays, what with politicians spouting xenophobia in the guise of so-called "values tests." It works for German artists; but then, they know their demons perhaps better than any of us. Would Canadians really want our films and TV shows to have to tick the boxes of a government-mandated matrix of some politician's idea of "Canadian values"?
It's probably best to leave these decisions to the artists and producers. Even if sometimes that means we end up waving the Canadian flag for a film about horny Florida high-school kids.