Awards Celebrating the Best in “Canadian” Film…but are they?

So…the Genie Awards were handed out the other night — celebrating “the best in Canadian film”. While a few weeks back there was an announcement that the TV equivalent (the Gemini Awards) were contemplating — or perhaps had made — changes to their categories.

And it just got me thinking about what is meant, and intended, by such awards — and, yeah, I’m re-visiting a topic I wrote about concerning last year’s Genies. But the fact that I can write about it again…kind of demonstrates my point. Or, at least, that it does seem to be turning into a chronic situation.

But when one is celebrating the “best” in “Canadian” film (or TV) — how do we define that concept. Not “best”…but “Canadian“!

Among this year’s nominees were A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg’s fact inspired drama about Carl Jung (you’re only as “jung” as you feel) and Sigmund Freud (don’t be a-freud…I know what I’m do-ink). A Dangerous Method is apparently an international co-production, and continues Cronenberg’s long march away from his early roots as the bad boy horrormeister of Canuck Cinema. Now, technically, A Dangerous Method is partly Canadian, at least I’m assuming so, in so far as some of the money was put up by Canadian producers. But as a film, as a creative enterprise, how “Canadian” was it? Sure, the director is Canadian…but it was written by an Englishman, the main roles going to Brits and Americans, and was shot in Europe (using, therefore I assume, a largely European crew) about European historical figures. To be fair, perhaps Canadians filled out some of the behind-the-scene roles, of costume designers, or sound editors. But as far as the great unwashed public will perceive sitting down with their popcorn in the darkened theatre…just how “Canadian” is A Dangerous Method? As Canadian as, say…Avatar (actually, Avatar was arguably more Canadian, because at least it was also written by a Canadian!) In other words: not very Canadian.

Yet A Dangerous Method snagged one of only five slots for nominees for Best Canadian Picture.

Viewed by itself, it’s not much of an issue. Except when you realize it was part of a whole Co-production Mafia (to use the cheeky phrase that is applied to cliques these days — as opposed to literally suggesting awards host George  Stroumboulopoulos was waking up next to a horse’s head). Other nominees this year in various categories included The Whistleblower and The Bang Bang Club. All these movies deal with legitimate, important topics — nor am I saying they might not be great, award-worthy movies. I’m just asking: are they Canadian-award worthy movies. (And that’s not even mentioning the film Oliver Sherman — the director happily bragging in interviews about how he made sure it was NOT identifiably set in Canada, as if he was somehow pursuing an artistic vision — and not just a U.S. distribution deal — by fighting off all those bad boy executives who begged him to set it in Canada).

And, again — there’s no reason there can’t be room at the table for one or two such films, not at all. It’s when they start to dominate the table, nudging people with their elbows, and reserving seats for their friends, that it becomes more of a concern.

As well, of the ten Best Actor/Actress nominations this year…six went to non-Canadians. And of the four wins for lead and supporting actor/actress…3 went to non-Canadians (which is better than last year, when all the acting awards went to non-Canadians). And let’s make this clear. By “non-Canadian” I’m talking about people who have no connection to Canada, nor interest in being part of the Canadian film biz. Some of Canada’s greatest artists weren’t born in Canada, but nonetheless are as Canadian as snow (well, snow before this whole Global Warming thing). By non-Canadian I’m talking about people who only were in Canada long enough to shoot their scenes…then flew away again. Actually, given that a number of these films were not even shot in Canada…in many cases, the first time the stars might have set foot on Canadian soil is when they showed up at the Genie Awards! (And even then — many didn’t even show up for that!)

Now, this is the dilemma, ain’t it? Should a non-Canadian actor be denied recognition just ’cause they aren’t Canadian? If they gave a kick ass performance, they surely deserve recognition for it. Nor should a second rate Canadian performance be awarded simply through luck of citizenship.

But it does raise a question of what the Genies are celebrating about “Canadian” film when 60 percent of the best actor nominees aren’t Canadian, and many of the films are only deemed Canadian by virtue of who signed (some of) the pay stubs — and not because the talent is Canadian or the movies are about Canada, or Canadian characters.

