Culture, condescension and Bill C-10: a response to Andrew Coyne

Andrew Coyne sits in the cubicle next to mine at Maclean’s. He’s a swell guy and good neighbor, even if he does like to rant at his TV when he watches Question Period. And when I first read his sarcastic column ripping Bill C-10’s opponents in this week’s Maclean’s—Man the barricades! Film tax credits are taking fire!—I threw him a compliment, although the piece made me wince. Heck, every argument needs another side. And by tossing cold water on the hysteria that’s raging through the film community, Andrew’s column restored some sense of proportion. But it has stuck in my craw.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, Bill C-10 is an amendment to the Income Tax Act that would allow the Ottawa to deny tax credits to movies it deems “offensive. . . such as anything of an explicit sexual nature, that denigrates a group or is excessively violent without an educational value.” (Gotta love those excessively violent, education flicks!) The bill, which was buried in a mound of tax legislation, has filmmakers in a flap about censorship, and their cause got some airplay when actress Sandra Oh voiced them as host of the Genies—along with various Genie honorees.

Now, I’m sure there are those who find it gratifying to see a serious political journalist put the cultural crybabies in their place. But much of Andrew’s argument is misinformed rhetorical bluster. He frames it with a taunt at an easy target—scoffing at the Genies as a poor cousin of the Oscars, while taking a gratuitous swipe at Sandra Oh, as a celebrity expatriate “just in from L.A. to do her bit for Canadian culture.” Believe me, Sandra Oh has more than paid her dues in the trenches of Canadian film and TV. And Andrew, if you’d watched the Genies, rather than just read the press reports, you might have agreed that that she made an exceptionally gracious host. As for the show—which zipped by in an hour, and featured an acceptance speech by Gordon Pinsent that would warm the coldest heart—it was more tolerable than the Oscars.

Andrew goes on to ridicule the Genies in comparison to the Oscars because our small-fry showbiz folk, “raising their tiny, bejeweled fists,” protested local censorship rather than Darfur and Tibet. “Here in Canada,” he writes, “there’s really only one issue that matters to our artists: themselves and their plight, making art in one of the richest countries on earth.”

Excuse me? Let’s leave aside the fact that Canadian films do deal with issues—Shake Hands With the Devil, which had 12 Genie nominations, is about the Rwandan genocide. Art doesn’t need to be issue-oriented. But my colleague seems to suggest that because we live in a rich country, making art is just another meaningless luxury. Hey, the country may be rich, but the artists aren’t. Making a movie, any movie, outside the Hollywood system is a struggle. Andrew, without the public funding that you sneer at, we simply would not have Canadian films or TV shows to make fun of. And we’re not unique. The same is true of virtually every territory on the planet aside from the U.S., India and Hong Kong. So I’m confused. Are you saying we can’t afford to fund art? Or that we’re so rich we don’t need it? Or that art is merely a decadent indulgence that reveals how morally bankrupt our rich society has become?

I presume you were just being rhetorical, so I’ll grant you some artistic license, though it irks me to see journalists crapping on artists from a great height. But let’s look at the crux of your argument—that the government has every right to judge the films that it finances with our tax dollars, and that it already does exactly that through funding agencies like Telefilm. That’s irrefutably true. But you overlook what filmmakers find most distressing about Bill C-10: this legislation would give Ottawa the right to retroactively deny tax credits already granted to films that have been approved for public funding.

Aside from subjecting filmmakers to double jeopardy, that would have the effect of spooking private investors who might otherwise be interested in risky projects. Canadian film budgets are a mix of public and private financing. No one would invest in potentially controversial films under such an absurd condition—i.e. with the federal co-investor saying, “If we don’t like the way the movie turns out, we’ll yank our support.” So even before it’s enforced, Bill C-10 would impose a chill on artistic expression, and serve as an act of de facto censorship.

Many of the finest films this country has produced could be seen to be of “an explicit sexual nature” or “excessively violent without an educational value”—i.e. offensive under Bill-C10. In citing a Toronto Star editorial fretting that Juno, the story of a pregnant teen, could be ineligible for funding, Andrew correctly points out it was already ineligible because it’s not deemed Canadian, despite its Canadian director, location and cast. But he implies that Telefilm actually turned it down for public funding: “If your film counts as Canadian, you get funding. If it doesn’t you don’t. Is that censorship?” he asks.

That glib fallacy is misleading in so many ways. First of all, Juno’s U.S. producers never would have dreamt of applying for Canadian funding. Their movie 100-per-cent financed and produced by Hollywood. It had need for Canadian tax dollars, and there is no co-production deal between Canada and the U.S. to facilitate a Hollywood-Telefilm co-investment. There was no decision made by bureaucrats, faceless or otherwise. Secondly, Andrew implies that filmmakers, like mega welfare bums, simply line up at the public trough to finance their whims, which are granted merely if they have the right pedigree. “If your film counts as Canadian,” he writes, “you get funding.” In fact, only a fraction of applicants receive funding, no matter how Canadian they are.

One who did, right from the start, was Atom Egoyan, who made his first feature, Next of Kin, with help from the public purse—the first in a string of publically funded art crimes. In that film, if you watch closely, you can find Andrew Coyne’s dirty little secret: our future columnist was cast in a fleeting role, as a bored family counsellor who’s seen smoking a cigarette and discussing his clients while riding an elevator.

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