Where are all the war films?
Don't bring your $13.75 to the movies during Veterans' Week this year hoping to catch a Canadian-made war flick. They don't exist on the big screen.
Of the more than $300 million Canada spent investing in films last year, just one feature-length, nondocumentary war movie was completed: Eighteen, by Vancouver's Richard Bell. The story, about an 18-year-old street kid who inherits his grandfather's war stories on audio tape, was supposed to be released for the 60th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, in May of this year. Then the release was planned for Veterans' Week, November 5 to 11. Now it won't hit theatres until February next year, so the film will completely miss Canada's Year of the Veteran.
Theatres are instead full of stories about househusbands, supernatural horror, and love, love, love. All about our lighthearted lives, in other words, but nothing about the uniformed men and women who made it all possible.
Bell, 30, told the Georgia Straight, "It's a shame" that Eighteen wasn't a part of Ottawa's key plan-Canada Remembers-to connect veterans' stories to younger generations. "It's very important to be as vivid as possible when commemorating vets, because a lot of people have very little connection to what happened 60 years ago. That's why I think a movie is the best way to do it."
Through the lens of Eighteen's postponements, the shadows on the Canadian film system come into focus. Telefilm, the National Film Board, and the provincial film organizations support one overall objective: to keep Canadian stories in front of Canadian eyes. On TV, there's success; unfortunately, when it comes to feature films, there's almost no government guidance in what gets made-just what doesn't.
But if feature films are so pivotal to protecting Canada's culture, why couldn't we get a single commemorative film into theatres during Veterans' Week during the Year of the Veteran?
It's not the government's fault, according to the government.
John Dippong, Telefilm Canada's director of the feature-film business unit in Vancouver, told the Straight that Telefilm does not commission films; it waits for the industry to propose projects. Though the NFB commissions films, it doesn't commission feature-length films, preferring shorts and TV-length ideas. Veterans Affairs Canada also does not commission material but supports Canadian communities in creating their own remembrance projects. But that's not the only reason why there are no Canadian war flicks in theatres right now.
"The time line for feature film is so long," Dippong said, explaining why neither the government nor filmmakers can snap their fingers and create a timely film on a relevant topic. "We invested in Eighteen two years ago. Domino Films [Eighteen's distributor] is a small company without a ton of clout for saving screens a long way in advance."
The 2005 Year of the Veteran label is no coincidence. This marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War (including the end of the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki); 50 years since the beginning of the Korean War; 30 years since the end of the Vietnam War; 15 years since Nelson Mandela was released from prison; 10 years since NATO started bombing in Bosnia; 10 years since UN peacekeepers left Somalia; and a host of other anniversaries. There's enough dramatic content there to keep screenwriters busy for another 60 years.
Vancouver's live-theatre community planned well for the Year of the Veteran. At the Stanley Theatre, the 50th anniversary of the iconic holocaust work The Diary of Anne Frank is on-stage. In the program, director Rachel Ditor expressed why this kind of remembering through art is important.
"What has changed?" she wrote. "How many attempts at genocide have there been, worldwide, since 1945?”¦This is why we need this story. Not only because we must remember but also because the play conjures difficult questions about today; it makes us think as much about Anne as our own and our country's capacity for compassion and for sacrifice. It makes us think about our own fears and intellectual laziness. Anne makes us question the nature of goodness and civic duty, what we dream for ourselves, and what we owe to each other."
At the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre, another young girl speaks on behalf of a horrific conflict. The Syringa Tree is a one-woman play about a white English girl in the last years of the apartheid era in South Africa.
"Theatre really does and should have its finger on the pulse of what's happening," artistic director Glynis Leyshon told the Straight. "For kids, World War II is ancient history. At the end of last season, we had Trying [about Roosevelt's administration during that war]. It really helped the high-school students who came to see it connect to the war through a personal connection to a man."
That's what Bell was hoping to do with Eighteen. Like his movie's character, Bell's grandfather sent him war stories on audio tape. It was this personal connection that brought his history textbooks at Terry Fox secondary school to life. The future of commemoration must be emotional, he said, rather than dry, because the war is fading from memory.
"We have a very apathetic world now. That's what fuelled me to create this story: the sense of apathy and entitlement that my generation has," Bell said. "When I first started writing this film, I was very angry-do we even deserve this world our granddads got their legs blown off for?"
Films breathe life into old stories, he said. Saving Private Ryan was, Bell believes, crucial in connecting young men in 1998 to the young men who stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944.
Just don't count on the government of Canada, or our $300-million-per-year film investment, to make that connection for Canadians.