So in that sense, perhaps it’s partly in the balance. If an American or British actor stars in a Canadian movie, made by Canadians, and set in Canada it’s less problematic than if it’s a movie where hardly any of the key elements in the film are Canadian.

Though I’m troubled by the preponderance of non-Canadian actors nominated (and winning) in the acting categories…I’m not sure I see an equitable way to curb it. That is, I suspect the imported actors snag a disproportionate number of nominations not because they are delivering inherently superior performances to the Canadian actors, but simply because they are imported stars — the more internationally famous the nominees, the more likely the Genie telecast will get better ratings, the more “legitimate” the awards will seem, and the academy voters and selection committees (or however it’s chosen) are, frankly, starstruck. I mean, one can’t help inferring something in the fact that one of the Genie nominees was American actress Michelle Williams (for the film Take This Waltz) and was featured prominently in the TV commercials for the Genie Awards — and Williams was just recently an American Oscars nominee for the movie My Week With Marilyn, making for a bit of cross-marketing synergy, eh?

Perhaps worse — it becomes an inherent reward to producers, a wink and nudge encouraging them to hire imported stars, because even if the movie tanks, and gets middling reviews, at least they suspect they’ll probably get some Genie love. I mean, it used to be producers claimed that hired imported actors because it was necessary to score at the box office…now it seems like it also is a good way to insure Genie Awards notice, too.

Indeed, one can’t help suspecting a lot of the academy voters haven’t seen or even heard of many of the movies being nominated, so that the nominees really are chosen simply because, well, voters at least know who they are — even if they haven’t seen the actual film for which the nominees are being nominated!

Yet to forbid such nominees and winners would be unfair to the imported actors themselves who, after all, are guilty of nothing more than acting their hearts out in a production (one assumes) they truly believed in.

Years ago, the Genies (I think back when they were the Etrogs) had separate categories for Canadian and non-Canadian actors. But that, too, was awkward — seeming to send the message that the Canadians couldn’t compete with the “real” actors” from abroad.

I guess, in a sense, it’s more a character thing, whether you believe in the integrity of the academy and the voters. Either you believe the awards and nominations are doled out according to merit, and nothing more…or you believe they are being skewed to favour the glamorous imported “stars”. And like with too many tests of character — it’s hard to legislate it. Banning imported actors from being nominated would be unfair to them. Separating the two into different groups would be insulting to the Canadians.

But if the individual talent should be free to be judged equally, regardless of citizenship…I do question the production itself. That is, A Dangerous Method should be able to be nominated in various categories (acting, editing, music, etc.) but maybe it shouldn’t be able to be nominated in the Best Picture category — maybe that should be reserved for movies more unarguably Canadian. Now I have no doubt the producers (and their PR flak catchers) would throw a conniption fit if such a thing was proposed. But really — why? I mean, surely the point of such an international co-production is that it already has a leg up on the competition — PR and international distribution most Canadian films can’t even dream about. It doesn’t need a Genie win (or nomination) — indeed, I’m not sure how much of a boon a Genie win is, anyway. Oscars and Golden Globes supposedly boost ticket and DVD sales…but after that, I’m not sure. The DVD shelves are full of movies proclaiming various wins and accolades from a multitude of obscure venues (“winner of Best Picture at the 900th annual East Balkan Arts & Crafts festival”). I’m not sure a Genie win really helps sales. It’s more just a source of pride knowing you were supported by your peers (even if only with a nomination). So again…isn’t it supposed to be honouring “Canadian” effort…not movies that can qualify as nominally Canadian because of some funding loophole?

I suppose one could make the analogy to an athlete hopped up on steroids demanding he be able to compete with all the normal athletes.

Now, to be fair — A Dangerous Method didn’t win Best Picture. For all its money and prestige and international cast, it was beaten by the French-language film Monsieur Lazhar (with, um, its own imported leading actor). So doesn’t that prove I’m making a mountain out of mole hill? Maybe…maybe not. Because it still took one of only five spots for nominees. And even if an award win is of dubious marketing value…a nomination can be viewed as almost as good — DVD boxes never shy about proclaiming something was “nominated” for an award. I’m sure there were plenty of Canadian movies that would’ve been happy to get a nomination, a spot on the team, but couldn’t, because A Dangerous Method took the last free spot — veins popping and red eyed with steroids.

