Quebec vs. the World: Canada’s Sovereign Film Industry

By: Max von Schilling

Although it’s easy to fall into the fruitless trap of recognizing the success of a filmmaker solely through their awards, there’s a reason for it. The awards industry is so large because the ability to say “Academy-Award Winner” next to a film brings money, prestige, and, more often than not, guaranteed future work. It’s why Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand’s 2003 Best Foreign Film win for his film The Barbarian Invasions was such a major moment for him and his country’s film industry. 

Nominated two times before this, for The Decline of the American Empire and Jesus of Montreal, Arcand was, at that point, the only Canadian filmmaker to be nominated in this category at all. It’s another instance in a long line of Canada’s small film industry being disrespected and seen as lesser by our neighbours to the South, too close in culture to be seen as different, but too different to be seen as equal. 

That notion is most challenged, however, when examining the industry of Arcand’s own Quebec. Unlike English Canada, the province to the east has managed to maintain a bustling industry with its own star system and proven box office success, matching the likes of other countries like England, France, and Italy. It bears asking the question: how has Quebec managed to do this, while the rest of Canada has not?

For one, the obvious elephant in the room is the language barrier. It’s an unavoidable fact that, due to the primary language being French, they’re ultimately seen as more foreign, and thus more respectable, than the films coming out of Ontario or British Columbia. It’s even in the name of Arcand’s category win—“Best Foreign Film.” Atom Egoyan, the first, and to this point only, filmmaker nominated for Best Director for his work on a Canadian film, was not eligible for this category considering The Sweet Hereafter is an English-language film. This is not to say that Egoyan’s movie should’ve been put in the foreign category, but it’s rather identifying how Quebec is immediately seen as more prestigious and put up against different competition than the rest of the country.

But to further understand Quebec’s insular film culture, you need to look at Quebec’s culture to begin with. The history of the province is one of fighting to be seen as different, as not a part of the rest of the huge land mass they’re connected to. The 1980 and 1995 referendums held by the province to potentially exit Canada are key to this, highlighting the close margins in which the residents don’t see themselves necessarily as belonging to the same country as someone from, say, Saskatchewan. With the votes coming down to a 5% difference in 1980, and later just a 0.5% vote against in 1995, Quebecois people clearly align themselves with a different society than the rest of the country. 

This movement and push for the development of Quebecois film can be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s, in which the Quiet Revolution, a period of major change in the province, was in full swing. Through government subsidies and the move of the Nation Film Board headquarters to Montreal, the film industry was given a boost of confidence and motivation to go out and make something that reflected modern times. This led to the development of filmmakers like the aforementioned Arcand, but also Claude Jutra, Michel Brault, and Pierre Perrault. 

They made films about a culture that existed in Quebec and allowed it to be shared, celebrated, and rewarded by the people who lived there. Even outside of that, their artistic merits were seen elsewhere, with films screened across almost every major film festival that existed at the time. 

Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine reflects rural life, influenced by the religious background of the province and directly related to the lead-up of events that brought on the Quiet Revolution. 

Michel Brault’s Les Ordres is a fascinating pseudo-documentary/docu-drama hybrid, cataloguing an on-the-ground approach to the October Crisis, an event that could similarly be tied to a build of resentment towards how Quebec was being treated by the rest of the country. 

And Pierre Perrault’s Île-aux-Coudres Trilogy, featuring Of Whales, the Moon, and Men; The Times That Are; and The River Schooners, is a document of Quebec life in the trilogy’s titular town; also noted as an influence on now-megastar American director Denis Villeneuve.

And through these films being engrained in the culture, so too were up-and-coming filmmakers studying, learning, and enhancing on what had come before them. The aforementioned Villeneuve and his early Canadian films are often reflective of a feeling of alienation and not belonging, as well as prodigious filmmaker Xavier Dolan making films about anger towards those who have and exert power over you while you feel helpless. 

Quebec culture is, in opposition to the rest of Canada, proud. The differences are not to be ashamed of, but rather celebrated, examined, and maintained. When Quebec people go to the cinema to watch a Quebec film, they see a microcosm of themselves and a reminder of their continued independence in the face of their history being lumped together with the rest of the country. This perspective can, obviously, end up as overly nationalistic, but within the context of the film industry only, it has worked above and beyond, allowing it to have continued success without relying on anyone else to ensure its popularity. 

It’s admirable and a peek at their stubbornness to not allow their culture to be steamrolled, a lesson that the rest of the Canadian film industry would do well to learn, else we’ll simply be a breeding ground for greener pastures for the rest of our lives.

Here are the locations in which you can watch the Canadian films I mentioned throughout this blog post:

  • The Barbarian Invasions: Hoopla (with a Library Card) or a DVD from the Toronto Public Library

  • The Decline of the American Empire: Hoopla (with a Library Card) or a DVD from the Toronto Public Library

  • Jesus of Montreal: DVD from the Toronto Public Library

  • The Sweet Hereafter: The Criterion Channel, Plex, or CBC Gem

  • Mon Oncle Antoine: NFB Website

  • Les Ordres: Rentable in Usual Places

  • Of Whales, the Moon, and Men: NFB Website

  • The Times That Are: NFB Website

  • The River Schooners: NFB Website

And, although not mentioned, here is where you can watch both Denis Villeneuve and Xavier Dolan’s best Canadian films:

  • Incendies: Crave

    • CW: Sexual violence

  • Laurence Anyways: Netflix

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