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This is a new country
We can't help sifting through the Canadian films of the Toronto International Film Festival for hints on who we are

By LIAM LACEY, The Globe and Mail
September 5, 2002

Each year, in one of the most popular sidebars of the Toronto International Film Festival, a top couple of dozen Canadian features (chosen this year out of more than 150), and an equal number of shorts, are put together in the Perspective Canada program.

This is the fall harvest of Canadian film, and provides an opportunity for an annual ritual of breast-beating (pride? anguish?) about our national cinema as critics anxiously try to find a definable difference that can be called Canadian, no matter how varied the comedies, historical dramas, experimental films, in different languages, may be.

The thematic approach to Canadian film is obviously too passť and too narrow. It would be easy, this year, for example, to take Daniel MacIvor's Past Perfect, about a couple travelling by plane from Halifax to Vancouver, from first-love bliss to marital discord, or S. Wyeth Clarkson's deadend.com, about three teenagers taking the same cross-country journey in a car to kill themselves, as a symbol of a deep national unease. But it would be equally true, to take a sampling from last year's Canadian output - Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, Men With Brooms and Les Boys III - to say our cinema is about underdogs using long narrow objects to over-come adversaries in cold conditions.

Often those long objects are camera lenses and boom mikes, but the underdogs and adversaries do keep popping up. In a country of minorities within minorities, levels of historical colonization can make Canadians conscious of pockets within pockets of identity. David Cronenberg, whose British-set movie, Spider, is an official gala selection this year, told the Cannes International Film Festival audience in May that he was sure it would be possible to analyze his work as Canadian, or for that matter, "Southern Ontarian" in its sensibility. (There is a token Canadian element in this film: The psychiatric institution where the central character - played by Ralph Fiennes - was raised appears to be set on a Canadian farm.)

There are enough culturally defined nations in Canada to call the country postnational - from the two mythical "founding nations," to the various first nations, to the ethnic groups who feel bound to preserve the history of overseas nationalities that have been suppressed or destroyed, as a kind of sacred trust. And at the same time, these cultures are not static, and they interact with, define themselves against, and merge with other minority cultures. One of the biggest Hollywood romantic comedies this summer, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, was written by and stars Nia Vardalos, a Greek girl from Winnipeg.

These hybrid nationalities are not quite the same as multiculturalism, the policy that encourages ethnic minorities to hold onto some of their past, while fitting into the dominant Anglo-French model. "It's not multiculturalism. It's global culture," said Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta at the press conference for the Toronto International Film Festival, whose film Bollywood/Hollywood opens the Perspective Canada series. Yet, paradoxically, she notes: "And yet you won't see anything like it anywhere else in the world."

Canada, which takes pride in its role as an international peacekeeper, looks, in many of our films like a kind of United Nations truce zone, where old group frictions are kept - barely - below the ignition point. This year saw the publication of a full-length study, Canadian National Cinema, from the University of Alberta's Christopher E. Gittings, which emphasizes the tensions in Canadian cinema between white Anglos and native representation, French and English, straight and gay, male and female.

No wonder Canadian audiences find their biggest laughs in Michael Moore's Canada-loving Bowling for Columbine, with its portrait of our people as benign and trusting folks who never lock their doors, have no real slums and few racial tensions. Moore did get something right, from a teenager outside the Taco Bell in Sarnia, Ont., who explained that Canadians, like Americans, sometimes hate people, but in the USA they use guns, while in Canada, we use "ridicule."

Often, people we think of as Canadians see themselves tied to some other time and place. In Atom Egoyan's Ararat, which kicks off the festival tonight, contemporary Armenians preserve the songs and stories of their ancient culture in downtown Toronto. The protagonist, Raffi (new actor David Alpay), must make a journey back to his ancestral homeland in eastern Turkey, the site of the Armenian genocide of 1915, to understand the death of his father, killed while attempting to assassinate a Turkish diplomat, to force Turkish acknowledgment of the atrocity.

"This is a new country. Let's forget the fucking history and get on with it," suggests a Turkish-Canadian character. Egoyan argues, on the contrary, that there's no getting on with it until the older history is recognized. Mainstream Anglo Canada, perhaps allegorically represented by Christopher Plummer as a Customs clerk, learns kindness from the stories of its injured citizens.

Old ethnic demands reach deep into the new world in Mehta's light-hearted Indian musical. Bollywood/Hollywood's young, rich Indian entrepreneur (Indian actor Rahul Khanna) lives in his downtown Toronto condo, has a chauffeur and a fast-track life, but still has to contend with his family's pressure to marry a nice Indian girl. He finds a professional escort who he thinks is Puerto Rican, and pays her to pose as an Indian. (She's played by real-life Indian superstar model, Lisa Ray, born of Polish and Indian parents in Toronto, whose character says the line: "I'm kind of partial to multiple identities.")

These family and ethnic tensions - potentially tragic material in a more earnest immigrant film - are played for laughs here. Mehta, who made the film after her Indian drama, Water, was shut down by Hindu extremists in India, has called her film a "love letter to Toronto." Yet it's a Toronto portrayed in a way that will probably be a surprise to many Canadian viewers. The movie parodies a Bollywood musical, and its setting is Toronto re-imagined as an extension of India, but with more social flexibility and opportunities for growth. Though a few non-Indian people appear in the film, they serve only as background dancers in the Bollywood-style production numbers.

Similarly, Vancouver is a city that seems devoid of non-Chinese people in Mina Shum's Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity, the story of Mindy, a 12-year-old girl, and her experiments in Chinese magic. The entire world of downtown Vancouver appears to be Chinese. In a feature film that has several similarities, Terrance Odette's Saint Monica, a 10-year-old Portuguese girl experiences contemporary downtown Toronto through her Portuguese-Catholic filter of potential miracles and magic.

In Alanis Obomsawin's documentary, Is the Crown at War With Us?, we see from the viewpoint of Mi'kmaq natives, trying to preserve millennia of historic continuity in the face of aggressive and violent intruders. It's the clearest example of the contrast between the myth of Canadian tolerance and the perspective of natives as a people repeatedly betrayed, threatened and humiliated, in the supposed national interest. The film's very title, which harks back to an 18th-century treaty, indicates how immediate the native history is.

The world of these films shows Canada as a place of cultures in flux, not always a harmonious or just society, but one of a complexity that demands multilevel intelligence and flexibility.

In Bollywood/Hollywood, where lovers sing Hindi songs and quote Pablo Neruda in Spanish, where a grandmother fills her conversations with Indian homilies and Shakespearean quotes, there is a clear sense that, while the mix is confusing, it's also a potential laboratory for tolerance and cultural hybrid vigour.

As the Indian chauffeur said to the the Puerto Rican escort in Bollywood/Hollywood, "As a fellow ethnic, I'm sure you understand."

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