Canadian cinema(s)

Authored by: Christopher E. Gittings

The Routledge Companion to World Cinema

Print publication date:  September  2017
Online publication date:  September  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138918801
eBook ISBN: 9781315688251
Adobe ISBN:


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The chapter provides an introduction to Canadian cinema(s) by delineating the simultaneously interconnected yet separate terrains of Anglo-Canadian, Québec, indigenous and transnational diasporic cinemas in Canada through the vectors of political economy, distribution, ideology and critical reception. Canadian cinema, what I am calling Canadian cinema(s), has long been a problematic object of study due, in part, to its variegated, multifaceted nature. Communications scholar Michael Dorland sees the heterogeneity of Canada’s cinematic output, its shifting production “tendencies” over time—documentary, animation, experimental or feature film—as an early challenge for scholars working toward articulating some kind of unitary national cinema narrative (Dorland 1998: 3). Quebec academic Pierre Véronneau and future TIFF (Film Festival) director Piers Handling wrote in 1980 of the impossibility of grasping Canadian cinema: “It disappears in one area, crops up in another, moves from west to east, splits up, dies, is reborn etc.” (Handling and Véronneau 1980: viii). Scholars such as Seth Feldman questioned the very existence of a Canadian national cinema due to the failure of distribution systems to deliver Canadian films to Canadian audiences, and exhibitors’ dependence on lucrative Hollywood product at the expense of Canadian screen time (Melnyk 2004: 234). Dorland further clarified his 1998 position in a 2015 interview in which he stated “there isn’t a Canadian cinema, but rather many Canadian cinemas”, a perspective that is congruent with most contemporary understandings of the term national cinema as a problematic more than it is a straightforward hermeneutical category (Dorland 2016). Bill Marshall’s Quebec National Cinema further advances both the notion of a plurality of cinemas within Canada and the concept of national cinema as a productive problematic: “Far from designating a stable object of investigation, let alone a master category grounding interpretations and analysis, [national cinema] represents a significant problem; […] not a master hermeneutic but a master problematic” (Marshall 2001: 1–2). Similarly, my own monograph also works to trouble the narrow and provisional parameters of national cinema to reveal its constructed and contested terrain, a diachronic theatre for competing versions of nation at various stages of becoming, structured by the challenging discourses of decolonisation, multiculturalism, gender and class (Gittings 2002). In some ways Canada’s national cinema was generated by what Dorland describes as an economy of talk before the artefact actually existed. The talk economy that imagined a feature film industry existing in the silent period and after 1968 was comprised of the voices of critics beginning as early as the 1910s and 1920s in publications such as Canadian Motion Picture Digest, governmental discourse emanating from the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau (CGMPB), the National Film Board (NFB) or the Massey Report’s 1951 “Films in Canada”, as well as academic discourse in the 1960s and 1970s (Dorland 1998: 13–18). For many academics and state bureaucrats, 1968, the year the newly minted Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) (1967) tried to kick-start fiction feature filmmaking in Canada, marks the beginnings of a Canadian film industry. For the first time $10 million in federal funding, albeit a pitifully small amount, was available to producers to make fiction feature films.

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