“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, Crash and The Brood leads a chorus of outrage from artists, film industry insiders and other cultural observers stemming from the Conservative government’s Bill C-10. The bill proposes to give the Ministry of Heritage power to deny crucial tax credits to any Canadian film and TV production based on the nebulous term “contrary to public policy.”
“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,” says Cronenberg, “and her version of what is acceptable or not is going to be subject to nothing because the guidelines are so vague.”
Heritage Minister Josée Verner actually singled out Cronenberg in one newspaper article, stating that the bill would not affect a “mainstream film” like Eastern Promises; Cronenberg doesn’t buy it.
“It’s really kind of mealy-mouthed, I have to say, it’s really disingenuous to say that obviously Eastern Promises wouldn’t be affected.
“I’ve met Ms Verner and I don’t think her taste in movies and mine are very similar. And I have a feeling that if she had read the script of Eastern Promises — the first scene there’s a throat cutting — I think she would have been appalled and would have pulled the plug on it.”
“I’ve made five features that have received tax credits,” adds queer filmmaker John Greyson, director of films like 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,” 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 Heritage and other ministries deny meeting with McVety.
Film and television insiders claim 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. Opponents of the bill include the Board of the Canadian Film and Television Production Association, the Directors Guild of Canada and the performers’ union ACTRA.
“All filmmaking in Canada is independent filmmaking,” says Cronenberg. “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.”
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 proposed changes came to light after somebody in the Ministry of Heritage alerted the media. The bill had already passed unanimously in the House of Commons and is between second and third reading in the Senate, basically one step away from royal assent. The relevant clause is just 13 words long in a giant omnibus bill detailing hundreds of amendments to the Income Tax Act.
Not only was the clause never debated in the House of Commons, the guidelines drawn up by the ministry have conveniently disappeared. When the story first broke, Ministry of Heritage spokesperson Charles Drouin noted that the changes would affect productions featuring hatred, explicit sex, excessive violence or anything without educational value. The Globe and Mail quoted him saying that the ministry “has recently standardized and updated the list of illegal and other ineligible content.”
According to NDP culture critic Bill Siksay, Jim Abbott, parliamentary secretary to the Heritage minister, promised to present the new guidelines to the standing committee on heritage. But when the committee next met Abbot said that no guidelines had been prepared as yet. “I have trouble understanding how it’s possible the guidelines don’t exist when just a few says ago he undertook to produce them for the committee,” Siksay commented to the Toronto Star.
Verner pledged to hold public consultations on new tax credit eligibility guidelines, but only after the bill is passed. She says “C-10 is no way a form of censorship.”
The disappearing guidelines make people like Cronenberg even more nervous. “[The absence of guidelines] is supposed to make us feel better? 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.
“You have to say, ‘Who do you think you’re fooling?'”
If the Liberal-dominated Senate committee on banking 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,” 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.”
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.”