In a country where less than two percent of commercial cinema screen space displays its own cultural product, there is cause for celebration when a Canadian doc like Up the Yangtze has a record opening weekend. The producers of this new film about the human ramifications of large-scale industrial projects (in this case the Three Gorges Dam Project in China) recently issued a press release boasting opening weekend numbers that have broke records formerly held by Canada’s last two docbusters, The Corporation and Manufactured Landscapes.
Up the Yangtze opens across Canadian theatres over the rest of February, and this gorgeously-shot film from Eye Steel Films offers more than a cinematic and political treat, it gives audiences north of the 49th the rare opportunity to prove wrong the equation put forward by the captains of cultural industry here: people are hungry for non-Hollywood film.
Canada’s film history is often constructed as a tension played out between cultural nationalists and free market populists. It goes something like this: the nationalists want Canadian films in Canadian theatres so that Canada can see itself “reflected back to itself,” and so that the many Canadian films made each year will actually have a reason beyond dilapidated state television broadcasts for being produced. On the other side, the free-market pundits argue that what is shown in theatres genuinely reflects what audiences want, thus proving the almighty power of the market to sort out culture.
This tension is fabricated and dated. It is the tired nostalgic argumentation of the old world culturecrats sitting in Ottawa and in the cramped offices of both state and private broadcasters. This tension pits nationalism against neoliberalism, which narrows the argument and obfuscates the real issue: diversity.
It is time for some housecleaning north of Hollywood. Canada doesn’t need films like Up the Yangtze playing in its theatres to satisfy some patriotic tendency. Canadian films and documentary films need to be on Canadian theatre screens because audiences want to see them because people are in want of diversity, and thus far the commercial cinemas in this country have been bankrupt in this department, defending their Hollywood menus with market rhetoric around “audience choice.” Hopefully, with films like this and others, audiences in Canada will prove them wrong.