FFC rating: 7/10
by Christopher E. Gittings
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover Canadian National Cinema is a valiant stab at something that had previously not existed: a work on Canadian cinema that includes all Canadians. Taking on the not inconsiderable task of levelling the playing field for those who do not fit the white hetero male standards that serve as its default position, author Christopher E. Gittings, a professor at the University of Alberta, sees through official culture and de-centers centralized discourses that distort and oppress. While his sheepish methods ultimately boomerang on him and constrict the scope of his discussion, there's no denying he's created an excellent introductory text that clearly establishes the important issues in Canadian film studies.
Immune to our invented vision of a tolerant multicultural Canada, Gittings wastes no time in attacking the colonial discourse that underwrites Canadian culture. Making it clear that the country had been envisioned as a "commodified resource to be exploited in the project of empire building," he examines the consequences of representing it as such, writing in the unspoken truths that surround films both early (immigration films) and foundational (Drylanders (1963)) that omit the conquest of First Nations peoples and privileged Anglo- Celtic and Saxon settlers. In a chapter called "Who Is Ethnographiable?," Gittings methodically analyzes the racial and cultural assumptions of pre-NFB cinema, from the 1921 Nation Building in Saskatchewan: The Ukraninans, which guides a Ukrainian immigrant into cultural assimilation, to the exploitative 1935 Secrets of Chinatown, which defends whiteness from a degenerate Chinese Other. Gittings gives us no room to escape the uncomfortable realities of where our cinema comes from and the ulterior motives on which it has acted.
Having established Canada's colonial context, he goes on to examine not only the colonized but also the colonized of the colonized. There is, of course, much pertaining to Canada's cultural distortion at American hands: The Adjuster becomes an attack on imported American materialism, with an imported Beaver Cleaver facade concealing emptiness, while Highway 61's take on the American road movie explores its heroes' "misrecognition of the American Other for the self." And there are some suggestive readings of Quebecois cinema: Mon oncle Antoine becomes an allegory of Duplessis-era exploitation and Les bons debarras' struggle of daughter-for-mother representation of French Quebec's attempts to wrest control of its motherland. But Gittings is wise enough to suggest that many of these readings are limited by their aloneness: they often do not recognize the struggles of First Nations peoples and those of people of colour, and reveal incomplete, if important, ways of understanding the nation.
This is further explored in a chapter devoted to the representation of Native peoples: their depiction at the hands of white filmmakers has frequently been inadequate, degenerating into noble savagery (Black Robe), unknowable guilt-inducers (Windigo), and rez-stranded ruffians (Dance Me Outside). By contrast, some First Nations self-representation does much to "return the gaze" of white colonial cinema, as in Alanis Obomsawin's documentaries of Restigouche and Oka. (Others, such as Shelley Niro's Honey Moccasin, "refuse to acknowledge the white colonial gaze" in its exploration of a matriarchal community space.) Here Gittings reveals how a community must be able to speak for and with itself in order to have cultural power and cannot merely allow others to speak for it--a fact that resonates with other, better-publicized spheres of Canadian culture.
Unfortunately, by the time Gittings reaches the subject of multiculturalism, it becomes clear that his methods compartmentalize as much as they reveal. Though he claims that "my intention...is not to ghettoize racial minority filmmakers," that's exactly what he does by isolating them from the white Anglo- and Franco-Canadian context. Though he is correct in trying to show "racialization constructed and imposed...by the Canadian state," he overlooks ways in which ethnic imperatives shade into national imperatives. Many of the nonwhites he cites relate to the concept of the nation and its cultural colonization, from the villainous white American gangster in Rude and the heroine's stated desire to win an Oscar (and thus American attention) in Double Happiness, but instead of broadening our understanding of how a nation is constructed, the book makes familiar separations that keep us from both connections and fine distinctions between experiences.
While he does somewhat better with women's cinema, he repeats his blunder in his discussion of homosexuality, which is limited, astonishingly, to two John Greyson films and Forbidden Love. In addition to mounting a feeble attack on the issue, it forgets to consider a gay point-of-view on our cultural colonization; had he discussed Outrageous, with its flight from stuffy Toronto to "crazy" New York, or Hustler White, wherein transplanted Canadian Bruce LaBruce trains his gaze on the fleshpots of Los Angeles, he might have learned just as much about Canada's relationship to America as from the heterosexuals he carelessly gives pride of place.
This reveals the overall drawback to the book, which is not so much bias as conceptual timidity; while Gittings's work implicitly suggests a need for a Canadian film theory that would release its citizens from our hierarchy of cultural repressions, it backs away from actually making one. Instead of building on the work of the writers and theorists he cites--from Peter Morris and Ted Magder, and Edward Fung in Canada to Homi Bhabha, Teresa DeLaurentis, and Franz Fanon abroad--he is content merely to cite them approvingly without following through on their implications, resulting in occasionally limited discussions and de facto affirmations of the very assumptions he sets out to oppose.
And yet there is the sense that the book rises from the ashes of its own self-destruction: Gittings lets so much out of Pandora's box that his attempts to clap the lid back on fail. His book is potently suggestive, a valuable thesis statement for the critical work to be done. So if Canadian National Cinema comes up short as a response to our country's cinematic challenges, it shines as a lesson in what those challenges are--a lesson that is vital to releasing us from the unspoken frustrations of CanCon and its discontents.