Millions voted illegally in the U.S. election! Hillary Clinton led a child trafficking ring at a pizza restaurant! Muslim polygamists got big government benefits when they migrated to Canada!
We call these stories fake news, but maybe the better term is comfort news. In a world where fast-moving global forces sweep change through our lives, why not retreat to the safety of stories we want to be true?
In a world … Movie trailers love that phrase. It conjures up an imagined reality with its own rules, which is what so many of us love about diving into fiction. But now that we're living in a world where facts can have alternative facts, what if we looked to our storytellers to root us ever more firmly in truth?
In Canada, our films live in separate worlds. Our documentaries tackle climate change, indigenous rights, urban poverty and other pressing, current social issues.
Our fiction films, on the other hand, tend to the personal: coming of age, family tensions, falling in and out of love. This isn't surprising, given that Canadian film funding offers far more writer-directors the chance to make a first feature film than a fourth or fifth. First features, as with first novels, often draw on the artist's life experience up to that point. As a result, the stereotypical Canadian feature film is a story of personal alienation.
But could it be that our cinema's personal fictions, with their private hurts and secret pleasures, shut out too much of the world? Could the impulse to cocoon inside one's own story be the same centripetal force pulling us away from the necessary chaos of other people?
So, what if we doubled down on truth? What if our filmmakers, along with our film schools, funders, distributors, festivals and critics, turned to face the roiling reality that defines Canada today? What if we stopped pretending that Canada is safe, nice and boring enough to leave off the big screen, while we focus on personal fictions? Instead, we could rip the lid off and reveal very Canadian acts of deceit, murder, betrayal and corruption that happen every day across this great country.
There's the story of real human trafficking along Ontario's Highway 401. Real voter manipulation in the 2011 federal election. Real religious polygamists in British Columbia. There's the true story of the businesswoman accused of killing another woman in Toronto's underground mall system. There are the hundreds of stories of missing and murdered indigenous women, including the stories of their families, and the cops, lawyers, politicians and journalists who have so often failed them.
Things get complicated with true stories, of course. Who tells the story matters, as does how. But imagine bringing the skills of Canada's most talented filmmakers to telling the true stories all around us. Imagine the raised stakes, the heightened emotion, the unpredictable turns that come with the random drama of real life. Imagine filmmakers looking outward more than in, forcing themselves to face the complex, diverse social reality all around us in contemporary Canada.
The British film researcher Stephen Follows published a recent study of 20 years of Hollywood movies. It showed that film audiences, critics and awards bodies all favoured stories based on real events over those based on books, plays or the screenwriter's own imagination. It helps explain the success of films, such as Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Dallas Buyers Club, The Social Network, Moneyball and last year's best picture Oscar-winner, Spotlight.
This year's Oscar nominations play out the tension between artful personal fictions, such as Manchester by the Sea and La La Land, versus a true story as in Hidden Figures.
Pitched right in-between is Moonlight – personal and intimate but also rooted in the social realities of homophobia, drug addiction and the mass incarceration of African-American men. For that reason, Barry Jenkins's film may tell the story of the moment, building a bridge between an artist's subjectivity and the real world, looking inward and outward at the same time.
In Canada, what filmmaker will take on the countless acts of translation needed when you take up the stories of real, live people? Who will impose the discipline of empathy on their screenplays?
And who will help those of us who watch Canadian films to tear open the ever-tightening social bubble that threatens to suffocate each one of us? In a post-truth world, as we wrap ourselves in the narratives that confirm our beliefs and insulate us from others, who will step forward to share the stories we don't tell?