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Archive: Feb 5, 2007
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A good film in any language
by: Feb 5, 2007 Print

It took nearly 60 years, but we finally have a "foreign"-language Oscar nominee from English Canada. Quebec filmmaker Denys Arcand led the charge 20 years ago for French Canada, and has a couple of Oscar noms (The Decline of the American Empire, Jesus of Montreal) and a win for The Barbarian Invasions. That Toronto-based Deepa Mehta's Water is in Hindi and shot in Sri Lanka makes little difference - and all the difference.

Is it an anomaly, or an indicator? Forget Cancon mandates, eroding national identity, and point systems for a moment. There are several signs that indicate a sea change in the relationship of audiences around the world to movies, and it is shifting our thinking in a profound and exciting way.

South Korea and Russia produced hits in 2006 that beat out Hollywood tentpole competition (The Host and Night Watch, respectively), while Japan had six films that made over $45 million. Mel Gibson made a movie in Nahuatl (Apocalypto), a little-spoken Aztec language, and it topped the box in its opening weekend. And the Oscars have never had two competing films in its best picture category that are predominantly in a language other than English - until now, with Letters from Iwo Jima and Babel.

"The languages and the frontiers - and everything - are falling down with the Internet," says Patrick Huard, whose bilingual genre film Bon Cop, Bad Cop has sold in Brazil, Thailand and Turkey and broken box-office records in Canada.

"If you look at Babel - not that I want to compare it to Bon Cop - but you have a movie that has five languages in it and is subtitled all the time. It's two hours and 25 minutes, but you just watch it and enjoy the ride. You don't care about the language because with the [speed and reach] of news, we're used to seeing people from all over the world. We can do [the same thing] in our movies."

The collapsing of borders can't come fast enough, as even thriving Quebec cinema can't fund $8-million-plus features without international partners. We struggle to keep 5% of our own box office against the neighboring Hollywood machine, but our strength is that we're a multicultural, multilingual country that has inspired our own filmmakers to seek out stories whatever their source. François Girard's next film is a Canada/France/Japan copro about the Asian silk trade. Jeremy Podeswa's Fugitive Pieces takes place partly in Greece.

Telefilm Canada head Wayne Clarkson has often repeated the mantra that his priority is to ensure that "Canadian talent [is] making movies that Canadians in the world want to see."

"I hope we always produce films that do well in the domestic market, but are less successful internationally and vice versa," Clarkson told Playback late last year. Trailer Park Boys would fall into the former category, as would the curling comedy Men with Brooms, which had punch lines that only we "got." Of course, Clarkson means that in an ideal world, Canuck film would reach across the globe, but if not, should at least be seen by as many Canadians as possible in their own country.

While that sounds slightly insular, next week Clarkson will be shilling a baker's dozen of homegrown titles to international buyers - from Away from Her to A Sunday in Kigali (shot in Rwanda) - at the Berlin International Film Festival, under the banner of Telefilm's new International Marketing Program.

While we should definitely strive to produce solid domestic hits, we also need to think bigger. In contrast, South Korea, with a population of under 50 million, claimed 61% of its own box office last year. The local top grossers? A US$10-million monster movie (The Host) that took US$90 million, and a historical drama with receipts of US$84 million (King and the Clown). This is not an apples-to-oranges comparison.

The bottom line, of course, is that domestic successes like Water and Bon Cop are the exception and not the rule. We need to make more films with better stories that connect with audiences. Period. Full stop.

Hollywood has always set the production budget bar out of reach, but look at what director Érik Canuel did with a stingy $8 million on Bon Cop. And no matter the film, it has to achieve what it sets out to do. If it's a comedy, it has to be funny; an action-thriller has to be adrenalized; a drama has to stir emotion, etc.

The rub is that the recipe for creating a world-class filmmaker in any language has yet to be discovered. But if ours want to go to Antarctica to film penguins, let them go. What we want on Friday might not be the same thing we want on Saturday.

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