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Rebelle (english title War Witch) is the third Best Foreign Language nominee in three years for Canada, solidifying a hat trick of worthwhile internationally minded films. It’s also the fifth nomination since 2000: Waterhad the honour in 2006 and The Barbarian Invasions won the award in 2004. Only France and Germany have more nominations in that time with six. As an avid well-wisher for canuck cinema’s world wide exposure, its time to nerd out and see what the Canadian cinematic identity looks like from Hollywood’s biggest stage.
Perhaps it’s a silly task. I’m not giving the Academy the power of validation, and the Foreign Language nod may have regained “bathroom break” status, lacking a cross-culture hit like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Pan’s Labyrinth in recent years. Also, much of Canada’s own film industry has long been geared towards an output of shorts and documentaries – the gov made it so at the NFB’s inception – but here we’re going to deal with contemporary features only. Lets get to it.
The most obvious trait amongst the nominees is the Quebec dominance. Of the five nominations since 2000, only Deepa Metha’s Water did not originate from Quebec Film wise Quebec has, more or less, been its sort of own cinematic nation since the 1950’s and we could sit here all day speculating a maybe-existent head start in international momentum. But at the Academy there is a much more direct factor: the “foreign language” stipulation – regardless of national origin, the film’s language cannot be English.
Lacking simpler access to consideration, Canada’s English-speaking filmmakers find no exposure from the Academys cope. A film otherwise needs U.S distribution to achieve Academy consideration. Cronenberg’s Hollywood-infused success aside, Atom Egoyan has been the only other notable, gaining Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay nod with The Sweet Hereafter in 1997 – but that’s it. The comedies of Michael Dowse (FUBAR) and the acid-trip documentaries of Peter Mettler (End of Time) remain for local audiences and smaller international circuits.
This doesn’t mean Quebec film stumbles into synonymy with Canadian film: the stipulation doesn’t require an official national language just a foreign one. Metha’s Water, is a Hindi language film and Canada’s submission in 2001 was Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001), a film written and acted entirely in the Inuktitut language.
In fact Rebelle, shot completely in the Republic of Congo, is the third French-language Canadian submission to have multi-national origins. The previous nominee Monsiuer Lahzar is a story of an Algerian refugee fighting for a new life as a Quebec school teacher. And Incendies (2010’s nominee) follows a son and daughter as they retrace their mother’s footsteps through Lebanon in search of her origins and their own as well.
The trend we see is quite clear: with each foreign language nod Canada highlights another fragment of its cultural kaliedoscope. Roots are traced either abroad or into Canada’s obfuscated history, and stories of displacement reign to bring closure to a sense of identity. This may beg the suspicion of a calculated PR move, but we see what we see, and the pedigree of each film allows it to stand on its own. Trust me, go see them. And when the emotional roller coaster of international melodrama becomes too much, you can always detox with the locals from Trailer Park Boys or 22 Minutes. O Canada!