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Hébert: Radio-Canada’s days as talent incubator may be over

Feb 6, 2012

Source: Toronto Star

MONTREAL—Hundreds of real and lesser VIPs — including a string of cabinet ministers and MPs — converged on the Ottawa’s National Arts Centre at the invitation of federal heritage minister James Moore Monday night for a special screening of Monsieur Lazhar, Canada’s 2012 Oscar nominee for best foreign film.

It would be nice to think that they all knew the back-story to the triumph they were gathered to celebrate. Given the country’s enduring cultural silos, that’s highly unlikely.

It’s the second year in a row that a Quebec movie puts Canada’s name on the Oscar short list. That’s anything but a fluke.

Over the past three decades, a lot of threads have gone in the making of the red carpets that the production teams and casts of Quebec-made films so routinely march upon these days.

While talent is an undeniable part of the mix, nurturing has a lot to do with the result. And the Quebec film industry’s success is due in no small part to Radio-Canada’s role as an incubator.

Incendies — Canada’s 2011 Oscar entry — and Monsieur Lazhar are very different films. Except for their common Montreal setting, their story lines don’t intersect. But they have some fundamental features in common, starting with the formative experiences of their respective directors.

In the early 1990s, Denis Villeneuve and Philippe Falardeau were both part of a Radio-Canada experiment that saw neophyte filmmakers fan out across the world to report on topics of their choosing.

From its beginning as a joint Francophonie venture in the’70s until 1999, La course destination monde — as it was known under its final Canada-only incarnation — broadcast six to eight short films a week. One of its audience hooks was that a jury ranked them according to artistic and journalistic merit. Another was that it brought some of the more remote areas of the planet into Canada’s francophone living rooms.

Growing up in Toronto and Ottawa, my sons first encountered the world in French through the eyes of the contenders of the show. Their parents found in the program a weekly fix for their then-repressed travel bug.

It is an understatement to say that foreign affairs officials were not always delighted to have the Radio-Canada contenders in their backyards. They ventured off the beaten path. They often tread on sensitive cultural grounds and did not always do so lightly.

Two years ago, La Presse looked up the former participants of La course destination monde. It found that most of them had gone on to toil in the cultural industry.

It is hard to think of a group that has collected more movie and television prizes on behalf of Quebec and Canada than the graduates of the Radio-Canada experiment.

Many of their works have been box-office hits. They have also pushed the frontiers of Quebec’s film horizons

Before their generation came of age, Quebec already had a respectable but essentially introspective film tradition.

By contrast, Villeneuve’s Incendies is set partly in Lebanon and its protagonists are products of Quebec’s cultural diversity.

Monsieur Lazhar — the hero of the Falardeau movie — is an Algerian immigrant.

In the pre-Internet era, the logistics of gathering the material for a weekly program such as La course were daunting.

In the pre-reality show era, no private broadcaster would have supported an experimental venture that featured no big names, no ready-made stars and more potential headaches than profits.

Nor, it seems, would today’s federal government.

Just last Friday, Andrew MacDougall — the Prime Minister’s spokesperson — argued that Radio-Canada’s role was to take care of “regions that can’t sustain news gathering by private companies.” He added: “We want them to do that and not get into all that other web TV stuff.”

If the narrow take of Stephen Harper’s spokesperson reflects current government thinking on Radio-Canada, its days as an incubator of leading-edge talents are behind it and the VIPs who attended Monday’s screening of Monsieur Lazhar were really celebrating the imminent end of an era.

© Toronto Star