"I think there are some self-imposed limits that we assume about what Canadian cinema can be and what it means," says the Banff, Alta.-bred filmmaker Kevan Funk. "That's frustrating to me, because I think a lot of obstacles are things that we place in front of ourselves and not obstacles in the real world."
Anybody who watches Funk's depressive yet impressive first feature Hello Destroyer knows the man isn't shy. The film's opening segment begins with a hockey fight before moving on to a locker room scene involving cultural appropriation (a white player on a team named the Warriors dons an Indian headdress), and then on to a dehumanizing hazing ritual. Three contentious issues, and the film isn't yet five minutes old.
Hello Destroyer, which is up for four awards at Sunday's Canadian Screen Awards (including best picture and best director), concerns a junior hockey player's alienation after a violent on-ice incident. The film is thoughtful and provocative; its writer-director is no less confrontational.
In January, TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey penned an opinionated piece on the failure of Canadian directors to make issue-oriented fiction films. "Could it be that our cinema's personal fictions, with their private hurts and secret pleasures, shut out too much of the world?" Bailey asked. "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?"
Good questions, to which Funk had answers. He replied to Bailey with an e-mail that offered his own assessment of the situation, with pointed opinions on Bailey's piece – "profoundly oversimplified" – and on the institutional impediments facing the Canadian filmmakers who Funk feels were being scapegoated by Bailey.
"The institutional and corporate conditions that exist in this country very much shape the films that get made," Funk wrote in the letter that can be read on TIFF's website. "I can speak from experience, at length, about the radical disinterest that Canadian distributors and broadcasters generally have for the type of films that you are appealing to filmmakers to make."
So, the gloves are off. Speaking with The Globe and Mail about his movie and the systemic issues of concern within the Canadian film industry, Funk comes across as more foiled than pugnacious.
"There's a very frustrating tradition in Canada of creating these films that are whitewashed of any Canadian identity," Funk says. "There's an idea out there that if there's a Canadian element, you're not going to sell it in the United States. It's a myth, though, propagated by the power brokers in this industry."
The power brokers Funk refers to are the funding bodies (Telefilm Canada) and the curators (TIFF). As for an example of the whitewashing of Canadian identity, Funk mentions Mean Dreams, a teens-on-the-run drama from Toronto's Nathan Morlando that stars the late Bill Paxton. The film (which, like Hello Destroyer, was screened at last year's Toronto International Film Festival) was filmed in Northern Ontario, which served as a stand-in for the American Midwest.
In his e-mail to Bailey, Funk described Mean Dreams as the "poster child for what is wrong with English-Canadian cinema," which is to say, "the transparent Hollywood proxy that painfully avoids any identifiable Canadian elements."
Speaking with The Globe, Funk says the mention of Mean Dreams has nothing to do with the subjective quality of the film, and that he admires Morlando as a filmmaker.
In a nutshell, Funk sees a problem with the Canadian film industry trying to compete with Hollywood, which results in films short in budget and star power to draw the mall crowd, and lacking in a unique Canadian voice that would appeal to the niche festival audience.
"You end up with these films that are made on an island, and that people don't go see," Funk says. "We need to start thinking of English-Canadian films as foreign films, as opposed to films that might slip into Hollywood and somehow be successful operating that way."
When Funk speaks about Canadian identity, it goes without saying that he's not referring to maple-syrup-splattered Mounties. Characterizing the labelling of Hello Destroyer as a hockey film as "misleading," Funk set out to make a Canadian film that addresses themes of systemic violence and Canadian identity. Hockey was a "convenient institution" to tell a story about the kind of hypocrisy that could just as easily been told through football (as an American film) or in the military or police worlds.
The film stars Jared Abrahamson as a young player who is groomed to play in an overly aggressive fashion, only to be abandoned by his team when his violence crosses the line. The player is left isolated, a harsh situation exacerbated by his inability to articulate his emotions.
Hello Destroyer takes a hard look at a Canadian institution; it will not be screened as any sort of best-game-you-can-name, Hockey Day in Canada celebration dreamed up by the CBC. Funk wouldn't have it any other way.
"I want to see filmmakers challenge what it means to be Canadian and I want us as a country to take a long, sober look in the mirror," he says. "I think that's something we haven't done very often."
Hello Destroyer opens March 10 in Toronto and Ottawa, and March 21 in Vancouver.