Documents in Canadian Film

Douglas Fetherling

There is something in the modesty with which this collection of texts on Canadian cinema is presented which deflects immediate criticism. Documents in Canadian Film includes a wide and eclectic range of reviews, essays and interviews published between 1896 and the present, with minimal editorial commentary and a brief introduction. It offers these texts as typical (of a variety of perspectives on Canadian film), rather than as historically decisive or canonical in any scholarly sense, and avoids duplication with previous anthologies in this area. Fetherling sees his selection as "setting up a series of contrasts--between English and French, mainstream and experimental, public sector and private" cinemas, and while the book lacks the thematic coherence which this would suggest, one has the sense that it seeks to address a wide range of questions.

It may be assumed that many of the texts included here will be unfamiliar to its probable readership, and in bringing these together Fetherling's undertaking is a useful one. In relation to the existing body of anthologies and historical studies, this collection may be seen as, at the very least, inflecting certain questions and historical moments in new ways and unearthing a number of curious and revealing documents. Some of the texts included, such as the 1920 Maclean's piece by expatriate Canadian Allan Dwan, are genuine discoveries.

Documents in Canadian Film is, for all this, a somewhat flat and unsatisfying collection, and this is not simply an effect of the often sad story which is told therein. Its earliest texts--on the origins of film exhibition in Canada--are highly interesting and informative, and the recent essays with which it concludes demonstrate the liveliness of current debates within Canadian film culture. Between these, one finds a number of texts which fail to accomplish the objectives set out for them in their introductions, or whose length is frequently disproportionate to their usefulness. For those unfamiliar with the intellectual and cultural terrain on which Canadian film has developed, few of the pieces included here are likely to provide a strong grasp of the issues involved; for those immersed in such issues, many will seem redundant or, in relation to the insights promised in their introductions, less than convincing.

By avoiding many of the historically decisive statements of governmental or aesthetic intent which punctuate the history of Canadian film, and opting for pieces (such as a lengthy interview with Paul Almond and Geneviève Bujold) which capture the flavour of particular periods or the dilemmas of certain cultural predicaments, Fetherling has sought to complement the work of other anthologies. It remains the case, however, that these other collections are, in Fetherling's words, "difficult to obtain," and that Documents in Canadian Film may for a time be the sole collection of source materials in this area. As such, it evokes the suspicion that many of the pieces included herein are those left over from earlier anthologies, or that a more substantial enterprise of editorial contextualization and commentary was necessary were their significance to be obvious.

Documents in Canadian Film's greatest strength is the inclusion, in its entirety, of the important debate over a Canadian film aesthetic which unfolded in the pages of Cinema Canada in 1985. In response to Bruce Elder's call for an experimental, non-narrative national cinema, Peter Harcourt, Michael Dorland and others active within the Canadian film-critical community dug deeply into a series of questions concerning the relationship between a film aesthetic and a national culture. The debate was an important and dense one, and one wishes that it could have been preceded, in Fetherling's collection, by more pieces of comparable substance or significance. As it is, Documents in Canadian Film will prove of occasional use in supplementing the existing body of works on Canadian cinema, but should not itself be seen as providing an overview of the terrain.



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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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