Culture | The luminaries of Canadian film

Northern Lights retraces the history of cinematography in Canada

The question of what it means to be Canadian is not one that can be answered easily. It’s common to reduce our national identity to a few things many of us share: our love for hockey, our stunning landscape, or our emphasis on multiculturalism. On the other hand, Canadian culture is often described not in terms of what we are, but in terms of what we are not. We are not immersed in violence, we are not a homogenous society, and we are certainly not American. And, as it relates to the Hollywood phenomenon, a harder question to address may be: does Canada have its own national cinema?
Northern Lights is a documentary that looks into the history of Canadian cinematography. According to director Antonio Galloro, the film “provides an homage to those men and women who are extremely talented, and yet [whom] the general audience really doesn’t recognize.”

According to Galloro, cinematography is unjustly overlooked. “It is one of the finest forms of expression,” he says. “It is something that covers all forms of the arts.” Northern Lights highlights the talent of Canadian cinematographers such as Arthur E. Cooper and George Morita, who have escaped the shadow of their Hollywood neighbours. “My interviewees are people that I have previously worked with, people that continue to inspire me,” says Galloro. “I have been fortunate to be able to interview such a talented group of individuals.”

There is no doubt that in this film cinematography is displayed as a serious art form. “Cinematographers will make something fascinating out of anything they are presented with,” argues McGill professor Alanna Thain. Northern Lights explores this artistic ability through the work of a wide range of cinematographers and diverse film clips. In one segment, cinematographer Robert Bocking leads the viewer through one of his favorite shots, taking us from a low point over a river up to the tip of Virginia Falls, providing the audience with an expressive image of true nature. In another clip, the audience is brought into an overwhelmingly produced shot of the Canadian television show Instant Star. Despite their opposing aesthetics, both clips eloquently capture the cinematographer’s ability to create a distinct point of view, no matter the raw materials.

More broadly, however, the film introduces its audience to an analysis of Canadian cinematography, and leads the viewer to ask larger questions about Canadian filmmaking in general. Have we done well in supporting filmmaking in this country? Is Canadian cinematography considerably different from that of Hollywood? Ultimately, have we done enough in the world of filmmaking to say that we have created a national cinema?
“I’m still very uncertain of what a national cinema means,” Thain commented. “In the Canadian context, it is very difficult to say that there is a Canadian national cinema. In terms of lacking a Hollywood-type identity, it has made Canadian cinema more likely to take risks with style, and the kind of ways of telling stories,” she continued. “In that sense, Canadian cinema is often closer to art cinema than commercial cinema.”

But Canadian cinema is not without its faults, admits Galloro. Northern Lights addresses this in one particular interview, in which filmmaker Sarah Polley draws on her own experiences as a woman in a field dominated by men. “There could be more support [for women],” Galloro commented. “Women aren’t really acknowledged like the men. There needs to be more emphasis put on their work and showcasing their talent.”

What makes Northern Lights unique, then, is its failure to claim what is distinctly “Canadian,” while showcasing Canadian cinematography in a way that also reveals artistic talent, regardless of cultural identity or gender. It’s both an exploration of Canadian filmmaking and an attempt to define Canadian culture as not completely exclusive but rather as a conflicted and negotiated identity that both accepts and denies outside cultures.