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An embarrassing example of the “Two Solitudes” (#197)

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Yesterday I wrote this post in a different format.  But after sleeping on it for a few hours, I realized the way I originally wrote it was not fair to Toronto, or its people as a whole.  The comments the post received were in agreement with what I initially wrote, but that doesn’t mean that how I wrote it was the right.   If anything, the way I initially wrote the post shows how emotional an issue this subject can be (if I became emotional about it sitting here in Toronto, that can give you an idea of how it might be going over with many people in Québec).

I’m backtracking and I’m re-writing a good chunk of the post.  Here is the re-written format…

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This post is going touch upon a sensitive subject which occurs often enough… so I’m going to raise the issue again.  It’s something more people should be aware of (especially in media circles).

Yesterday were the Canadian Screen Awards organized by the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television.  (Website: http://www.academy.ca/About-the-Academy).

In a nutshell, these awards could be considered the Canadian equivalent of the U.S.A.’s Oscars.

It’s a huge event.  It is wider in scope than the Oscars/Academy awards because it grants awards to both Canada’s movie and television industries in one fell swoop.   It is not a Francophone award ceremony, nor is it an Anglophone award ceremony.   The Canadian Screen Awards simply awards the best of the best in Canada, regardless of whether or not the recipients are Francophone or Anglophone.

The awards are held here in Toronto every year, and thus they are presented in English, in an English dominant environment (that of Toronto).   They are supposed to be an all-inclusive ceremony.

But what happened yesterday really drives home the notion of the Two Solitudes.  Frankly, it’s embarrassing – and it has garnered a lot of attention today in Québec.

Here is what happened.

Mommy is one of the most successful Canadian movies of the past 20 years, and one of the most successful movies in Canadian history – full stop.   After winning countless awards abroad over the past 10 months, Mommy finally had the opportunity yesterday to receive Canadian awards on home turf (apart from the Jutras which were held not long ago).   In Québec, over the last several days, there was much excitement, suspense and publicity in the run-up to yesterday’s awards in Toronto.

The movie, Mommy, is the creation of Xavier Dolan.  It is considered a Québec film (abroad it is often held up as a Canadian film), it was created in French, and was released in May, 2014.  Between May and now, Mommy basically won the prize for the “best film in the world” (for lack of a better term) at the Cannes Film Festival (the world’s most prestigious and well-known international film festival).  It also won many of the world’s other most prestigious film awards.

But here’s the crunch:  Yesterday Xavier Dolan and the film’s actors – who have been cheered and treated like super stars around the globe – showed up at the festival in Toronto, and guess what happened:    Unless they were wearing name tags, many people at the event didn’t know who they were, including those who were there to cover the event as media.

Because the event was broadcast live in Québec, the awkward treatment the film’s creator and cast received at the gala did not go over very well with influential individuals in Québec or members of the public.  A good number of people were hurt, angry, disappointed, and left confused.

Just to give you the context of how embarrassing this is, earlier this year, at the Cannes Festival  (attended by all of Hollywood and the who’s who of international film), Dolan and those who worked on Mommy were given an 8-minute standing ovation – yes… applause and cheers for a whole 8 minutes – by the biggest names in world of film.  Even the elite of the American media industry attended, stood and applauded for 8 minutes straight (Oprah, Spielberg, Brad Pitt, you name it, the list goes on).  This sort of accolade has never been given to a Canadian (or almost any other) film.

What happened last night when they won here in Toronto?  Polite, timid (and awkward) applause from the seated audience who generally did not know who they were.

I’m dumbfounded.

I’m still trying to make sense of it all.

Last fall, I watched Mommy in the theatres here in Toronto, and it was packed (it was playing in regular theatres).  Thus, what happened last night also took me off guard, as much as it did people in Québec.

I don’t want to bash the gala event, and I don’t want to bash Toronto either (after all, I love Toronto, its people, the vibe, its immigrants, immigrant communities and cosmopolitan nature.  I love its freshness).   But I am so embarrassed today by what happened at the awards ceremony.