Now recently, the Canadian TV awards — the Geminis — were dealing with a similar dilemma, with big international co-productions, some with only nominal Canadian involvement, walking away with the Best Series award (and three of the five nomination slots). Winning maybe on merit — or, equally, winning simply because they were enjoying more write ups in the press, had bigger budgets, and a “prestigious” international cast and creative team. So the Geminis announced they were going to split the best series category into Canadian series and co-productions (leaving the acting categories as a level playing field where the Canadians in Canadian series would have to hold their own against the international stars in their international productions). Granted, I can imagine headaches arising, trying to decide what counts as what. And though the international co-productions might win a disproportionate number of awards — I’m not sure they make up a disproportionate number of shows, so I could well imagine a category that might only have two or three nominees in any give year. Still, perhaps it’s a good compromise. By keeping the acting categories mixed, it says: we believe, talent to talent, Canadians can stand (or fall) next to imported stars. But by separating the actual series, it acknowledges that an international co-production will have an advantage in terms of budget, and publicity (the voters bombarded with a tsunami of articles and interviews that make the PR surrounding most domestic series seem more like a garden hose spray) that can’t help but influence the voters, regardless of artistic or even commercial merit (I believe The Borgias, which won best series last year, actually had smaller ratings than some homegrown productions).

Though I can imagine a lot of arguing over the nuances of what counts as “Canadian” and what as a “co-production” — a series like Flashpoint is, technically, a co-production, but in any artistic/creative sense is all-Canadian. So it would seem to belong in a category with, say, Republic of Doyle rather than The Borgias or Camelot.

If we were to apply such a solution to films — or even simply disqualify the merely nominally Canadian films from being nominated in the top category — the real question would be: how would you make the decision? Where’s the demarcation?

Well, in radio, when Canadian content regulations are applied to music, I believe the elements of a song are broken down into categories — performer, producer, composer, and where it was recorded. (Or something like that) And a song qualifies as “Canadian” if it has at least two (maybe three) of those categories. Maybe the same formula could be applied to films. Instead of some arcane question about who funded what, which the average viewer has no way of following or understanding (and could care less about), maybe a movie could be broken down into various categories: setting/character (ie: is it set in Canada or about a Canadian character); lead actors; director; writer; filming location; producer. Something like that. And a film would need at least three or four of those categories to be counted as “Canadian” — which still allows for a lot of latitude, and even for international co-productions to still count as “Canadian”. And, yes, if a director of a movie like Oliver Sherman is happily bragging to the press about how his movie isn’t explicitly set in Canada…then he has to accept that he’ll be taken at his word and the film will be judged as not being set in Canada (but the film would probably still count as Canadian because even though its top billed star, and its setting, wasn’t Canadian…I think everything else about it was)

Now the irony is, whenever such things are proposed, there is often an immediate backlash — by the people who have enjoyed the benefits of the current system. Immediately they will scream “censorship” or xenophobia. When it’s actually kind of the opposite. For one thing — this doesn’t preclude someone making the movies they want to make, hiring the actors they want to hire, it merely says shouldn’t the “Canadian” film awards be reserved for, y’know, Canadian movies? As well, shouldn’t we define “Canadian” by  something that involves a lot of Canadian aspects (actors, crews, settings) rather than saying Canadian should be defined simply by a single director, or a producer? Isn’t that the creepier attitude? By that reckoning we should count Hollywood movies as Canadian if they happen to be directed by a Canadian, or star a Canadian — and, yeah, believe me, there are people who argue vehemently for that.

