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No Sex Please, We're Tories

For Bill C-10, the C stands for censorship.

Steve Burgess 28 Mar

Steve Burgess writes about film and other culture stuff (always wholesomely) every other Friday.

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Alarm! Alarm! This film's called 'Young People Fucking'!

Is Wheels of Tragedy coming back? Older folks in the crowd may remember the golden days of driver's education films that mixed reenactments ("Relax baby! Speed limits are for suckers!") with actual gory crash footage to scare young drivers. Now with the arrival of the Conservative government's Bill C-10, such films may be poised for a big revival.

C-10, now heading for Senate approval, would deny tax credits to Canadian movies judged to be immoral or offensive. To be specific, the legislation would apply to movies considered "offensive . . . such as anything of an explicit sexual nature, that denigrates a group, or is excessively violent without an educational value."

Presumably opening the door to a new wave of films that are violent yet educational, like the classroom classics Highways of Agony, and Mechanized Death. It's an exciting prospect.

Others are not so enthused. C-10 is causing consternation in the Canadian film industry. Sandra Oh was among the presenters at this year's Genie Awards who spoke out from the podium, attacking the proposed legislation as a return to censorship. While some aspects of the bill are uncontroversial measures favoured by the industry, the tax credit issue has inspired outrage.

'It's a crap shoot'

In a March 5 letter to Heritage Minister Josée Verner, the Canadian Film and Television Industry Council said: "While we support certain aspects of Bill C-10 . . . we unequivocally oppose the 'public policy' provision as currently proposed in the Bill and, from our understanding, to how such a provision is planned to be implemented."

Particularly galling is the clause that would allow retroactive withdrawal of tax credits -- that is, if the finished film is not to the government-appointed committee's liking, tax credits previously granted could be revoked. It would make private investment in any potentially controversial film very risky business indeed. In his letter to the heritage minister, David MacLeod, chairman of the Nova Scotia Motion Picture Industry Association, said that the measure would be "potentially putting hundreds of millions of dollars worth of production activity at risk."

"Banks won't loan money if it's a crap shoot on federal tax credit approval criteria, and without loans, movies and TV shows won't get made," said Sandra Cunningham, chair of the Canadian Film and Television Production Association, in a recent public statement.

Conservative tastes

Andrew Coyne and Mark Steyn, both writing in Maclean's, have poured scorn on the concerns of Canadian film industry. In a March 6 column, Coyne wrote: "Just so we're clear: absolutely no one would be forbidden by Bill C-10 from making any kind of movie they liked -- violent, sexual, uneducational, whatever. They just might not be able to get public funding to do it. That's not censorship. It's judgment. The public has every right, through its representatives, to decide how its money is spent."

Added Steyn on March 12: "Free money is not the same as free speech."

Both men take pains to point out that Canadian films, tax credits and all, rarely find a domestic audience anyway.

Solid points, but a little disingenuous. If what was being proposed in C-10 was a complete withdrawal of all tax credits and government support for the Canadian film industry, the issue would be different (and surely no less controversial). But in fact the bill proposes the establishment of a bureaucratic committee to determine what sorts of movies are worthy of support and which are not. The result will not be a level playing field, a Steynian free market paradise where the worthy will succeed on their own merits.

Rather, the planned result is the sort of thing a professed conservative like Steyn ought to despise: an extra level of bureaucratic meddling. It's a mystery worthy of Sam Spade how any freedom-loving conservative could support the establishment of a new government morals committee. In fact, National Post columnist George Jonas has attacked the measure.

Senate to ratify?

But conservatives come in all stripes. The Harper government's advocacy of the bill has earned the enthusiastic cheerleading of the Canada Family Action Coalition, a group pursuing "a vision to see Judeo-Christian moral principles restored in Canada." That would be the branch of the party intent on ridding Canadian films of the unwholesome, the sexual, and the violent (the unedifyingly violent, at least -- Highway of Agony would certainly pass muster).

Maureen Parker, executive director of the Writers Guild of Canada, has said, "We're not objecting to public policy. We're objecting to the formation of a committee to oversee the guidelines."

Bill C-10 now faces Senate ratification. The opposition Liberals have promised hearings, possibly in April.

Meanwhile the movie almost universally cited in discussions of C-10 -- Young People Fucking, a romantic comedy featuring Vancouver's Sonja Bennett in an ensemble cast, seen here at the Vancouver International Film Festival -- has gained so much publicity that its release has been pushed back to early summer in order to capitalize. When it comes to movies, controversy is always the best subsidy.

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