A recent trio of readings set up an intriguing – and occasionally conflicting – framework from which to consider Canadian national identity via our national cinema (or more accurately, our national cinemas, plural).
Bill Marshall’s Producing and Envisioning the Nation makes one of its grandest statements with the proclamation, “whereas nationalist discourse would seek to pass off the nation as natural and inevitable, it is in fact a construction and a fiction” (9). While much is often debated about whether or not the idea of a fitting nationalist definition works for Canadian cinema (let alone for Canada itself), Marshall seems to see those two definitions as separate things. While a nation as landmass can be defined by its borders (Canada is indeed a country that is both English and French, and its territorial definitions are no mystery), it’s workable to also define that nation’s cinema as coming from more than one “nation” – especially in the case of a country like Canada, in which the Québécois could be considered in a similar way to the Basque in Spain, and the Flemish in Belgium. Canada, as a country viewed through its cinema, is both “together” yet also “separate.”
Personally, I think it is possible for a nation with colliding languages to exist as a singular entity. Consider the unified impression one gets from China, despite the division between Mandarin and Cantonese speakers, or the recognition of over 1200 dialects of the Italian language in Italy, a large number of which are incomprehensible to those who speak a different dialect. An Italian film, be it made in Rome or Sardegna in wildly different languages, is still an Italian film and considered a usable reference point towards defining the Italian national culture. Personally, I find it a blessing to live in a country like Canada. To me, the definition of our national identity is one that can constantly shift and change over the course of time. What other nation on Earth has not only French and English culture side-by-side, but also a rich and deep Aboriginal one? Consider our cities: Vancouver, Montreal, Igloolik.
Both Laura U. Marks’ Inuit Auteurs and Arctic Airwaves and Elizabeth Anderson’s Studio D’s Imagined Community seem to come from a similar place, Marks portraying the discourse around Inuit video as a, “well-intentioned fog” (13), and Anderson filing Studio D’s attempts at feminist filmmaking as merely, “images that add to an image of diversity” (55). In all of these examples, there’s also a suspicion of federal government involvement (on the singular “national” level) having an inverse effect on the films made as useful “nation”-defining artifacts, be the film itself one emerging from an English feminist, Québécois, or Inuit ideology.
The struggle remains, then, to find that perilous balance between all of the divergent identities and nations-within-a-nation that makes up the singular Canada as a whole. Comparing a film like Atanarjuat with one like Le déclin de l’empire américain certainly paints our country as one not easily defined. But it also presents our country – and I would argue rightfully so – as one unlike any other.