Why you need to spend your summer Saturdays watching these great Canadian films
The Filmmakers host Johanna Schneller makes the case for some classic homegrown movies
I make you one promise about CBC Arts' new half-hour show The Filmmakers, airing Saturday nights this summer: there's nothing "take your medicine" about it. We don't have to ask, "Why is it important to see ourselves, in all our glorious diversity, reflected back on screen?" — because these 11 films are their own answer. As the show's host, I never wondered why they're significant or timeless or vital to the Canadian canon (though they are). They're just really great movies.
They're a gas to talk about, too. Often in my career as a journalist for The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and Metro, the actors or directors I'm interviewing are promoting a new project. They haven't figured out yet what they want to say about their film, and they're nervous about that. Or they're in full-on "sell mode," so they're a little less candid than they'd like to be. But talking to people about watershed projects that they've put in perspective, or haven't thought about in a while, or are seeing in a fresh way — now that is fun. Their guard comes down. Their sense of humour about themselves ratchets up. They think anew about their work, and its context in their lives. They let themselves be both amused by the flaws and charmingly chuffed about the accomplishments.
The Sweet Hereafter explores a serious subject — but in talking about who he was when he made it, Atom Egoyan ended up laughing pretty hard. When Sarah Polley made her autobiographical documentary Stories We Tell, she was way ahead of the curve on alternative facts — she continues to have new insights into the slippery nature of truth. Director X (Across the Line) and Deepa Mehta (Water) came to play; so did Don McKellar (Last Night), who began directing his own segment halfway through, when he realized his bare ankles glowed on camera. Mention Xavier Dolan's (I Killed My Mother) name, and you may hear the tiresome hum of schadenfreude. But Dolan himself is wildly open about where that comes from, and how it feels. And I dare you not to laugh when director Zacharias Kunuk and actor Natar Ungalaaq spot a continuity error in their own clip from Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner.
The next best thing to watching a film is talking about it, and some of the coolest talkers in the country joined our panels. Hearing director Jennifer Baichwal and photographer Edward Burtynsky re-live the risks they took to make their environmental awareness documentary Manufactured Landscapes was spellbinding — as was hearing panellist David Suzuki talk about why it matters, and how we can make a difference. Writer and actor Bob Martin has known Don McKellar since they were kids, and worked with him for years — so of course he had insights no one else could. Producer Niv Fichman has been on sets with director Denis Villeneuve, so who better to speak about Incendies? OK, maybe one person: sound designer Sylvain Bellemare, who left his Oscar for Arrival at home and joined us to share Villeneuve's secrets of sound.
I was concerned that Mina Shum's Double Happiness would feel a little too 1990s to our young women panelists — but instead, Amil Niazi, Kiva Reardon and Samantha Wan exploded with laughter about how timeless the immigrant family experience is. Hearing filmmaker Cazhhmere discuss the influence of Director X, or actor Connor Jessup do the same for Xavier Dolan, was like watching a torch being passed. And every person in the studio felt lucky to be listening as Emmanuel Jal — a former child soldier-turned-motivational speaker — and Rachel Mutombo — an activist whose family came from the Democratic Republic of Congo — debated whether Kim Nguyen's child-soldier film Rebelle (War Witch) was cultural appropriation, told a story so necessary that it transcended its source, or both.
It was a great reminder that Canadian cinema is world cinema. So what do we call these 11 films? A fantastic start.