Is Canadian Cinema evolving?

Welcome to Canada (1989) and Monsieur Lazhar (2011)

This film review will comment on two Canadian films that deploy immigrants and political refugees. These films are separated by over two decades. Within this period so called “visible minority” film directors have not had the same level of funding as main-stream directors.

It is impossible in the province of Quebec for “visible minority” directors to get serious funding. This fact is indisputable and immutable. Unequivocally, film directors in Quebec are threatened by outsiders who might usurp their roles; moreover, established film reviewers in Quebec undermine the efforts of “visible minority” or immigrant directors to acquire equal funding. (Invariably, when French-Canadians use the term “immigrant” they are referring to people who are actually Canadian Citizens).

Welcome to Canada (NFB, 1989) is about Tamils who were tossed out of a German ship off Canada’s east coast in 1987. This film is as manipulative as Jean François Mercier’s Disparaitre (NFB; 1989) – a racist film on “visible minorities” in the province of Québec. Smith’s film deals with human rights; Mercier’s film suggests how white francophones will vanish into thin air if Quebec allows more and more non-whites in. Mercier’s Disparaitre uses collective social panic to encourage a mistrust of “visible minorities;” Lise Payette, a provincial-ethnic-nationalist, did the voice-over. The intention of the film is to show to francophones that they are drowning in a sea of non-white people: decreasing non-white immigration is the only solution to the survival of French-Canadians. From six feet under, both D.W. Griffith  and George Wallace admire this work.

Welcome to Canada is not as threatening as Mercier’s film because John Smith’s film has a nice Christian feel to it. The film tries to demystify the brown immigrant-creatures for the European tribe who came here only a few centuries before. The film shows the Tamils as a sobbing and distraught set of people who are alive today because the community of Brigus South (on Canada’s east coast) took care of them. In the film, a preacher says; “They came to us in their weakness”. Explanations of their violent political background are not offered in any meaningful detail. (Canada has a weapons of death industry and sells to areas in conflict; cf. Resisting the Pharaohs, 1984, In my film I show that Canada is one of the largest per capita exporters of weapons of death. The CBC and NFB and other Canadian media don’t do much to expose this industry).

John Smith shows Tamils in Brigus South in various stages of helplessness; they are either crying or feeling sorry for themselves. We are shown images (in all likelihood taken from CBC footage) of terror in Sri Lanka; bombings of civilian aircraft, movements of armored tanks and troops, blasted apart buses. However, analytical connections are not established between what we see in Sri Lanka and the plight of the Tamils who have arrived here. Who caused their departure from Sri Lanka? Intentionally, this film turns us away from facts and pushes us to appreciate NFB-CBC liberalism. A film can contain a wide range of experiences; it is important to show their suffering, but, this is the dominant way they are depicted. Puppets conforming to the director’s human right’s needs? No doubt.

Welcome to Canada does not make connections between the Indian occupation army in their country and the making of refugees. Smith could have shown us Tamil Tigers or various groups engaged in armed struggle to fight off oppression. According to Smith perhaps one of the best ways to humanize the Tamils is to show their sorrow only: that way Canadians will feel sorry for them and let them stay. Welcome to Canada is plagued with human rights pretentions: the Tamils are used as subject matter to make Canada look good. A critical film-maker addressing the same issue would be hard pressed to be so false.

It is possible to make films that look at the emotional side of any issue as well as offer analysis. Here are two examples: Home Feeling by Jennifer Hodge (NFB;1982). This methodologically conventional film shows how the black community in the Jane-Finch area of Toronto deals with police harassment. The film moves from case histories to showing groups questioning the Toronto police. Alanis Obomsawin’s Incident at Restigouche (NFB; 1984), a historically informed and profoundly confrontational work, exposes the cruelty of the Quebec police toward Natives. Both these films were made by astute film-makers who correctly used the NFB’s production facilities.

Monsieur Lazhar (2011) by Philippe Falardeau is a feature film celebrated as open-minded. This film is not different from Disparaitre and Welcome to Canada in the way it uses “visible minorities”. Monsieur Lazhar appears more complex than Disparaitre and Welcome to Canada, but isn’t. The film sets a French-Canadian story at its center and, contains as its backdrop, the story of an Algerian man who is teaching at a primary school in Montreal. The film has two separate stories. The white story deals with how the young students deal with the suicide of their teacher. The non-white sub-plot deals with the children’s replacement-teacher who is the Algerian refugee claimant. A few perfunctory remarks are made about terror in Algeria. The thinly presented Algeria bit is put behind the story of how the kids deal with the teacher who committed suicide. A child, who functions as the main actor, saw her hanging from a beam in the class room.

It would be a miscalculation to see this film as a marker of progress simply because one of the secondary roles is played by an Algerian refugee. Why does Philippe Falardeau use Algeria as a backdrop to the white story? The main question is: Would it change the course of the film had a white French-Canadian played the role of the substitute teacher? Not at all. So why use Algeria in this French-Canadian story? Philippe Falardeau is indirectly saying, “Look everybody, Quebec is now so open-minded that it can now include an Algerian within a feature film”. The Algerian story element is shallow. The film doesn’t tell us much about the Algerian that the media haven’t already told us. Clichés on terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, suppression of human rights are mentioned without consequential integration into the white story.

The dramatic center of this bucolic film occurs when the main child actor tearfully declares that the other students thought he had a role in the suicide of their teacher: the class room floods with tears. Another Canadian tearjerker. There isn’t any meaningful connection between Algeria and Quebec: Philippe Falardeau uses Algeria and the refugee claimant in this inane figment of cinema. There is nothing challenging or rewarding in viewing this film.

Would a critical director have set the story in which the French-Canadian story predominates and suppresses a chronology of conflict in Algeria? I don’t think so. Philippe Falardeau, like John Smith and Jean François Mercier is tame and uninformed.

In two decades, Canadian film-makers haven’t learnt how to pull in the larger world. They are able only to trivialize reality. They use immigrants and political refugees to suit their own needs. Mercier projects non-whites as a threat to French-Canadian existence in these few acres of snow; John Smith and Philippe Falardeau use non whites as appendages to colour their tiny Canadian stories. It is inaccurate to see evolution in Monsieur Lazhar. We are in an era of trivia– continuum ad infinitum.

Julian Samuel is a Montreal filmmaker and painter.