April 8th, 2011
Salt Lake City, sunny and weird. I am in Utah this week as a guest of the sprawling campus of Utah Valley University, the awkwardly abbreviated UVU. I was here briefly about eleven years ago, en route to the Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford’s indie party largely based in the nearby ski town of Park City. This time I am being hosted smack in the centre of SLC itself, about 45 minutes away from the UVU campus. The neo-Gothic Mormon Temple, home of the famous Tabernacle Choir, is just down the street. The handsomely lit State house is just up the hill. In other words, I have been parachuted rather directly into the heart of Big Love country, about as far from Newfoundland in landscape, culture, and history as Joey Smallwood is form Joseph Smith.
My trip is all about film—Canadian film history, the business of running a St John’s film festival, the challenges of sustaining an industry that is not mainstream, Hollywood, or even Toronto. My gracious host invited me to talk to a cinema studies class and to showcase a reel of film festival material. I have now done the first of the tasks, just having wrapped a 75-minute or so lecture and discussion. It’s fun being a guest in someone else’s world. You get treated very well and people are curious, open to hear something different, even if slightly puzzled about the whole notion of Canada, let alone the possibility of a Canadian film industry. That said, about half the class cheerfully admitted to having seen Porky’s and Meatballs, and the guys especially laughed every time I mentioned Strange Brew, that popular 1983 tale of beer and boy-bonding featuring the adventures of Bob and Doug McKenzie. What does that tell you?
But South Park references and the vulgar Canadian arts aside, I really enjoyed talking about the troubled category of national film, emphasizing the very questionable business of defining films by their countries of origin. Increasingly, it is difficult to defend such categories, certainly not the way we used to a few decades ago. And when considering the category of Canadian film one only needs to mention in the same breath Strange Brew and the stunningly intelligent Incendies by Quebec director Denis Villeneuve to point out how specious generalizing about our national industry can be.
I found the students amazingly, charmingly relaxed before a stranger in their midst, perhaps a sign of being near the end of their semester and an indication of the casually effective teaching style of their professor, but I think it also has to do with a certain open curiosity about the world. Most of them are Mormons, having been raised in the highly disciplined lifestyle demanded by the Church. Sure, they look and dress like students everywhere—denim, t-shirts, sandals and runners, tech gadgets in hand—but they have grown up without conventional peer pressure factors of alcohol or drugs, even caffeine in any form, and they take for granted the value of the family, early marriages, and parenthood. I noticed quite a few young women pushing strollers through the university corridors, and wondered what sort of support was in place for them, helping them to raise babies and study at the same time. My host informed me this is a vexed matter, and that sufficient daycare is simply, sadly, not in place.
I am also fascinated here by the students’ facility with languages. Makes sense. They go on two-year Missions to foreign countries, including Canada, and so the primary education system prepares them in advance with a host of language instruction options. By the time they return from their Missions they are fluent in Russian or Tagalog or Mandarin, whatever, an impressive accomplishment, and a skill set that carries over into university studies. Waiting for the class I was about to address, I was charmed by the conversation between the instructor and a student in the exiting class—in fluent, lovely, lucid Spanish. It’s a curious contradiction—this cloistered Mormon lifestyle and the worldly experience of travel and language acquisition. Go figure.
Of course, this is a solidly conservative State, and a Republican bastion, and so it’s best to avoid conversations of such subjects at all times. I am here as a guest, not as a rabble rouser. But I sure will be interested in seeing what kind of audience reaction I will get to the reel of festival shorts I am showing at a downtown theatre. They are wickedly funny and wry, and some are especially outrageous and subversive. Not only that, all of the films have been directed and written by women, not a conventional Mormon practice –or dream–I should think.
After the class, during which I had mentioned the difficulty women have everywhere of making it in the very male-dominated film industry, a young woman approached me to ask what advice I could give her sister who was talented and passionate about becoming a producer. For a moment I wondered whether the sister story was really a cover for her own interest. What, after all, can one advise except to pursue one’s ambition?
I know I will be carrying back quite a lot from this trip, but if that young woman actually conveys some encouragement to her sister about pursuing a career not normally expected in her culture then it will have been worth it in spades.