Some years back there was a fuss in radio because a Bryan Adams song was judged not Canadian enough to count as “Canadian Content” (based on those various categories I mentioned before — Adams, the performer, was Canadian, but most of the other elements apparently weren’t). Adams and his supporters were furious — Adams himself denouncing the whole Can-Con thing as something that protects and fosters mediocrity! Now, one can see a certain irony — Adams denouncing Can-Con regulations…because he no longer gets to benefit from it. But the irony about Adams’ anger was that in no way, shape, or form would being disqualified from “Canadian Content” prevent or even hinder his song being played on the radio. It merely meant that instead of a radio station counting his song toward the 30 percent (or whatever it is) of airtime devoted to domestic music, he would be played among the 70 percent of songs that aren’t Canadian — in other words, Adams would just have to fight for a slot among all the big international acts, which is where he and his supporters felt he belonged anyway. At this point Adams was an international star, and wasn’t even living in Canada, so he really shouldn’t need the nurturing protection of Can-Con. Likewise, if a producer makes a movie that in most respects isn’t particularly Canadian…why should they be up-set if they don’t qualify for a Canadian nomination?

Again it all gets back to the question of what is the point of the Genies or the Geminis? If they are not celebrating the best in Canadian productions…then what are they? Simply another generic awards show? Sloppy seconds for films that got snubbed at the Oscars?

Of course, part of the problem is that the Genies remain an awards show in desperate search of something to celebrate. By that I mean, while the Oscar movies enjoy a buzz months in advance, often the Genies arrive kind of like an unexpected guest on your doorstep. Whereas the Oscars will be proceeded for weeks by articles talking about the front runners and the dark horses, big city news papers often featuring columnists ranking the nominees, who will win, who should win, who might win — often in Canada one gets the impression even entertainment reporters who make their living covering entertainment news haven’t seen half the films. Heck — in any given year, many of us might not have seen many of the films nominated for the Oscars…but we still might have an opinion, simply because we’ve read so much about them. Whereas in Canada, often one can look at the list of Genie nominees…and see movies you didn’t even know existed! To be fair, there’s usually a buzz around one particular film — this year it was Monsieur Lazhar, last year it was Barney’s Version. Sometimes there’ll be a buzz around a particular performance (I’m thinking of Maury Chaykin years ago for Whale Music, or even Paul Giamatti for Barney’s Version). But even then, it can often feel like the winner is predetermined, and the rest of the nominees are just there to fill the seats. Unlike the Oscars where there’s usually at least a bit of suspense as to who will have their name called. In Canada, the only time there’s suspense, is not because there are a bunch of nominees with buzz…but because none of them have generated much buzz.

Sometimes that’s because there aren’t any particular stand outs in a category — everyone nominated having done good, professional work, but nothing breathtaking. Sometimes, though, it’s because there is no momentum — the movies having opened and closed months ago, and even if the critics at the time complimented the actors…everyone has long since forgotten by the time the awards role around…even the co-productions which, as often as not, have long since been lost in the log jam of new movie releases.

For that matter, how often do you read a review of a Canadian film where the critic comments that the actor should be remembered come Awards time? They say that about American films all the time. And how much is that a problem with the films, or the actors — and how much with the critic’s mentality? I often see Canadian movies and TV shows where a performance will strike me between the eyes — but I sometimes think with a lot of reviewers, they aren’t looking for that. When a critic watches George Clooney in a movie, they are instinctively asking themselves “how good is Clooney in this role?” but when a lesser known Canadian actor gives a tour de force, do critics just kind of shrug, recognizing it was a good performance…but not taking the next step of highlighting it in their review, or suggesting it warrants “buzz”? Which I think maybe relates to my earlier point about being starstruck.

To be honest, I’m not really sure I’m recommending any changes to the Genies — and despite my frustration at seeing Canadians shut out of the acting categories, as mentioned, I can’t really see it as any fairer to deny Vanessa Paradis or Viggo Mortensen their right to a statue if their performance deserves it. But sometimes it’s worth just, y’know, clearing the air — to say what needs to be said, and to get people thinking about where things have been, where they are, and where they might be headed.

So I guess all one can do is write essays like this one — saying to the academy, you know what you’re doing, I know what you’re doing. I can’t stop you from doing it…but let’s just agree you aren’t fooling anyone.

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