I’m also quite embarrassed for the guests of the gala, because something like this could have been avoided.  What happened yesterday occurred at one event (it was not a city-wide occurrence – and I’m not sure the expectation should have been that it was a city-wide event).  Therefore, it could have been better contained with preventative management, and a bit of event-specific “education”.

It’s a sort of ignorance that is seen often enough at events like this, or though Toronto’s “national” media when covering matters which cross the linguistic lines   Yes, I see it in Toronto, but I have also seen it elsewhere in the country, AND I see also see it in reverse, in Francophone media, Francophone events and Francophone society.  It’s a two-way street.

However, the burden falls much heavier on Toronto’s media shoulder, more so than any other media in the country – precisely because Toronto’s media is Canada’s national English-language media epicentre. That’s a heavy burden for any city to have to carry.  But because Toronto’s media has this burden, they need to step up to the plate more so than elsewhere.  That does not only pertain to presenters on the screen, but also to local behind-the-screen support staff such as camera operators, researchers, and those who decide what to cover and how to cover it.  These people tend to be important in deciding who and what makes it on the screen, and how those subjects are portrayed to the public (ie: if a camera operator walks by the biggest star of an event because they don’t know who that person is, then that simple action has huge implications, as we saw last night).   It should be recognized that the support and technical staff are more apt to be hired from the general public in Toronto, and may not have had much interaction with Canada’s Francophone culture (or other aspects of Canadian culture outside Toronto).  Therefore there needs to be more education within those circles, or we’ll see more things occur like what happened at the gala awards.

The implications of this type of ignorance can be significant when such ignorance is broadcast into people’s homes, and when common people feel they have been slighted (the awards yesterday in Toronto were being followed live in Québec by a good deal of influential people – and thus the ignorance shown at the gala event spread like wildfire – the point that it made headline news in Québec).

I suppose it not only shows a that a much better effort could have been made on the part of the awards’ organizers to ensure that the event’s audience, staff and media were better informed regarding who was being invited (simple things like “promoting” the contents of the evening’s program and nominees), but it also serves to highlight that segments of society (and hence the media) need to be better informed about culturally significant matters across our French/English linguistic lines.

But every cloud has its silver lining – and here is this story’s silver lining:  Canada’s Anglophone media is very heavily concentrated in Toronto (that’s why we often hear the expression “Toronto-centric media”)   Because there is a very wide range of people working in Toronto’s media industry with very diverse personal backgrounds, it cannot be expected that everyone will be aware of culturally significant matters in Québec, matters across the linguistic divide, or elsewhere in Ontario or Canada (not everyone in Toronto’s media industry speaks French, or went through immersion, or has travelled, or has lived in Canada long enough to understand all of Canada’s cultural nuances – and that’s ok and normal — because people are people).   But this poses an amazing opportunity on a “national” level.  Because Canada’s “national” Anglophone media is so concentrated in one city – Toronto — it should not be very difficult to educate those who work in Canada’s national media – at least much more efficiently and effectively, than say, if our “national” media were spread across several cities (like it is in the US, with NY being one hub, LA another, and Atlanta another with CNN).

Therefore, if by chance, there are people working in the media who are not sensitive to what is going on beyond a 100km radius (even within Ontario), it is a situation which can, in theory, be addressed and corrected.

Here are a few of the dangers if things do not change:  (especially on the media front or regarding highly mediatized events):  Anglophone Canada’s media is watched and criticised in Québec (I would venture to say that Anglophone media is more visible in Québec than what Francophone’s media is outside Québec).  If the sort of ignorance we saw at the awards ceremony is not addressed, and that sort of ignorance is consistently conveyed by Anglophone Canada’s media, then there is a risk that all of Anglophone Canada will be labelled as being just as ignorant — and that’s precisely what happened yesterday evening at the awards ceremony, and it is continuing to play itself out today.  There are political implications to it.  People in the sovereignist camp in Québec has been tossing this one around like a hot-potato all day – they’re really running to town with it — and it is in their interest to see that the issue remains front-and-centre.  These types of things make an emotional impact, and emotions translate into how people vote.  It’s an issue.

