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View From The North
May 27, 2008

Could Tory Film Vetting Spark a Serious Debate About Canadian Culture?
by Mark Wegierski

The federal Conservative government of Canada recently proposed withdrawing tax credits from Canadian films that a government committee deems offensive and not in the public interest. The media are portraying the measure - part of omnibus income tax bill C-10 -- as a huge triumph for Canada's "religious right."

In fact, such a measure actually probably arises out of a trend to "political correctness" — in which Canada is considerably ahead of the United States. Even if it has a Conservative provenance, it could quickly be taken in a decidedly anticonservative direction with a change of government.

It is comparatively difficult to ascertain the genuinely moral quality of a film on the basis, for example, of how many times the "f-word" is used. When Human Rights Commissions in Canada have attempted to enforce laws against material labeled offensive, social conservatives have strenuously opposed censorial limitations.

What would be welcome in the context of the strong resistance to the Conservative government proposal is a serious debate over Canadian culture and the future of arts funding in Canada.

There are very few Canadian movies that most people in the country -- outside of a few urban art circles -- could recognize. I have rarely seen people of comparatively intellectual affiliation in Toronto talking about some exciting Canadian movie, in the way they might talk about "American Beauty," "Blade Runner," or "The Matrix."

It is difficult to understand why "Juno," the best-known and widely applauded Canadian movie, does not qualify as a Canadian movie because it does not meet the bureaucratic criteria for content -- mainly because its funding came from outside the country. The two most prominent Canadian movies last year have been "Away From Her," a tightly-focused exploration of Alzheimer's that did not require elaborate sets or special effects, and "Eastern Promises," a film that is deeply rooted in the experiences of the Russian exile community in Britain.

Canadian filmmakers and other artists should ask themselves precisely why their films and other artistic work -- apart from the music sector, which seems to be comparatively thriving -- usually have so little traction and appeal. Ironically, while Hollywood is known for its wacky lifestyles and over-the-top liberalism, its movies in most cases have to function in a free market. They have in most cases succeeded spectacularly as money-making ventures -- they do indeed have a comparatively wide appeal. Wide popular appeal can, to some extent, point to genuine artistic achievement.

The United States enjoys a lively political debate between fairly well delineated Left and Right points of view. In Canada, however, "official culture" exists in a hothouse atmosphere, virtually cutting itself off from more perennial historical and social realities. The result of this divorce is that the industry must rely for its existence on the government — and, ultimately, the taxpayers. While the case can certainly be made that no Canadian films should receive tax credits, the absence of such subsidies would mean that almost no Canadian films would be made.

If Canadian filmmakers and other artists could indeed take more seriously their obligations to reflect and foster more perennial historical and social realities, they would have a greater chance of creating something that would resonate with far more people. Indeed, they would be on their way to helping to re-create a Canadian culture. Such a goal surely should be at least one major reason that Canadian cultural endeavor receives government funding in the first place.

Any serious moves toward more truly worthwhile and edifying art cannot come from top-down government vetting for allegedly questionable or offensive content. Rather, they should come from some evolutionary artistic development integral to filmmakers and artists themselves. Whether at this late date any kind of conceptual breakthrough of re-rootedness in longstanding Canadian social and historical realities is possible among at least a few members of the artistic community is certainly open to question.

Nevertheless, addressing the arts community seriously and directly is far preferable to fixating on -- and raging against -- the specter of looming government censorship.


Link to article reprinted by The Providence Journal.

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Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer, social critic, and historical researcher and is published in major Canadian newspapers, as well as in U.S. scholarly journals such as HUMANITAS, REVIEW OF METAPHYSICS, and TELOS, and in U.S. magazines such as CHRONICLES and THE WORLD & I. His writing has also appeared in Polish, British, and German publications.

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