A filmmaker considers Canadian cinema...on an Air Canada flight
Chelsea McMullan shares her take on the influence of her country's cinema
This is part of a series of essays by Canadian filmmakers on the homegrown cinema that influenced them, in honour of National Canadian Film Day.
I'm just about to board an Air Canada flight to Buenos Aires when I get an email asking if I want to write this essay about a Canadian film that's influenced me. The context seems immediately relevant because I think Canadian film has an interesting relationship with Air Canada. I can't pretend it isn't where I catch up on a lot of Canadian cinema — I'm a bit sheepish to admit it, but I know I'm far from alone in this. It's also the thing that legitimizes the fact that I have a "real job" to my suburbanite family. Sure, festivals are great, but when my dad learned my film was playing on Air Canada, he emailed all of his friends to watch it on their way to all-inclusives and tropical cruises. I browse through the Canadian films on this flight: Mean Dreams, Two Lovers and a Bear, It's Only The End of the World, Window Horses!
I have loved Ann Marie Fleming — who directed Window Horses — ever since I saw The French Guy at TIFF in my undergrad. A mind-melting and darkly funny film starring the incredible Babz Chula, I was totally enraptured. I hadn't seen anything like it claiming Canadian origins. I remember Fleming as equally enigmatic in the Q&A following the film. She recounted her experience of overhearing a murder and explained how the film was a documentary of sorts. I'm paraphrasing as my memory isn't nearly good enough to quote her directly, but the statement stuck with me as one of my first introductions to hybridity in cinema: you can make a splendid horror-black-comedy-docu-fiction! Ann Marie seemed like such a badass up there refusing to have her work placed on a tidy genre shelf. In a sea of white men, she was a powerful island to discover for my early-20s self, just about to graduate from film school. Whenever I see her at film festival parties I want to tell her this, but instead my palms get sweaty and I just end up being the creep in the corner drinking free Wolf Blass while I watch the opportunity pass me by. So Window Horses immediately goes on my mental list of films to watch over the next 10 airborne hours.
I turn to my husband Doug beside me and tell him about this essay. I ask him who I should write about, saying that I don't want to choose an obvious film that always crops up on best-of lists. We start to bat around names of some of our favourite Canadian films: A Married Couple, La Lutte, Lonely Boy, The Fast Runner, My Winnipeg (see what I'm doing here? I'm trying to avoid choosing. I would use a winky face emoticon here but I don't think it's in the CBC style guide). Our cinematographer Alejandro Coronado, who is from Mexico but studied film in Toronto, overhears us and chimes that when he came to Canada the only filmmaker he knew was Cronenberg. "Dead Ringers was amazing!" Ok Alex, get in line behind the rest of the dudes in their thirties who want to write about how Cronenberg influenced them. This is my essay/stream-of-consciousness-wearing-an-essay-suit!
Somewhere around here Doug spends 10 minutes constructing an argument about Porky's being more misanthropic than a Michael Haneke film. The relevance eludes me. Then he suggests speaking about Jennifer Baichwal's Manufactured Landscapes. I feel like I talk about that film so much that people are probably sick of hearing me gush. I was interning at Mercury Films — the production company of Jennifer Baichwal and Nick DePencier — while they were making the movie, and I really believe the experience of watching their process has reverberated in everything I do. It's a special kind of film school to watch a master filmmaker at work. I would sneak into the edit suite after hours and watch the progression from cut to cut. I kept waiting for them to cut down the opening twelve minute shot of an endless iron factory (which upon fact-checking turned out to be eight minutes — but it feels like twelve) in the factory, but Jennifer never did. That shot alone taught me so much about filmmaking. It was a deeply impactful experience, and when I sat in a theatre and watched it on the big screen for the first time (a 35mm print, no less), I could not get over the level of craft and how each choice affected how the audience absorbed the film. It felt spiritual.
Ethereal, elegant and funny — everything I want Canadian cinema to be. It's like remembering a dream you once had that speaks directly to the soul.- Chelsea McMullan , filmmaker
I felt similarly when I watched Sophie Goyette's feature Mes Nuits Feront Écho (aka Still Night, Still Night to non-Francophones) recently at one of the excellently programmed MDFF film screenings at the Royal Cinema in Toronto (shoutout to two huge contributors to the city's film culture). I turn to Doug and Alex: "Is it weird to speak about the film of a peer in an essay like this? One that I just saw a few days ago?" But when I watched it I had that same tingling feeling I get when I first watched all the films I mentioned above. Sophie's film is ethereal, elegant and funny — everything I want Canadian cinema to be. It's like remembering a dream you once had that speaks directly to the soul. When you see an excellent film made by a friend and a peer, it's exciting — it gives you energy to feed on. And you think this is the future you want to be a part of.
It is, of course, hard to write this essay in connection with Canada 150 without acknowledging how painfully colonial and patriarchal the perspective of Canadian cinema has been historically. But if anything, I take this as an opportunity to aim towards a much more diverse cinematic landscape 150 years from now — when, one can assume, Air Canada transmits entertainment choices directly into your cerebral cortex while you teleport.
To find National Canadian Film Day events near you, visit their website.