This morning, the Radio-Canada (CBC French) headline in Québec was “Xavier Dolan feels the Two Solitudes at the Canadian Screen Awards”.  (The headlines should have been about the awards Mommy won at the gala).

Last night in Montréal, Xavier Dolan was interviewed on television on 24/60 byAnne-Marie Dussealt.   The interview devoted a significant segment to his reaction of what just happened in Toronto.  Dussealt is the Québec equivalent of Larry King (and 24/60 would be the equivalent of Larry King Live).   However, she’s probably a bit more like Piers Morgan because her own social & political views come across much more than what Larry King’s did.

She asked him what it was like to receive an award in Toronto.   Click HERE for the link to Radio-Canada’s article and the interview video on their official website.

Below, at the end of this post, I’m providing you with a translation of Dolan’s response to Dussault’s questions (it begins at 2:40 minutes, and ends at 7:50 minutes).

I have to admit, when Radio-Canada first published the article, they did not post the video, and they only quoted sound-bites.  The initial article was less-than-flattering (it left far too much to innuendo – and it went viral).   Comments flooded in over the course of the day, and now people are talking about this on the streets in Québec.   It’s not good.

Fortunately, Radio-Canada posted the video clip later in the day, and what Dolan actually said was much more nuanced than what the article first lead people to believe.   But unfortunately, damage has been done, and we’re now all painted as being completely ignorant in English Canada, and out of touch with reality or anything in Québec for that matter.

Likewise, I’m not sure that many people in Québec have the nuanced context to be able to distinguish sectors of Toronto’s media industry from the rest of ordinary people in English Canada (Toronto’s media industry is far too often is held up as being “representative” of Canada).

In this case, I truly believe it boils down to a question of Two Solitudes between “Québec & Toronto’s media industry” rather than “Québec and English Canada”.

Big sigh – truly.   Hopefully our mayor (of Toronto), John Tory, will jump in to say that what happened last night is not representative of most people in our city or of our country.   At least I hope he will.

TRANSLATION OF RELEVANT QUOTES FROM THE 24/60 INTERVIEW.

Question — Anne-Marie Dusseault:  What does it represent to you for your film to have had this sort of presence in Toronto?  What does this sort of recognition represent?  The Jutra awards are around the corner, I’m not sure if there is a hierarchy it.  There were the Caesars.  But what does your presence in Toronto represent?  Especially since I would say that it’s in a very particular universe for you.  

Answer — Dolan:  It’s a universe which is quite specific.  It’s one of English Canadian stardom.  Thus it has more to do with stars from English Canadian television.   I would venture to say that it’s owing more to this than the Gala groups together for both television and movies.

It’s rather strange because we arrived there on the red carpet.  And we were standing there on the red carpet.  And you know, despite all the euphoria going on around us – after all it was a ceremony like any other and we were happy that our work was noticed, appreciated by peers, highlighted… even if we didn’t win and were just nominated, regardless if it’s here, in France, or elsewhere… the effect is the same – we are always honoured that our work is recognized.

But in Toronto, we arrived on the red carpet, and without our name tags, the cards which actually had our names and who we were… the photographers were completely… you know…

Dusseault:  …lost !

Dolan:  … completely lost.  They had absolutely no idea who we were – which, without being pretentious, is rather peculiar.  You know, if you think about it, the film garnered a fair amount of good international success.  And… you know, one would like to think that Mommy is considered part of the…  … I consider that Mommy is part of Canadian films, as much as it Québécois.  In that sense, it represented Québec and Canada in all those foreign festivals, ceremonies, gala award events where it was nominated – that sort of thing.

But it’s still rather particular that we were presenting it in a universe where all the stars of English Canadian television …

Dusseault:  … don’t know who you are.  You’re a complete unknown to them.

Dolan:  It’s to say that the industry… those in the artistic community who sawMommy, they came up to us and they were proud of Mommy.   But apart from that, we could see we were in a world surrounded by a very specific English Canadian journalistic and photography corps which is… well, it’s now a cliché to say it, but it’s still an expression which aptly describes the situation – theTWO SOLITUDES.

