Death Through Resurrection: The Tale of Canadian Cinema

“What you’re seeing isn’t really there. When you’re seeing a projection, it’s an image of something that once was. Whether it was just five minutes ago, or a hundred years ago it no longer is that way anymore. It’s a ghost.” Guy Maddin

Okay, so, I get it. If you’ve read my last piece An Argument for the Loser’s Side: Physical Media in a Digital Age you’re probably thinking to yourself “We also get it, Vince! Enough about physical media. Just let me watch my Netflix Premium Plus Prime Pithecanthropus Pleuropneumonia in peace!” to which I say fair enough. But in return, I must ask you a question. Do you know what you will never be able to watch on those streaming services? 75% of American silent-era cinema. Who’s fault is that? Physical media. Nitrate film stock wasn’t initially made with longevity in mind. It was, however, really fun at parties due to it being extremely flammable. When it wasn’t corroding itself into dust it was burning down buildings and full archives. If you believe my college professor, this stuff was so flammable that even if you dunked it in water it would still be on fire. Pretty punk if you ask me. I mean, even the film that was made with longevity in mind still corroded if not kept in the proper conditions. However, as always, humans are also to blame. Many of these films were lost because studios would simply throw them out when they lost their monetary value. This is due to the fact that they were made in a time when cinema was more of a spectacle and less of an art form.

1977 National Archives and Records Service fire

According to the library of congress, only 25% of silent films produced by American studios still exist in one form or another. This means that we only have access to around 2730 out of the 10,919 films produced by these studios. Keep in mind that this number is only relevant to America and does not take into account other countries, some of whom have lost nearly 100% of their early films. The number of surviving American films may not seem like a big deal considering your average streaming service has triple that, but that is history told through film that is lost. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Would the average cinema-goer watch them if they could? Honestly? Hell no. Unless you’re one of the few people who still jump out of their seat when the Criterion Collection releases their 800th golden-era noir film. That being said, one of my biggest interests is watching older films produced by the National Film Board of Canada. This is because it is literally a look into the past of a country. At least the past that, in the case of Canada, the government wants you to remember. Is that not fascinating? To see the past mindsets, artificial or genuine, of a society that formed the one that you now live in? In the case of the NFB, at least from the ‘40s and on to the ‘50s, you can see the artificiality of the Canadian identity being birthed into the popular zeitgeist. The idea of the nice, proud, conflict-free Canada that most of the world stereotypes us as being. Is it true? Of course not. Like most Countries, we are monsters. We live on land built on top of horrible atrocities obscured by the shadow of an enormous maple leaf. But you would never know it from watching those films (propaganda), which is fascinating to me. 

Tangent aside, this brings us to the film I would like to tell you about. Seances (2016), directed by Guy Maddin and produced by the National Film Board of Canada. Made through a deal with Telefilm that it would be turned into a feature-length film titled The Forbidden Room (2015), Seances is a 10 to 20-minute experimental interactive film that honours these lost films in a peculiar way—the only way Maddin knows. The film is somewhat hard to explain as it only exists while you’re watching it. Taking 30 short films, all shot in one day respectively, that Maddin based on titles or descriptions of his 100 chosen lost films, Seances cuts them up, distorts them, re-edits them, and gives them a unique title every time you sit down to watch it. Once the film stops playing, it is gone. You can never get the version of the film that you saw back. You can only watch another iteration produced by the algorithm. This in itself is quite a powerful homage to lost cinema. Much the same as the films he is adapting, we can only speak about what we saw until eventually, our memory of them fades, and the story we think we know is now far from what was actually shown on screen.

Maddin explains the process of shooting the film as a seance in itself. Each day of production, Maddin would call on the ghosts of cinema past to possess the actors and tell the stories they are yearning to be remembered through, all done in front of an audience who could purchase a ticket to watch the actual filming. So, in every sense of the word, it was indeed a seance whether paranormal or not. The concepts of these lost films were treated as sacred texts. Texts that are made to be adapted over and over again, much like Hamlet or the Bible, have been adapted in the same or different styles countless times. In the same way that theatre actors resurrect the ghost of Shakespeare, Maddin was calling on the ghost of an entire art form. He thought of these films as wandering in limbo, and this was his way of putting them to rest. Was this a publicity stunt? Of course. Maddin himself admits that he was a fraud as he had to write scripts in order to make sure that the film didn’t fall to pieces. This in itself may seem like a failure to deliver on his vision, but the way the final product is presented is anything but. 

What I find particularly interesting is that even though the films are edited by an algorithm, they are still directed by Guy Maddin. Therefore, Maddin himself has thousands of lost films that will never resurface. When talking about why he chose the medium of new media rather than the traditional feature-length film form, he explained, “I was getting tired of the sound of a Canadian film being slid on a shelf right after it was complete.” which, to me, is a perfect way to describe the state of Canadian cinema. The films are often made and seldom watched. So, in this sense, what is the difference between a film that is genuinely lost and one that never finds an audience? The answer is nothing. Like many Canadian films, even the lost silent films were seen by someone at some point.

So, yes. This was all an elaborate way for me to stand on my soapbox and preach the good word of Canadian cinema. It has been well documented at this point that the enemy of Canadian film is the Canadian audience. We acknowledge their existence but we do not support them. At film festivals, we buy tickets to the next American Oscar contender but not the small indie film that was made in our own hometown. At movie theatres, we pay to see Avengers 13, while the film made against all odds in the middle of Saskatchewan is left to screen in front of a theatre filled with empty seats. We essentially ensure that it will not play for more than a week and then cry that cinema is dying.

Here is a constantly updated resource of newly released Candian films either playing in cinemas or streaming online:

Here is the link to Guy Maddin’s Seances: