Growing up in my suburban Montreal home in the 1990s meant a lot of sprinkler wars with friends, countless screaming matches at the TV with my dad during Canadiens games, and a lot of VHS viewing/rewinding/repeating.
As the years flew by and my obsession with TV and film grew to ever greater levels, I noticed a troubling trend in the stuff I was watching: stories filmed in Montreal were never set in Montreal.
As far back as 1967’s Wait Until Dark, starring Audrey Hepburn, The City of a Hundred Steeples has continually been disguised and rebranded into Paris, New York City, or the all-too-common “generic” American city -- one that’s never named or specified but clearly made to feel from elsewhere.
I remember watching Marlon Brando’s last film, The Score, when I was ten years old. Remember it? If you do not, you are not to blame. The film was plagued with production issues and the story was, by all accounts, forgettable, but, fun fact, it was shot in Montreal.
I remember my mom buying it on VHS (yuuuuge De Niro fan). I remember watching it more than any normal human probably should. I remember recognizing location after location. It was my hometown and Robert De Niro and Edward Norton were trying to heist a French sceptre from it.
Unfortunately, The Score is just an aberration, a relative blip on the radar. Most big budget films or television series that shoot here do not do this. Why, pray tell? There’s a general worry that Canadian-focused stories will not catch enough eyeballs below the 49th parallel. The X-Men and Smurf movies of the world might choose to shoot here because of a low Canadian dollar, but there is a reason they never set their stories here.
According to Karen Burrows, a Canadian media scholar, the constant gentrification and redressing of our country's locals has an effect on the way we identify ourselves. In her fascinating twitter essay on the topic, Burrows goes as far as to say that the perpetual masking of our places and peoples makes us a “non-entity, one that others can project their fantasies/beliefs on.” Also, Burrows claims that, by extension, by hiding ourselves we erase the very real problems we have.
Some might argue that regardless of the theoretical implications, keeping Montreal a Paris-lite is worth it. Last year alone, according to the Quebec Film and Television Council, estimates had foreign producers spending $280 million in the city on various film and television productions.
Aside from foreign investment, Montreal is undergoing a bit of a boom when it comes to the sector as a whole, which, according to Montreal’s Film and Television Commission, contributes about 35,000 jobs to the local economy. With a yearly average of 600 productions being shot in and around the city, it’s hard to see these numbers dipping anytime soon.
Economic numbers, identity issues, et cetera, as far as Montreal’s concerned, strides are being made when it comes to setting stories here. At the Toronto International Film Festival, Nelly makes its world premiere in the festival’s Vanguard section. Directed by Anne Emond, the biographical film about a larger than life auteur paints vivid snapshots of Montreal and the Eastern Townships.
What’s more, CBC Television is broadening the settings of their dramatic and comedic stories. This Life, almost as a point of pride, is shot on-location. You will not have to watch any given episode too long to see French street signage or landmarks or to hear local music.
If you look beyond Montreal, the picture looks equally as progressive. Baroness Von Sketch showcases the quirks of upper-middle class Toronto living while Sensitive Skin spotlights its blights. The Romeo Section scratches beneath the seedy surface of Vancouver. Not to mention there are myriad French Canadian shows like Unite 9 that dig into other slices of Quebecois culture.
Fortunately, if you like the idea of seeing a small but unique cross-section of Canadiana play out on the small screen, you will not have to look very far. Join us for the Season 2 premiere of This Life on October 2nd on CBC.
I'm Max Morin, Junior Writer, Story Coordinator and your official insider for all things THIS LIFE.