I find it rather baffling and curious.  If you think about it, it’s really quite strange, because the gala started with a sort of “ode” to Canadian cinematography, in all its splendour and richness.  But we felt the estrangement… well, no, not estrangement, but rather… hmmm… perhaps “ignorance” towards Québec cinema in the overall picture of things.

Question — Dusseault:  I was kind of wondering this.  Right up to the last minute, we were not sure if you were going to be in Toronto, if you had the time to get there.   Did this make you ask yourself “What am I even doing here? What’s the point of being here?”… Right?

Answer — Dolan:  No, I didn’t ask myself “What am I doing here?” becauseMommy was a film financed by Telefilm Canada.  Factually speaking, let’s be honest;  it’s a film which was made in Canada and it’s a Canadian film.  Let’s not deviate from that, regardless of people’s political allegiances.  It was made within a certain artistic context – political also.   And I’m happy that theCanadian Industry Awards have recognized our work.  After all, it’s our peers who vote for who wins.   So in that sense, I don’t ask myself what’s the point of being there.  I’m happy we were there.   I’m of course happy that Anne was there, and that all the actors were there.

But the atmosphere, all-in-all, reveals… I have to say, a gulf between the two cultures, which would otherwise stand to gain if they were to learn from each other.

You know, I read the newspapers this morning.  English Canadian journalists, who were covering the ceremonies, made the point of saying that each year it is the same thing for them – that there will always be “one” Québécois film, without ever knowing what it will be, which will always triumph above the rest.  Then it will simply sweep all the prizes, and it will always irritate them.   But they still acknowledge it, and they write it.

So in that sense, the whole thing is just so interesting to watch itself play out, and to see the journalists talk about this.

Dusseault:  It is rather interesting to watch itself play out.  Yesterday I was following it on Twitter, and then I’d switch back-and-forth to CBC, and the awards were always making way for “English Canadian Television”.

Dolan:  In that sense, I’m not going to criticize them, because I understand their logic.  I get the impression that if they group together movies and television, it’s because in English Canada, what English Canadians know better than anything else in their own world are the stars of their television – those on CBC, CTV, on their national TV shows.   In a sense, it’s by formatting it this way that the gala event would make English Canadians want to tune in to it.   If they were to only celebrate English Canadian cinema (versus television), I’m not sure the gala event would attract many viewers.   Movies and television were separated in the past, and from what I understand, it didn’t work very well in that format.

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3 Comments

  1. Bethany Scott says:

    We learned about Xavier Dolan and his movies in French class at school. I assumed everyone did too. Our high school class in Surrey even went to the screening of Mommy at the Cineplex in Vancouver. Yah, I’d say that’s pretty bad if people in Toronto don’t know the basics (after all, here in BC we even know about Mommy).

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  2. Margaret L says:

    Mommy has been in the news here in Saskatoon also. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve seen other Dolan movies. So have others I know. It does not surprise me that there would be many people in Toronto who don’t know it. Chances are there are likely many in Toronto who don’t know where Saskatchewan is either (my experiences with Toronto are similar to yours). I lived in Toronto for a while, and I also think it’s a large inward-looking minority rather than the majority of people. It’s too bad that minority is big enough that it gives all of us a bad name in the eyes of Quebeckers. I agree that Quebec tends to judge us all in Canada by what they see on Toronto TV and “national” news from Toronto. I don’t even watch it anymore, I’m so disgusted by it. It’s too bad people in Quebec don’t realize what the rest of us in Canada realize about it. I think if they watched the news from Saskatchewan, they’d have a very different and much better view of what English Canada is truly about. Hopefully this post will be read by people in Quebec.

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  3. Alan says:

    I’m from Toronto, born & raised (although my parents are immigrants from China). I think you’re completely right in what you’re saying. There are major groups in Toronto who don’t know anything about what is going on outside of Toronto. It’s the nature of the city, and of the demographics. But I was in French immersion. Many people in Toronto were, so there are many in Toronto who are very aware of Quebec culture and movies. But I think you’re right, that the crowd at the film festival did not fit into the same cultural context. They ruin it for all of us. It’s unfortunate they’re the ones who control the media and give us a bad name.

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