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Canadian Cinema: Home

Cinema Studies

Highway 61 (Bruce McDonald, 1991)

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Canadian Cinema: A Brief Introduction

Although filmmaking came to English-speaking Canada in 1897, it is only within the last fifty years that a feature film industry—or rather feature film industries—have emerged. 

Canada is home to several different filmmaking centers, the largest of which are located in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Smaller, and equally notable production centers have taken shape in several other locations as well. Among these, the Winnipeg Film Group, a collective of artists first founded in 1974, has become especially well known for its insightful documentaries and challenging feature films.   

Anglophone Canadian cinema first gained international recognition in the areas of documentary and animation production. Norman McLaren, for example, a Scottish-born Canadian, was a pioneer in the field of many different areas of filmmaking, including animation and abstract film. The National Film Board of Canada, the organization with whom McLaren worked, has, since 1939, dedicated itself to the production and distribution of films “to help Canadians in all parts of Canada to understand the ways of living and the problems of Canadians in other parts” (NFB mission statement). 

The 1960s witnessed significant changes in the films being produced in Canada. While some artists continued to work in “direct cinema,” popular throughout the decade before, others moved into feature filmmaking for the first time. Don Owen brought his starkly honest portrayal of Canada’s disenfranchised youth in Nobody Waved Goodbye (1964), while David Secter examined the gay undertones of a touching friendship between University of Toronto undergraduates in Winter Kept Us Warm (1965). Colin Low continued the documentary tradition with his The Days of Whiskey Gap (1961) and The Hutterites (1964), while Montreal-based Arthur Lipsett created a series of inventive, avant-garde works, including Nice, Very Nice(1961), 21-87(1964), and A Trip Down Memory Lane (1961).

In the 1970s, Toronto became more widely recognized as a capital of film production. Don Shebib’s pivotal film, Goin’ Down The Road (1970) set the tone for a decade of daring, provocative works, including Paperback Hero (Peter Pearson, 1973), a modern fantasy about a hockey player loses his grip on reality and mistakenly believes that he is a gunslinger in the Old West, and Twelve and a Half Cents (René Bonniére), the harrowing story of a woman no longer able to look after her family. The films of David Cronenberg, Norman Jewison, and Bob Clark, too, helped to further establish Toronto's place on the filmmaking map. 

The 1980s and 1990s—the period upon which this page focuses—saw the emergence of what came to be referred to as “the Toronto New Wave,” a period of commercially successful and critically acclaimed works produced by young directors who came of age in the 1980s. Principal figures in this movement include directors Holly Dale, Atom Egoyan, François Girard, John Greyson, Srinivas Krishna, Laurie Lynd, Bruce McDonald, Don McKellar, Deepa Mehta, Jeremy Podeswa, Patricia Rozema, Mina Shum, Clement Virgo, David Wellington, and Peter Wellington, and producers Louise Clark, Camelia Frieberg, Alex Raffé, Colin Brunton, and Janis Lundman. The success of such Toronto-based films as Egoyan’s The Adjuster (1991) and Exotica (1993), Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987) and White Room (1990), McDonald’s Highway 61 (1991) and Dance Me Outside (1994), Krishna’s Masala (1991) and the tragically underappreciated Lulu (1996), among many others, fueled an interest in filmmaking that extended across the country, from Vancouver (Sandy Wilson, John Pozer, and Patricia Gruben), to Winnipeg (Gregg Klimkiw, Guy Maddin, John Paizs, and Cynthia Roberts), to Halifax (Paul and Michael Donovan, Glenn Walton). 

Cinema in Francophone Canada seems to have a much more stable history, from its origins in 1896, a full year before it appeared in Canada's English-speaking provinces, up to the present. Strong literary and theatrical traditions helped the provincial industry maintain a steady output of hits, from the shocking La petite Aurore, enfant martyre (Jean-Yves Bigras, 1952), a shocking melodrama based on the horrific abuse and eventual death of a child at the hands of her vicious stepmother, to Mon oncle Antoine (Claude Jutra, 1971), the realistic depiction of life in a small mining town in an era of political change. 

Perhaps the single most significant historical development in Quebec's provincial cinema occurred in 1967, when the Catholic censorship bureau was dissolved and replaced by a provincial regulatory board charged with assigning film ratings, similar to those imposed in the United States. This development, enacted as part of Quebec's "quiet revolution" of secularization, gave filmmakers an artistic freedom they had never enjoyed before.    

Key figures in Quebec cinema include Denys Arcand, Paule Baillargeon, Jean Beaudin, Jean-Yves Bigras, Michel Brault, Gilles Carle, Rock Demers, Xavier Dolan, André Forcier, Claude Gagnon, François Girard, Pierre Hébert, Claude Jutra, Micheline Lanctot, Jean-Claude Lauzon, Robert Lepage, Yves Pelletier, Léa Pool, Bashar Shbib, and Denis Villeneuve.       

Bollywood Hollywood (Deepa Mehta, 2002)