Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television,

Vol. 23, No. 1, 2003

Book Reviews

Canadian National Cinema


London, Routledge

National Cinemas Series

pp. 338_illus, £50 (cloth), £15.99 (paper)

Finally a book has been written that provides both academic and general readers with a comprehensive

examination of Canadian film history. The discipline has long lacked an extensive study of Canadian

film as a reflection of the country’s social and political character. That concern has now been remedied.

Chris Gittings’ Canadian National Cinema will certainly become required reading for students of

Canadian film who wish to trace the evolution of feature films as part of the Canadian cultural fabric.

    Much conventional wisdom has cited Don Shebib’s Going Down the Road (1970) as Canada’s

cinematic ‘coming out film’, but although acknowledging that the Canadian film industry came of age

during the latter part of the 20th century, Gittings’ book places the development of Canadian film

ethnographically. He traces the historical and social contexts of the country’s filmmaking back to the

early 1900s. It is the type of study that will have instant appeal to historians and researchers alike for

its attention to historical and cinematic detail. The book will also serve as a reminder to the reading

public that the legacy of Canadian filmmaking goes beyond Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg. The

work has a number of important strengths. Contemporary critics of Canadian cinema will find Gittings’

book useful on two fronts. First, it provides readers with a rich historical foundation in order to

understand the temperament of Canadian film. Gittings comments that Canadian National Cinema is

not a history of Canadian film, but rather a work that is organized around key historical moments

shaping Canadian cinemas (p. 5).

    The opening chapter, ‘Immigration and empire building’, discusses Canadian film in the context of

colonizing discourse. Perhaps taking issue with John Porter’s (The Vertical Mosaic, 1965) perspective on

the socializing nature of Canadian society, Gittings discusses the nature of Canadian immigration films,

suggesting that they promoted a theme of ‘attracting the right/white kind of invader–settlers,’ an

historical, if not cinematic perspective, shared by Ronald Wright in his book Stolen Continents (1993).

Much of North American history, of course, has been written from that perspective. It is such keen

political and social commentary provided by Gittings that make this book such an enjoyable read. Few

works about Canadian film have been able to penetrate the meaning of the Canadian identity with such


   Chapter 4, ‘Narrating nations/ma(r)king differences’, raises the somewhat controversial issue of what

constitutes the core character of Canadian film, which Gittings suggests may, at times, be influenced

by the cinematic intrusions of ‘others’, particularly the United States. This perception, however, may

have more to do with Canada’s cultural insecurity, tied perhaps to the notion of the ‘settler colony’

theory in post-colonial/colonial discourse, whereby peoples have had trouble breaking completely free

from their cultural point of origin and encounter difficulties in establishing their own identity. Gittings

notes that ‘… despite Canada’s domestic and international market successes in literature, popular

music, and cinema since 1973 … Canadians continue to register the homogenizing effect of a

US-dominated culture’ (p. 104), a culture increasingly exposed to American books, television, and film.

Gittings’ book, however, speaks to the richness and diversity of Canadian cinema, negating the

somewhat typical nationalistic left-of-centre notions that perpetuate fear of such incursions, concerns

such as those espoused by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, who refers to American cultural

dominance as the ‘disease from the south’ (p. 104). That Gittings has been able to develop such an

exacting narrative of Canadian cinema reverses such nationalistic paranoia.

    Chapter 6, ‘Multicultural fields of vision’, is an interesting contrast to ‘Immigration and empire

building’. If Canada’s founding premise was one of the ‘duality of cultures’, Chapter 6 speaks to the

need in Canadian film to recognize the ‘otherness’ (a recurring theme in much of Gittings’ work) that

is inherent within Canada’s cultural fabric. Gittings notes that ‘I have selected films exemplifying … a

decolonisation of the screen: “an assertion of identity, of truth, of history of a particular people of their

lives and their realities” ’ (p. 234). Chapter 6 provides an insightful cross-section of such films,

although Gittings reserves judgment that Canadian cinema has met this challenge head on by observing

that the Canadian film industry might have to evolve further before it is in a position to entertain fully

the ‘oppositional cinema of both First Nations and film-makers of color’ (p. 262).

   Second, Gittings has been able to provide interesting case studies on selected films, which provide

readers with a valuable cross-reference between the political and social realities and the films

themselves. Gittings’ critique of Drylanders (1963) in Chapter 1 exposes readers to the ‘right/white kind

of invader–settler’ theme that dominates the film, prompting Gittings to observe ‘the melodramatic

narrative of Drylanders is driven by a white imperial ideology … that erase[s] First Nations from the

terrain of settlement by representing the land as empty except for the enterprising figure of the white

settler …’ (p. 15). Such analytical sensitivity to Canada’s past has provided film critics with a useful

measuring stick for the cultural and historical credibility of this and other films discussed in his book.

   A criticism of the book might be that Gittings has developed a somewhat radical critique of Canadian

cinema, perhaps alienating some critics who might suggest that Canadian film has accurately reflected,

for the most part, Canada’s cultural mosaic. A more apt description of Gittings’ work is that the book

places Canadian cinema squarely within the realm of revisionist thinking about what has constituted the

political and social character of Canadian film. Gittings, perhaps picking up on the spirit of Peter

Morris’s (1978) work Embattled Shadows: a history of Canadian cinema (1885–1939), challenges readers

to view Canadian film outside of the conventional ‘colonial heritage’ box. In doing so, he makes readers

rethink the evolutionary nature of Canadian cinema.

   What Chris Gittings has accomplished with Canadian National Cinema is to raise the bar of

excellence for future investigations of Canadian film. Similar to earlier cultural studies of nationhood

such as George Grant’s Lament for a Nation (1965) and William Morton’s The Canadian Identity

(1965), treatises that helped determine the boundaries of Canada’s political culture, Gittings has boldly

defined the political and cultural heritage of Canadian cinema. Canadian National Cinema will provide

readers with a scholarly yet highly subjective assessment of Canadian film. It is the type of critical work

that Canadian and international film studies has required. One might not agree with some of Gittings’

observations about the evolution of Canadian film; his opinions, however, will make for excellent

debate in college classrooms.

RONALD SMITH, University College of the Cariboo

CanFilm | Essays | FAQ | History of NFB | Images | Links | Film Festivals | Resources | Reviews | TRU Film Courses

Contact:   abrandoli@tru.ca        ratsoy@tru.ca       

Last update Sep 2007
Hosted by The Thompson Rivers University