HomeCraftThe subversive nature of Canada’s Cannes Film Festival winners

The subversive nature of Canada’s Cannes Film Festival winners

The National Film Board has proven to be such a well of creative output that it’s inspired filmmakers the world over, not to mention that a Scottish ambient-experimental duo was so consistently blown away by the organization’s films that it named itself Boards of Canada in the NFB’s honor.

The subversive nature of Canada’s Cannes Film Festival winners

The National Film Board has proven to be such a well of meaningful creative output that it’s inspired filmmakers the world over, not to mention that a Scottish ambient-experimental duo was so consistently blown away by the organization’s films that it named itself Boards of Canada in the NFB’s honor.

So what makes the NFB so special, aside from pioneering certain film techniques like new forms of stop motion animation and engraving on blank film? For one thing, the best films are more often than not socially critical.

Canada is considered a peace-loving country. This idea persists in spite of the fact that the Occupy movement was launched in response to a call-to-arms from radical Canadian magazine Adbusters. Also, the country has long populated the American film and music industries with many of its most socially critical voices (Lorne Michaels, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell, to name a few).

Eight shake ‘em up Cannes winners

Let’s look first at Colin Low’s 1952 animated short The Romance of Transportation in Canada. The film goes into amazing detail about how human beings traversed the grand spaces of what is now Canada, from aboriginal times to the Industrial Revolution. The goal being to shorten the time travelled between long distances, travel became ever more mechanized until we reach the modern, noisy, exhaust-fumed traffic jam. The suggestion is that perhaps the price we’ve paid to travel from here to there in record time might be just a smidgen too high. At the end, an alien descends in a flying saucer to open the hatch and look down in horror on the teeming traffic, then closes the hatch and returns to outerspace.

In 1958, Douglas Tunstall submitted Women on the March, a surprisingly frank and detailed account of the international struggle for women’s rights, so progressive it makes us wonder where feminism lost its momentum.

The problems of labor get a respectfully thorough documentation with The Back-breaking Leaf, a film about tobacco harvesters in southwestern Ontario, presented by Terence Macartney-Filgate in 1959.

Bretislav Pojar’s 1972 Balablok is a delightful animated short using simple shapes with cute baby voices to explain the origins of war and why it ruins everything.

Hunger by Peter Foldès is a disturbing animated short from 1973, comprising a visual commentary on how consumption (i.e. consumerism) feeds our alienation until it becomes a nightmare of even greater existential famine. The situation is rendered even more bizarre by the fact that so many in the world haven’t enough to eat.

Chris Landreth’s 2004 Ryan is a thoroughly engaging portrait – a computer-generated character that looks strangely fragmented and hollow – symbolizing the descent of an artist into addiction. The film shows up the spectre of substance abuse as something at once deeply horrifying and profoundly human.

In 2007, Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski presented the surreal stop-motion Madame Tutli-Putli. At the beginning, a youngish woman dressed in 20s garb waits for a train, weighed down with many bags standing at the head of what looks like an endless line of highly symbolic “personal baggage”. The train must be going across Canada because she’s reading the iconic Canadian women’s magazine Chatelaine, but the trip has a macabre resemblance to films we’ve seen of people being taken to concentration camps. The lead character becomes the human individual escaping loss, facing a terrifying unknown and moving into true selfhood.

In Cordell Baker’s 2009 short Runaway, a train is thrown into crisis by a wayward cow. The swells and superiors congratulate themselves as they repeatedly make a mess of things, taking credit for the heroic actions of the humble coal shoveller who is the only one truly capable of saving the day. But alas, thanks to the futile machinations of the idle rich, the cow outlives the train and its inhabitants.  

Film as populism’s antidote

Okay, so when Canadians want to shake things up, they do it subtly so only the smart people notice. Canadian indie films are thus the finest antidote to populism – the perfect go-tos for an intelligent escape from today’s social evils.

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Wanda Waterman is a published poet, spoken word performer, musician, blogger, cultural journalist, digital nomad, graphic novelist, and art film junkie. She's lived in Maine, California, Vermont, Nova Scotia, New Hampshire, and North Africa, and is now settled in Montreal.

wwaterman@filmdaily.co