“Perhaps there aren’t too many people who have experienced censorship personally, but I have,” says David Cronenberg, one of Canada’s preeminent filmmakers.
“It ends up being one person suppressing the expression of another. However you slice it, it’s always subjective and it’s always maddening and it’s always personal.”
The director of such iconoclastic films as the Oscar-nominated Eastern Promises and The Brood leads a chorus of outrage from artists, film industry insiders, and opposition MPs and senators against the Conservative government’s Bill C-10.
The bill, which is actually an omnibus bill containing hundreds of amendments to the Income Tax Act, also contains a 13-word clause which will give the Ministry of Canadian Heritage power to deny crucial tax credits to any Canadian film or TV production deemed “contrary to public policy.”
The bill is currently between second and third reading in the Senate, being studied by the Senate’s Banking, Trade and Commerce committee.
“Thankfully the bill is still in front of a Senate committee that can give this important issue the close scrutiny it deserves,” says Liberal Senate leader Céline Hervieux-Payette. “If necessary, we will not hesitate to offer amendments to ensure the tax code is not abused in this manner.”
If the Liberal-dominated committee decides to amend C-10, the bill will be sent back to the House of Commons for approval.
“We are concerned that if Bill C-10 is allowed to pass in its current form, the way will be paved for the use of Canada’s tax system as a de facto censor of film and video production in Canada,” Hervieux-Payette says.
In response to the criticism, the Ministry of Canadian Heritage issued a press release Mar 3.
“Bill C-10 has nothing to do with censorship and everything to do with the integrity of the tax system. The goal is to ensure public trust in how tax dollars are spent,” the press release states.
“Under the current rules, the creator of a film that includes content that may be subject to prosecution under the Criminal Code could technically still be eligible for a film tax credit under the Income Tax Act,” the press release explains. “This is a legal absurdity; a loophole that successive governments — first Liberal, then Conservative — have worked to close. This is a matter of good housekeeping, consistent with previous policy and what is done in other cultural sectors.”
“Ironically, even though the government is talking about tax-credit housekeeping and trying to trivialize this bill, it is in essence giving the power of censorship to one person, the Minister of Heritage,” counters Cronenberg. “And her version of what is acceptable or not is going to be subject to nothing because the guidelines are so vague.”
Jim Abbott, Conservative MP for Kootenay-Columbia and Parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, told the House of Commons Mar 5 that guidelines for the bill have yet to be drafted. “They cannot exist before Bill C-10 is passed. There are simply no guidelines to provide. When Bill C-10 is passed, we will be holding consultations,” he promised.
But Abbotsford Conservative MP Ed Fast hinted at the guidelines’ direction. “Throughout the years most federal funding programs that support cultural works have included guidelines stating that certain materials, such as hate propaganda, excessively violent material, or pornography, are not eligible for government assistance. In the same way, Bill C-10 addresses only the most extreme and objectionable of film and video productions,” he told the House Mar 5.
“We simply want to ensure that public funds, in other words taxpayers’ hard earned dollars, are not invested in productions which are highly objectionable and offensive in their content,” he said, adding that privately funded films won’t be affected.
“I’ve made five features that have received tax credits,” says queer filmmaker John Greyson, director of Proteus, Uncut and Lilies, “and I’m pleased to say they’ve all managed to offend someone. That’s my job description. I certainly hope they offend Stephen Harper and everything he stands for. But does that give him the right to shut me down?”
The proposed changes had rightwing evangelical Charles McVety crowing. The president of the Canada Family Action Coalition, which promotes the idea that homosexuality can be “cured,” publicly claimed his lobbying of cabinet ministers and officials in the prime minister’s office helped push the government toward a new moral offensive to promote “conservative values.”
Officials at Canadian Heritage and other ministries deny meeting with McVety.
Film and television insiders maintain that even if a small number of productions are targeted, the impact on the $4.8-billion industry will be devastating — already there have been news reports in the US media about a possible censorship chill in Canada. The Board of the Canadian Film and Television Production Association, the Directors Guild of Canada and the performers’ union ACTRA are all opposed to the bill.
“All filmmaking in Canada is independent filmmaking,” Cronenberg explains. “We don’t have studios here with their own financial backing. When you are trying to produce a movie in Canada you have to put together a patchwork of financing that involves distribution advances in many countries, private investors possibly, and investment from bodies like Telefilm, government funding bodies. All of that is incredibly volatile. Things keep falling out; it’s like juggling 20 balls at once. And the stable platform that a Canadian producer depends on is government funding — that is the least volatile, the most stable. And what this bill does is to destabilize that platform.”
If Bill C-10 passes unamended, the ministry could deny tax credits at any point in the production schedule, resulting in what Cronenberg calls, “an absolute catastrophe to all the investors in the film because the whole thing would fall apart like a house of cards.”
The lack of guidelines makes him even more nervous. “They’re putting a lot into us giving them censorship powers… to later be discussed? That just indicates what I was saying. It’s of the moment, at the whim of politics and personal taste,” he claims.
Citing the famous aphorism that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, Cronenberg calls the fight against censorship “a constant struggle.”
“It’s not going to go away. I remember we were fighting Bill C-53 many years ago in the Mulroney era. That bill was defeated. But it keeps coming back because there will always be people who want to impose their sensibility on everybody else,” he says.
— with files Brent Creelman