By Steve Gravestock

The year 2008 was an odd one for Canadian cinema, characterized by anomalies. The biggest and most anomalous story was Paul Gross’s World War I epic Passchendaele. The film made more than $4.5 million and was the country’s largest domestic hit, outgrossing most commercially successful releases from Québec, something films from English Canada seldom do. (One of the last times this happened was in 1998, when François Girard’s multilingual The Red Violin—produced by Rhombus Media, who also produced Passchendaele—was the country’s highest grossing movie.) A large percentage of the financing came from Alberta (where the film was shot) when the province was run by far-right Premier Ralph Klein, not exactly the conventional notion of an arts patron. Though Alberta is home to some of Canada’s most intriguing filmmakers (including Gary Burns and David Christensen), and funds its artists better than other provinces, it’s never exactly rivaled Vancouver, Toronto, or Montréal as a centre for domestic production.

In addition, the movie defied conventional knowledge about what would and wouldn’t work with domestic audiences. English Canadians have shown, at best, modest interest in their own history and period pieces in general—and have never much cared in seeing it represented on film. (The most obvious success was the long-running TV series based on Anne of Green Gables.) Traditionally, English Canadians have responded to films about their own history with indifference or as if they had a life-threatening allergy to it. Again, the situation is radically different in Québec, where historical films have been frequent and, often, successful. (At one point in 2008, the film with Canada’s highest per screen average was Luc Bourdon’s La memoire des anges, a compilation film about the evolution of Montréal comprised of footage from classic NFB works—while playing on one screen in Montréal.)

Passchendaele succeeded despite some suspicion from the industry. It was seen in some quarters as, at best, egotistical. And the film certainly followed a very different model than the auteurist, arthouse one that’s traditionally dominated English Canadian cinema. Gross wrote, directed, co-produced, and starred in the film, and based it on his grandfather’s stories about WWI. It’s tempting to generalize and attribute doubts about the project to Canadians’ alleged inveterate politesse and modesty, but this probably would be misleading. If anything, any pre-release antipathy towards Passchendaele is likely the result of its departure from tradition and what passes for common sense.

In truth, the film shares affinities with projects motivated and driven by stars’ personal obsessions and interests which defied conventional wisdom, like Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). Gross’ movie also went against current trends—and not just in Canada. The last two years have been littered with war movies that, as Variety would say, underperformed.

Part of the success could be attributed to the substantial marketing campaign—a rare thing for an English Canadian release. The campaign smartly (and accurately) presented the film as both romance and graphic war movie. (There was even a “novelization,” unprecedented for an English Canadian movie.) A grassroots campaign had the popular Gross, one of the few well-known homegrown stars dating back to his role in Due South, travelling with the film and, in some places, presenting it to high-school students, etc. replicating similar efforts for Gross’ first movie, Men with Brooms (2002).

Unlike many of the current crop of war films—almost all of them dealing with Iraq— Passchendaele is more conventional, combining romance and action (and the battle scenes are often convincingly gruesome). At times, it feels like a cross between The Best Years of Our Lives, (1946) The Big Red One (1980), and Saving Private Ryan (1998). Moreover, it had the benefit of being about a war that’s a little further removed from us and far less controversial than Iraq. Going to see it seemed less about your politics or a need to see them reflected than about seeing a big homegrown movie about an important event in Canadian history.

“Seemed” is the key term here because Passchendaele is hardly devoid of politics. Though the film takes the side of the infantrymen who risk their lives (as opposed to the commissioned officers), it’s an anti-war movie. It takes aim at the propaganda machine that glamourizes battle and equates it with manhood and the inevitable racism that accompanies and stokes it. (As someone who’s moderately interested in his country’s history, it was affecting to see someone rail against the role of cannon fodder that Canada played in both world wars.)

Passchendale is also a fairly clear allegory for Canada’s current, increasingly bloody and controversial involvement in Afghanistan and makes rather clear allusions to it. A racist neighbour who torments the heroine (whose father was German) is rather pointedly named Mr. Harper, a clear reference to the current prime minister. If these different impulses sound muddled or confused, they just might be, but it’s worth noting that the country as whole seems of two minds about its involvement in Afghanistan—and the filmmakers’ ability to reflect that may be the major reason for its commercial success.

There were smaller, less epic anomalies as well. Ce qu’il faut pour vivre, set in the ‘50s, follows an Inuit man who is diagnosed with tuberculosis and taken to Québec City for treatment. Based on a script by Bernard Emond, and directed with nuance by first-time feature filmmaker Benoît Pilon (previously a documentarian), the film is driven by a genuinely phenomenal performance by Natar Ungalaaq as a man who’s separated from his family and, for much of the movie, unable to communicate with anyone around him. The film did moderately well in Québec, but was given new prominence when it was unexpectedly shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It then dominated the nominations for the Genies, Canada’s film awards, joining another surprise, Richie Mehta’s Amal, a modestly budgeted fable about an auto-rickshaw driver, which made as much or more money at the box office than much larger productions, partly through grassroots, ground-level marketing, tenacity, and alternative distribution networks like the Film Circuit.

Probably the weirdest moments this year, though, involved the federal Conservative government and its cultural policies. Early in 2008, they tabled Bill C-27, legislation that would allow bureaucrats to deny productions tax credits based on decidedly vague categories like whether a film’s content offended community standards as determined, of course, by a bureaucrat. The bill passed the House of Commons without any furor, until The Globe and Mail’s Gayle MacDonald wrote a piece about its ramifications. All hell broke loose, culminating with an impassioned speech by Sandra Oh at the Genies and the government pulling the legislation from the Senate.

Finally, during the fall election campaign, Stephen Harper delivered an off-the-cuff remark—while on the stump in Saskatchewan—claiming that average Canadians cared little about culture or cultural funding since it was mostly a bunch of layabouts going to ritzy parties. (Later, Harper added that he didn’t see why the government should pay for “things people don’t actually want” following the release of a budget which cut some $45 million from arts funding.) Things got worse when Harper refused to repeat similar remarks in French, which infuriated the audience and most of Québec’s already angry artistic community, who then went out and campaigned for anyone but the Tories, who needed a certain number of seats in Québec to secure a majority. They didn’t get it, which meant, as CBC commentator Chantal Hébert noted, represented the first time in decades when cultural issues played a significant role in a political campaign. All of which is, somehow, strangely heartening perhaps because it was so anomalous—and unexpected.

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