Arts·Point of View

Why we need to reframe the narrative of our invisible Canadian cinema

The day after the CSAs, filmmaker Kevan Funk mounts a defence of our country's cinema — and challenges Canadians to engage more deeply with it.

Filmmaker Kevan Funk: 'Canadian film is great and you just don't know about it'

Hello Destroyer. (TIFF)

This past weekend was a big one for filmmaker Kevan Funk: his first feature film Hello Destroyer opened in theatres just as it was up for the top prize at the Canadian Screen Awards. So CBC Arts sat down with him to talk about the film, which is a dark, uncompromising look at systematic violence in hockey through the perspective of a junior player. Set in a remote part of the country (Prince George, B.C.), Hello Destroyer partly examines in its periphery the neglected importance of Canadian history and subtly connects it to our country's macho culture in sport.

It's a fascinating film that explores a troubling aspect of our cultural identity in a genuine way. But instead of just discussing Hello Destroyer, our conversation quickly turned to something else: Canadian cinema.

Funk is passionate about his industry. His recently publicized letter to TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey details various challenges facing Canadian filmmakers, especially those affecting him and his peers, many of them forming the new wave in English Canadian cinema. In addition to Funk, the wave includes directors like Ashley McKenzie (Werewolf), Kazik Radwanski (How Heavy This Hammer), Matt Johnson (Operation Avalanche), Andrew Cividino (Sleeping Giant), Chelsea McMullan (My Prairie Home) and many more. Their films play at festivals. They're nominated for and win awards. Some have made it into TIFF's Canada's Top Ten and have been nominated for Canadian Screen Awards. Yet few Canadians are aware of these films' existence.

The exhaustive narrative that Canadian film sucks, and is bad and broken, makes people disengage with it.- Kevan Funk

Funk believes there are problems to address in the industry. One of the biggest hurdles is lack of access, caused primarily by distributors with little interest in buying Canadian films. Canadian films tend to garner accolades but are not well distributed. Another part of that problem is their promotion by said distributors, marketers, and the media. Yet another is the operations and distributions of funds of governmental agencies. Funk is interested in outlining the specificity of these problems, but he's also focused in finding solutions. His motto is, "Grab hold of some agency and force [people] to do better." And one of his ideas is to reframe the narrative around Canadian cinema entirely.

"The exhaustive narrative that Canadian film sucks, and is bad and broken, makes people disengage with it," Funk says.

Writer/director Kevan Funk wanted to tell a story revolving around hockey, being one of Canada's biggest cultural institutions, without falling into the cliches that might come with it. (CBC)

What if instead, Funk suggests, we try talking about the good talent that's out there? "It'd be different if [the story was] 'Canadian cinema is great and you just don't know it.' Or maybe, 'There's garbage out there, but you don't know about the good stuff. And you should start getting interested.'"

Audiences are smart and deserve to be treated that way, says Funk. "That's more exciting for an average person to engage with, because it puts a challenge to them."

Canadian film doesn't receive the same media attention as Hollywood or American indies — or, for that matter, Canadian television or music. One of many contributing factors to our "invisible cinema" is that the media remains uninterested and uninformed on the subject. When we do cover it, we're more interested in talking about what's wrong with Canadian cinema rather than the movies themselves.

One way out of that, argues Funk, is to talk about the ideas and social issues explored in new Canadian films. But he admits frustration that journalists are more interested in covering Hollywood or the same Canadian film stars, like Xavier Dolan and David Cronenberg, rather than engaging with new talent.

Funk lists McKenzie's Werewolf, about two recovering drug users in Cape Breton, as a perfect example of a film that could be connected to broader conversations in the media about what's happening elsewhere in the country. "It's an extraordinary film. It's also a difficult film. But imagine if there were some real national conversations about Cape Breton's problems with substance abuse and its legacy of poverty."

Werewolf. (TIFF)

Hello Destroyer and Werewolf are just two examples of a promising emergence of new talent in English Canadian cinema — the question remains how filmmakers like Funk, McKenzie and many more of their peers will get the support to not only survive in the industry, but thrive in it.

Ultimately, Funk is content that his film got a theatrical release at all. Other Canadian films, including Werewolf, have not been as lucky. But that's not to say it's been a smooth ride for Funk, either. Despite the film's accessibility and positive reviews, Hello Destroyer was dropped by eOne. The theatrical distribution Funk has managed to secure is comparatively quite minor. This is why it's doubly important for Canadians to go see Hello Destroyer when it visits their hometown — for one thing, to see an authentically Canadian film, and secondly, so that Canadian movies don't keep disappearing into the ether.

Visit Hello Destroyer's website for release dates.


Tina Hassannia is a writer and film critic based in Toronto.


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