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Why Goin’ Down the Road is the North Star for Canadian filmmakers

Goin' Down the Road, first released in 1970, with Doug McGrath, left and Paul Bradley.

On April 19, National Canadian Film Day, TIFF launched its Canada on Screen Catalogue, a digital space designed to provide Canadians with an opportunity to immerse themselves in 150 essential homegrown films, ranging from recent works such as Xavier Dolan's Mommy (2014) to classics such as Donald Shebib's Goin' Down the Road (1970). To mark the occasion, rising director Albert Shin (In Her Place) offers his thoughts on how Shebib's film inspired a new generation of homegrown artists.

It's funny to imagine that the cinematic North Star for a child of Korean immigrants growing up in the Canadian suburbs would take the form of a 16mm cinéma-vérité-like narrative about two Maritimers eking out a hardscrabble existence on the harsh streets of Toronto. Nevertheless, Donald Shebib's Goin' Down the Road gave me a compass I desperately needed as a wannabe filmmaker looking not just for a destination, but a way to get there. In the less-heralded side of Toronto that the film so memorably shows us – a world of bottling plants, car washes and flophouses – I found not my own reality, but the courage to know that my own was worthwhile. Cinema, Goin' Down the Road showed me, is big enough that it has space for everyone, from hard-luck hosers to a shy young dreamer like me.

Almost a half-century after it was shot, the messy journey of Pete and Joey, the under-est of underdogs resisting their cruel fate of a perpetual life on the fringes, still resonates powerfully – perhaps now more than ever, given our times of economic austerity and collapse. Played by Doug McGrath and Paul Bradley with beguiling authenticity and nary a trace of sentimentality, these vagabonds gave audiences a different kind of movie hero; along with Jayne Eastwood and Cayle Chernin as the boys' counterparts Betty and Selina, these were just regular folks that Shebib had the boldness to deem worthy enough for the big screen.

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Goin' Down the Road represented a brief interregnum in Canada's checkered film history where artists seemed to be in control of the industry and laying the foundation for what our cinema could be – a period of promise that many argue came to an end a few years later, when the Capital Cost Allowance introduced by the Canadian Film Development Corporation (now Telefilm Canada) ushered in the "tax-shelter era." This financial incentive scheme, which allowed a 100-per-cent tax writeoff for investment in Canadian films, brought along a slew of disposable, commercially oriented movies and took the emphasis away from cultivating strong and unique cinematic voices. The fallout from this was a national cinema with more than its fair share of uninspired Hollywood knock-offs and an identity crisis that we're still working through today.

So as we celebrate Canada's 150th birthday, perhaps this is a perfect time to look back to Goin' Down the Road (which Shebib himself did when he made the sequel Down the Road Again 40 years later), not as a certified (or petrified) classic, but as an object lesson for the future.

For me, the most enduring legacy of Shebib's feisty little buddy picture is the audacity to dream big despite our modesty and in the face of overwhelming odds. Here, after all, is a tiny film made by a first-time feature filmmaker with a comically bare-bones crew, using a cast of complete unknowns and shooting on 16mm reversal stock that has endured for almost 50 years and is still inspiring filmmakers from all countries, cultures and walks of life.

As Pete and Joey go down the road yet again at film's end toward an even more uncertain future, their stubborn spirit echoes that of the artists behind the camera. As Bruce Cockburn sings in the film's title song, " 'Cause I'm goin' down the road, boys / Seeking what I'm owed, boys / And I know it must get better / If far enough I go."

We're not there yet, but I have to believe that it does.

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