Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Short Takes: The Canadian Worker on Film

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Short Takes: The Canadian Worker on Film

Article excerpt

Take One

LONG EXTERIOR: It is snowing. The wind is blowing. There is a large building at the top of the hill. The professor is walking up the hill to this building. As we look over his shoulder we see that it is a research library. But will it be useful in researching the history of film? And what if the professor wants to know about the history of Canadian films, by which in this case we mean films that tell stories about Canada and Canadians? And what if the subject is the appearance of the Canadian worker in such films? In short, is there a Canadian labour film? Roll titles.

Take Two: Titles

Close Up, Interior: It is a library book shelf. Not a long one, for there are not many standard titles on the history of Canadian film, and they can be squeezed in between books such as The Australian Film Reader and Cinema and Politics in the Third World. The standard Canadian titles stand out -- Embattled Shadows, John Grierson and the National Film Board, Hollywood's Canada, Canada's Hollywood.(1) Film studies in Canada seem to have been largely nationalistic in spirit, rather like the older studies of broadcast history. There is room here for a more critical perspective, and it is starting to arrive in the newer titles. Cut to Micheal Dorland, So Close to the State/s, with its useful reminder of the prominence of governmentality in the construction of the field of film studies in Canada. Pan along to a feminist reading of Canadian film under the title Gendering the Nation.(2) A wide-angle view also gives us the nearby shelves, with periodicals such as Cineaction and the Canadian Journal of Film Studies; both interpret their mandate as global in scope, even while devoting substantial space to Canadian subjects.

There are at least two recent reference works on the library shelves, but on first inspection the labour film seems relatively invisible in these pages. A filmography of Canadian features for the period 1928-1990 includes 1,341 entries. The subject index has no references to "labour," "work" or "workers"; there is one entry under "strikers and strikes" and there are two additional entries under "unions." The three titles in question include Les 90 Jours (1959), a film written by Gerard Pelletier about a strike in a single-industry town in Quebec during the Duplessis era; Canada's Sweetheart: The Saga of Hal C. Banks (1985), Donald Brittain's docudrama about crime and corruption on the waterfront after the removal of the Canadian Seamen's Union; and Labour of Love (1985), a more lighthearted television movie about a union organizer who comes down from Ottawa to the Miramichi to support five strikers at a local garage. There are more entries under general headings for themes such as "Business and Industry," "Mines and Mining," and "Clerical Workers." And turning through the short plot summaries, it is possible to detect recurring signs that the working-class experience has not been entirely overlooked in Canadian feature films even if it has rarely been the main focus of productions. In the first few pages we encounter plot summaries such as these: "Lumberjack O'Brien works in a lumber camp in the Canadian Northwest. Chandley is the romantic interest" (Rough Romance, 1930); and "Mercer, a Scottish cleaning woman, claims that Cooper, a Canadian in the Black Watch Regiment, is her son" (Seven Days' Leave, 1930). Or, among more recent productions, here is the plot summary for Les Tisserands du Pouvoir 2: La Revolte (1988): "Gelinas is the patriarch of a French-Canadian family that had gone to Rhode Island to work in the textile mills. His memories include labour disputes and a fight to maintain use of their language in the parochial schools."(3)

Meanwhile, a major two-volume bibliography on Canadian film and video also seems discouraging on first inspection. There are no entries in the subject index for "labour," "unions" or "workers," and only two very specific items under Trades and Labour Congress and Trade Union Circuit. …

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