Arts·Point of View

Canadian filmmakers know how to weather a storm — and that means hope for our uncertain future

Film critic Norm Wilner on our screen industry's knack for turning limitations into strengths.

Film critic Norm Wilner on our screen industry's knack for turning limitations into strengths

Joel Oulette and Anna Lambe behind the scenes of Trickster. (CBC)

"Write about the future of Canadian film," they said. "Look forward in a semi-hopeful way," they said. "Where do we go from here?"

The responsible answer for any film critic would be: Hell if I know. I'm writing this in the middle of a pandemic, and no one has any idea what happens next. Movie theatres are no-go zones in Montreal and Toronto; film and television production has become a calculus of bubbles and social distancing, with actors donning PPE between takes in order to stay on set. It's made social media downright surreal — but then, everything is downright surreal this year.

So no, I don't know what Canadian film will look like next year, or five years from now, or a decade hence. We'll still make movies, of this I am sure; digital cameras are only getting cheaper, filmmakers can cut, score and master their movie on a laptop, and I've seen at least two documentaries this month that were directed remotely. By 2022, I expect someone will shoot a feature entirely with drone cameras. We're figuring it out as we go, just like everyone is figuring out everything as they go. Production is weird, but it's underway.

While there are bound to be pauses and hiccups (and outbreaks) before the COVID crisis is over, here's the thing: Canadian filmmakers have been training for this for their entire careers.

You want artists who've learned to turn limitations into strengths? Ask anyone who's been through the Telefilm Talent to Watch program for microbudget financing. Ask the producers and directors of The New Romantic or Canadian Strain or Black Cop or Blood Quantum or Nose To Tail or Mouthpiece or Diamond Tongues or Red Rover or Black Conflux — movies of every stripe, made for far less than they should have been, but still telling moving, funny, interesting, challenging stories.

Sophy Romvari's Still Processing. (TIFF)

This is what I see: the artists who need to make movies — who have stories burning inside them that only they can tell — will move heaven and earth to get their movies made. They're making short films like Black Bodies, Kelly Fyffe-Marshall's impressionistic TIFF prize-winner about the cumulative anxiety of being Black in 2020. They're making deeply personal family histories like Sophy Romvari's Still Processing, in which the filmmaker sifts through family photographs as a way of sharing the loss of two brothers. Although those two films couldn't be more different — one is raw and electric, the other serene and contemplative — they both use picture and sound to communicate something personal and real.

I often think about Roger Ebert's pet name for cinema: he called it "the empathy machine," for its ability to place us in lives we've never lived and make us understand the emotions of people we've never known. And as Canada inches forward in its long-overdue reckoning with the systemic racism baked into its culture, our film and television is going to prove essential to that reckoning. It's a lot harder to otherize people when you glimpse your own life in theirs. Looking at television, shows like Schitt's Creek, Kim's Convenience, Diggstown, Transplant, and Trickster are increasing the representation of queer and BIPOC characters on our screens — and since those screens are where we're watching pretty much everything these days, a taste for more diverse film programming will hopefully follow. And, also hopefully, there'll be a lot more of it very soon.

You want artists who've learned to turn limitations into strengths? Ask anyone who's been through the Telefilm Talent to Watch program for microbudget financing.- Norm Wilner

While there's still a lot of work to do, Canada's screen industry has finally begun dismantling the barriers to entry for telling those stories, with diversity programs specifically intended to connect BIPOC writers and directors with financing, production support and mentorship. And BIPOC creators who are already working in the industry are slowly but surely increasing representation in their own projects — partially because it helps the industry as a whole, but also as the simple result of being able to tell their stories the way they want to tell them.

In this week's episode of CBC Arts: Exhibitionists, Amanda Parris talks to director R.T. Thorne about his hip hop sci-fi series Utopia Falls, casually mentioning the diversity behind the camera as well as in front of it. It's no big thing — except that it very much is, because that just doesn't happen without conscious effort.

Take, for instance, Indigenous stories onscreen. It wasn't so long ago that movies about Indigenous characters were being written, directed and produced by non-Indigenous filmmakers. I don't blame those filmmakers for taking those gigs, and I'm sure they went into them with the best of intentions. But seeing Tracey Deer's Beans and Michelle Latimer's Trickster at TIFF last month, and catching the small, telling details in performance and production design that put flesh on the bones of their respective worlds, made it very clear that some stories need to be told by the people who lived them. (I mean that literally in Deer's case: Beans is heavily drawn from her own experience growing up in the shadow of the Oka Crisis.)

Even though I was supposed to write about movies, it was inevitable that I would end up discussing television as well, since Canadian writers and directors move back and forth between the disciplines all the time. Clement Virgo and Sudz Sutherland do it; Jordan Canning and Jeremy LaLonde do it; Cory Bowles and April Mullen and Clark Johnson and Molly McGlynn and Rebecca Addelman and Carly Stone do it. Hell, everyone went wild over Dan Levy winning that Emmy for directing the Schitt's Creek finale, but he didn't win it alone: he shared it with Andrew Cividino, director and co-writer of the remarkably textured coming-of-age feature drama Sleeping Giant. And because Canadians love nothing more than being recognized outside of Canada, that Emmy means Cividino will have an easier path to getting his next project financed.

So, ok. I am optimistic about the future of Canadian cinema and television. I kind of have to be, I guess, but why wouldn't I be? We aren't going to suddenly start cranking out blockbusters — we're just not scaled for that — but we're going to see more movies that feel personal and lived-in, more movies that use the past to address the present in artful and specific ways. Keep an eye on genre; horror and sci-fi are always a great petri dish for talent.

Maybe we'll even get a few comedies. That'd be nice too.


Norman Wilner is the senior film writer for NOW Magazine and the host of the podcast Someone Else’s Movie. He lives in Toronto with his wife and their terrible dog.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now