January 17, 2017

The Canadian Screen Awards go homegrown-heavy in 2017

Barry Hertz / The Globe and Mail

The 2017 Canadian Screen Awards are going to look more, well, Canadian this year. After the 2016 edition of the CSAs was dominated by Oscar darlings Room and Brooklyn – both technically Canadian co-productions, even if they starred Americans and Europeans and were directed by Irishmen – this year’s awards slate looks as homegrown as can be.

The only trick, as always, will be seeing just how many Canadians have actually heard of their countrymen’s films.

This year’s nominees for best motion picture, unveiled Tuesday morning in Toronto, might be more familiar to critics and art-house devotees than to the average Canadian moviegoer. Of the 10 films nominated, only three have arguably made much of an impact across the country, and each for their own unique reasons: Stephen Hopkins’s Jesse Owens biopic Race enjoyed wide notice last winter thanks to its international stars (Jeremy Irons, Jason Sudeikis) and a decent push from Focus Features in the United States; Matt Johnson’s mockumentary Operation Avalanche earned wide press notices thanks to a hot Sundance premiere and its director’s media-savvy personality; and Juste la fin du monde benefited from director Xavier Dolan’s polarizing presence, and its Cannes premiere last spring. (Perhaps in correlation with the amount of attention it has received, Dolan’s film has also nabbed the most CSA recognition this year, with nine nominations.)

As for the rest of the best-picture nominees, even the most curious Canadian cinephile would admit the selections risk tipping into the obscure: Louis Bélanger’s marijuana comedy Les mauvaises herbes; Chloé Leriche’s indigenous crime drama Avant les rues; Kevan Funk’s intense hockey drama Hello Destroyer; Johnny Ma’s thriller Old Stone; Zacharias Kunuk’s revisionist Inuit western Maliglutit; Bruce McDonald’s dramedy Weirdos; and Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie’s Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié n’ont fait que se creuser un tombeau (or, Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves), a festival favourite to be sure, but otherwise an unfortunately unfamiliar mouthful to anyone who doesn’t closely follow the industry.

And as is typical for the CSAs (and their forebear, the Genie Awards), several of the nominees have yet to even open theatrically in Canada, including Hello Destroyer, Weirdos and Ashley McKenzie’s Werewolf, the latter of which scored nods in several categories including best actor and best actress.

According to the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, which administers the CSAs, films that have been accepted into at least two ACCT-approved Canadian film festivals in 2016 are eligible for this year’s awards. There is also, as last year, no stipulation that films must play in cinemas across the country, which partially explains the presence of such Québécois productions as Avant les rues.

(The CSAs were created in 2013, with the merger of the Genies, Canada’s film awards, and the English-language TV Gemini Awards. This year’s top TV nominees include Bell Media’s Orphan Black, with 14 nominations; and the CBC’s Schitt’s Creek, with 13 nominations, and Kim’s Convenience, with 11 nominations. The CSAs also honour digital media.)

On the non-fiction film side, Black Code, Giants of Africa, Gulistan: Land of Roses, Koneline: Our Land Beautiful and Waseskun are nominated for best feature-length documentary. But again, don’t worry if none of these titles ring a bell: Eligible docs also don’t need high-profile runs to qualify, but instead only a minimum of three public screenings. Or, failing that, acceptance into two ACCT-approved Canadian film festivals.

Unlike last year’s Hollywood-heavy outlier of a year, the 2017 CSAs find themselves stuck in a tricky situation: The awards can use whatever profile they offer to shine a spotlight on a rash of underserved films, or they risk being viewed as out of touch by selecting productions most Canadians have never heard of, let alone had a chance to view. It’s not a unique dilemma when it comes to the Canadian film industry, but it is an ever-pressing one, especially as that sector continues to experience seismic change both north and south of the border, and federal Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly undertakes what has been promised as a massive review of Canada’s cultural policy.

For those fortunate enough to have seen most of the films being honoured by the CSAs this time around, the nominations confirm that the work of daring artists is not going ignored by the country’s cultural tastemakers. Indeed, Johnson’s Operation Avalanche, Funk’s Hello Destroyer, McKenzie’s Werewolf and Denis and Lavoie’s Ceux qui font… are among the most innovative and exciting works of Canadian cinema to come along in ages, not just in the past calendar year. They deserve as much attention and plaudits as available.

But it’s doubtful the CSAs will be the event to launch those productions into the stratosphere.

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