In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Canadian Cinema

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Anthologies
  • Genre and Popular Cinema
  • Animation
  • Documentary
  • Postmodernism
  • Policy and Industry
  • Films

Cinema and Media Studies Canadian Cinema
Alanna Thain
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0014


Canadian cinema began with the June 1896 screenings of the Lumière Cinematograph in Montreal. Early cinema was marked by an uneven balance between Canadian pioneers—for example, Nell Shipman, actress, director, producer, and writer of hits such as Back to God’s Country; or Léo-Ernest Ouimet, producer of hundreds of short films and founder of one of the world’s first motion picture theaters—and the dominance of production and distribution by foreign interests, above all American. The “quota quickies” of the 1930s, American films shot in Canada with no substantive Canadian content, and the Canadian Cooperation Agreement, in which the government agreed to refrain from developing a feature film industry in exchange for Canadian-based American productions, hamstrung an emerging indigenous industry. In 1939, John Grierson founded the National Film Board of Canada, a major center for film production, in particular animation and documentary. There, in the late 1950s, filmmakers like Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx launched the “cinéma direct” movement, a major influence on both documentary worldwide and the realist aesthetic and hybrid form of fiction film in Canada. In 1967, the Canadian Film Development Corporation (later Telefilm) was launched to provide funding for Canadian feature-film production. The films of “cultural value” it produced went largely unwatched by the Canadian public, however, and the absence of a substantial national audience for Canadian cinema (with the exception of Quebec) remains a challenge. The “tax shelter films” of the 1970s took advantage of changes in film funding opportunities and relaxed censorship laws to produce commercial genre films (“Canuxploitation”), an uneasy counterpart to the auteurist cinema generally associated with Canadian film. The 1980s saw the emergence of the Ontario New Wave and international successes like Denis Arcand’s Decline of the American Empire. Increasingly, Canadian films began to tell stories reflecting the diversity of Canadian experiences beyond the “two nations” of English Canada and Quebec, while Quebec cinema has experienced continued growth and popular success and is now considered on its own terms. Today, First Nations filmmaking has embraced the potential of digital cinema to tell ancient stories in new forms, and “Hollywood North” (large-scale American production in Canada) has both challenged and developed Canadian production. A diverse and often-exciting body of work, Canadian cinema has often been a minor player in its own national context, and questions of the relation between cinema and Canadian nationality have dominated film studies in Canada.

General Overviews

Single-author surveys on Canadian cinema such as Leach 2010 and Gittings 2002 offer overviews of the main themes and critical questions, encompassing key films and figures of Canadian cinema(s). Pratley 1987 offers a straightforward chronological history of Canadian cinema through 1984. Melnyk 2004 summarizes existing work centered on the national cinema question. White 2006 assembles essays from twenty-four of the leading scholars on Canadian cinema, productively allowing the debates, disagreements, and tensions related to what constitutes Canadian cinema to emerge between articles. Most of the works here begin from the assumption that the study of Canadian cinema is really that of at least two (Quebec and English Canada) or more cinemas, as with the tripartite division into English, Quebecois, and First Nations filmmaking in White 2006. Early cinema, animation, and other short-form films (despite the importance of the latter two to Canada’s international cinematic reputation) are often marginalized in favor of feature films. Leach 2010 and Gittings 2002 are especially well suited for introductory undergraduate courses; both offer comprehensive thematic overviews alongside detailed analysis of major films.

  • Gittings, Christopher E. Canadian National Cinema: Ideology, Difference and Representation. New York: Routledge, 2002.

    Critical exploration of the “cinematic production of nation” and the tensions over who is represented in a continuously reinvented “national cinema,” via a case-study approach to key films. Theoretically informed and up-to-date. From the Routledge National Cinema series; suitable for introductory and advanced undergraduates.

  • Leach, Jim. Film in Canada. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    Up-to-date introduction organized thematically (multicultural/diasporic cinemas, smart versus stupid films, etc.). Chapters tackle history and theory, including representative key works. Emphasis on features (popular and auteur cinema); little attention to early cinema. Suitable for introductory and advanced undergraduates; chapters contain suggestions for further readings and suggested study questions.

  • Melnyk, George. One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.

    Canadian-studies approach centered on the nation-state and the primacy of the “two national cinemas: Quebecois and English Canadian.” First half covers the history of Canadian cinema; second half focuses on thematic clusters of directors. Socioculturally oriented in analysis, little discussion of policy or industry issues, animation, or popular cinema.

  • Pratley, Gerald. Torn Sprockets: The Uncertain Projection of the Canadian Film. London: Associated University Presses, 1987.

    Historical overview of Canadian cinema through 1984. Selective filmography and bibliography. Part 1 covers early cinema through 1939, emphasizing production by the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau; Part 2 covers the emergence of a feature film industry in Canada through 1984.

  • White, Jerry, ed. The Cinema of Canada. London: Wallflower, 2006.

    Introduction to Canadian cinema via twenty-four essays in three sections (English, Quebecois, and Aboriginal). Covers both canonical and lesser-known films; includes bibliography and filmography. Though neither category is comprehensive nor chronological, essays offer useful insights into the history of Canadian cinema as a field through their justification for inclusion.

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