By: Katarina Gligorijevic
If you had to choose two characteristics that epitomize Canada above all others, what would they be?
In 1919, Back to God’s Country was released and quickly became Canada’s first genuine blockbuster. It remains the country’s most successful silent film, and it is chock-full of two qualities that have been emblematic for Canadian films (and indeed, Canada as a country) for the past hundred years.
Snow. In a country that loves talking about the weather, snow is the Canadian-est of weather phenomena!
And sass. Let’s face it, we may poke fun at ourselves for apologizing to inanimate objects when we bump into them, but underneath this country’s polite exterior, there lies an attitude of pure sass! We’ve got a sharp sense of humour, and while we take a lot of things very seriously, we never take ourselves too seriously.
You want proof? Here are eleven exhibits for your consideration:
1965: La vie hereuse de Léopold Z (The Merry Life of Leopold Z)
No “making of” story is sassier than this one. A young Gilles Carle, not yet established as one of Quebec’s preeminent filmmakers, is commissioned by the National Film Board to make a documentary about snow clearing. He seizes the opportunity to “go rogue” and hands in a narrative feature instead, a delightful story of a snowplough driver trying to finish his Christmas shopping while working on Christmas Eve. You’ve never seen so much snow.
1969: A Married Couple
Allan King’s seminal documentary may have spawned the current era of reality TV, and pre-dated it by half a century. King’s fly-on-the-wall doc lets us in on the private moments of a disintegrating marriage, and it’s still as compelling today as it was when it was made. A cinema-verité pioneer whose films pushed cultural taboos for over five decades, King was truly the definition of “sass”.
1974: Black Christmas
Is it any wonder that the snowiest, sassiest country on earth invented the (beloved) Christmas horror subgenre genre? Of course not. 1974’s Black Christmas is celebrated as one of the first slasher films, but over 40 years later it still stands the test of time as one of the best as well. Plus, it’s got the hands-down best tag line: “If this picture doesn’t make your skin crawl, it’s on too tight!”
1980s-‘90s: Toronto New Wave
This loose-knit collective of filmmakers came of age in Toronto in the 1980s and ‘90s includes Atom Egoyan, John Greyson, Ron Mann, Bruce McDonald, Don McKellar, Peter Mettler, Jeremy Podeswa and Patricia Rozema. They have gone on to prolific careers and international acclaim, representing a broad spectrum of styles and approaches. The early films that earned them the “New Wave” moniker were sassy, fresh and captured the zeitgeist, as well as fostering a new language for English Canadian film and an atmosphere of cooperation that has had an enduring impact on the Toronto film scene.
1980s-today: Comedy troupes!
Ok, we’re cheating a bit with this one, because it is an umbrella that covers many talented people, a lot of whom got their start in TV. Newfoundland’s CODCO (which birthed This Hour Has 22 Minutes), SCTV (which brought us iconic characters such as Bob & Doug McKenzie), Kids in the Hall (thirty Helens agree it’s one of the best comedy shows of all time), Royal Canadian Air Farce and others have had an undeniable influence on the culture as a whole. They’ve also spawned such hit films as the classic Strange Brew, The Adventure of Faustus Bidgood and Dog Park and have influenced everything from Fubar to Trailer Park Boys. Even more sassily, they have defined a national sense of humour and firmly cemented Canada’s international reputation as a damn funny country.
1986: Le déclin de l’empire américain (The Decline of the American Empire)
What’s sassier than talking about sex for two hours? Getting nominated for an Oscar for doing so! Le déclin was the first Canadian film to be nominated for Best Foreign Language film (Arcand’s follow-up, Les Invasions Barbares, was nominated and won in the same category). This critically acclaimed box office hit is wickedly funny and remains relevant over 30 years later. Over the past three decades, Arcand has become one of the most internationally renowned and celebrated directors from Quebec.
Talk about all snow, all the time! Canada’s first Inuit production company was co-founded by Zacharias Kunuk in 1990, and has helped kickstart a vibrant Inuit film industry in the north. Isuma is well known for Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, which holds several impressive (and dare we say pretty dang sassy) accolades: it was the first feature film written, directed, and performed entirely in Inuktitut; it premiered at the 54th Cannes Film Festival and won the Camera D’Or, and was voted the greatest Canadian film of all time in a poll conducted by TIFF in 2015. In 2008, Isuma launched IsumaTV, a multimedia website and online portal for Inuit and Indigenous culture.
2007: My Winnipeg
This wildly original documentary love letter to Canada’s most famously snowy (and cold) city is as brilliant as it is unusual. Guy Maddin’s hometown isn’t the largest film industry hub in the country, but it may be the most unique. The Winnipeg Film Group has been fostering some of the country’s most cutting edge talents there since 1974.
Timeless: Alanis Obomsawin
She directed her first film for the NFB in 1971, and was the first Indigenous woman solo-director at the NFB. Obomsawin blazed a trail for women, gave voice to Indigenous experiences, and never shied away from using her films to speak truth to power. She personifies the most badass definition of “sass”, period. This powerhouse has made over 50 films and is still going strong at age 86.
Timeless: David Cronenberg
The undeniable king of body horror has been freaking out, traumatizing and sassing legions of devoted fans for a whopping five decades. Images such as James Woods’ stomach swallowing a gun in Videodrome or Jeff Goldblum slowly disintegrating as he transforms into a fly remain as mind-blowing today as they were when the films were made and will continue to be burned into the minds of audiences for generations to come.
Timeless: West Coast Women
Does the (usual) lack of snow on the temperate west coast have anything to do with why the women there are so sassy? If you need convincing, look no further than Kissed, Lynne Stopkewich’s charming romantic drama about a sexy young … necrophiliac?! One thing we know for sure is that filmmakers like Stopkewich, along with Mina Shum, Ann Marie Fleming, Nettie Wild and Amanda Strong all have distinctive voices, amazingly diverse filmmaking styles and make hard-hitting documentaries, ground-breaking animations, powerful dramas, and unique and beautiful films of all sorts!