New Canadian films excel at Festival

This article first appeared in The Varsity on page 6, Sep 13, 1990

by Ray Deonandan,
Varsity Staff

What is the future of Canadian cinema? Peter Goddard seems to think that there is no future as long as local films are made to sate a particular special interest group. Patricia Rozema thinks that the industry’s focus should remain where it is, in the margins of entertainment rather than in the mainstream. Regardless of where it’s going or where it’s been of late, Canadian film’s present is well represented in this year’s Festival of Festivals.

Most of the Canadian offerings are via Perspective Canada, a platform for airing local talent. The big Canadian stars are Phillip Borsos’ Bethune, The Making of a Hero, with Donald Sutherland; White Room by Patricia Rozema, starring Maurice Godin, Kate Nelligan and Sheila McCarthy; and Yves Simoneau’s Nobody’s Perfect with British comedian Robbie Coltrane.

While Bethune‘s notoriety springs from its production controversies, its subject matter is of even greater infamy. It is the story of the politically active Dr. Norman Bethune and his exciting journey through life. Tracking Bethune across three continents and endless bloody wars becomes an almost impossible task, as the Canada/France/China co-production jumps from epoch to epoch. Timeless in its relevance, Bethune’s tale is one of a militant socialist who seeks nothing less than the elimination of unnecessary suffering. Despite its favourable representation of communism, this film will be one of those precious few Canadian productions that will actually make it into the American mainstream market.

Borsos’ treatment of Bethune’s legend is largely superficial and linear, but is worth the price of admission if only for the grand cinematography. Sprawling visions of the bleak Chinese landscape, and realistic portrayals of the hazards of battlefield medicine (a scene familiar to Sutherland from his M.A.S.H. days) make Bethune a visual pleasure.

But a single year of Bethune’s life would be sufficient for several feature films. It’s a shame that a lifetime of incredible feats must be crunched into a tidy two hour package. One quickly becomes desensitized to his overmentioned courage and grandeur.

Of a more recognizable Canadian flavour is White Room, Patricia Rozema’s triumphant answer to 1987’s precocious I’ve Heard The Mermaids Singing. Once again, schizophrenic individuals on the social fringe seek out romance and art in a cruel heartless world, and the result is a thought-provoking look at a fundamental fallacy of our time: that true love conquers all.

Poor young Norman Gentle, after witnessing the rape/murder of a famous singer, strives to produce a beautiful thing. And only through true love is he able to do this. But the world is a nasty place, and gentle Norman Gentle is much too inexperienced in its ways to make out the road ahead of him.

White Room is naive and friendly poetry that slaps you out of complacency and into a world where heartbreak is everybody’s norm. And it’s one more laurel for rising star Rozema.

From humourous tragedy we move to pure comedy. Yves Simoneau’s first English offering. Nobody’s Perfect, is an adorable tale of boring young Renzo Parachi who just doesn’t know how to dream —until an eccentric stranger (Robbie Coltrane) arrives to impose his own dreams upon defenceless Renzo. The result is an unlikely mixture of opera with hockey, transvestites with tough guys, and dominant women with sexless men.

Nobody’s Perfect is an intelligent, innocent comedy. It inspires pathos and a warm laugh because we have no choice but to care about its characters. It’s sweet, unimposing and marvelously done. And a pleasure to recommend.

While these three movies will no doubt dominate the media —whenever the media bothers with Canadian film— there are many other entries that will be unavoidably overlooked.

Between Two Worlds, by Barry Greenwald, is the story of Joseph Idlout, one of the Inuit pictured on the back of the old two dollar bill (before we got birds). It is a fascinating look at a man caught between the fading world of his traditional Inuit youth, and the irresistible onslaught from the world of the white man.

An already tragic tale is, however, made unnecessarily more so by a pathetic narrative. But its inspiration is real life. And the issue is such that Idlout’s story cannot be ignored.

The Burning Times (Donna Read) tells of “the women’s holocaust”, a time in the middle ages when women persecuted as witches were systematically tortured and killed. It’s a moving treatment that is high on emotion and imagery, but tragically short on facts.

And of course we can’t forget the shorts. These little 10-30 minute jobs are traditionally experimental and quite avante-garde. This year has much of the same. For the most part, much of the Perspectives Canada shorts are what can be termed “video masturbation”: ridiculous close-ups of ears, nipples and toes while rhythmless experimental music disturbs an otherwise peaceful sleep.

But there are two exceptions.

First is the unapologetically vulgar and shocking Corpusculaire by Yves Lafontaine. This short is, well, about relating gay pornography to wave-particle duality. What it is, in essence, is explicit scenes of gay men fucking their brains out to the songs of -get this- humpback whales.

Despite its unsettling explicitness, Corpusculaire is exceptional for the following four reasons: lighting, sound, narrative and flow. All these elements were excellently crafted. But this film is not to be recommended, of course, to
anyone susceptible to trauma induced by subculture shock.

The second striking short is Skin by Colin Campbell. It is an emotionally charged and militant condemnation of the social niche to which female AIDS victims have been relegated. Featuring, among others, Lorraine Segato, Skin is at times oppressively militant, but still manages to drive home a powerful message by virtue of sheer intimidation and
video power.

This is only a small selection of the Canadian fare available this year. With each year, it seems, more and better films originate from this country. It wasn’t so long ago that Quest For Fire was pretty much the only well-known Canadian contribution to international cinema —and that was a collaboration with French filmmakers.

Lately we’ve had wonderful breakthroughs like Un Zoo La Nuit, Jesus of Montreal, and I’ve Heard The Mermaids Singing. This year is exceptional for the three large pictures mentioned earlier. It is undeniably a sign of good things to come.