A small film called Ava — the story of a teenage Iranian girl facing pressures from family and society — is the biggest movie at this year’s Canadian Screen Awards. It has eight nominations and one special win already: it was announced in late January that Ava had won the Best First Feature Award, sponsored by Telefilm Canada.
Telefilm is the country’s main film funding agency, helping Canadian filmmakers get their movies made. Last fiscal year, Telefilm allocated more than $100 million to the production and promotion of Canadian films.
But Ava was not eligible for Telefilm funding.
That’s because writer-director Sadaf Foroughi is a Canadian citizen but decided to make Ava in Farsi, her native language, and film it in Iran.
The co-production with Iran and Qatar qualified as a Canadian film under the federal government’s rules, since key creative roles are filled by Canadians. But Telefilm only finances films made in English, French or Indigenous languages.
As a result, Foroughi had to rely on smaller grants from arts councils, which meant making her film on a shoestring budget, and sometimes not having enough money left over to feed herself.
“I had lots of difficulties,” she told CBC News. “Sometimes I ate less to keep all the money, because I knew that I didn’t have any other funds.”
Films in Mandarin, Korean also shut out
Foroughi is not the only diverse Canadian filmmaker facing this language barrier.
Last year, Old Stone by director Johnny Ma won the same Best First Feature award sponsored by Telefilm. It was nominated for five Canadian Screen Awards, but it also wasn’t eligible for Telefilm funding because it was made in Mandarin.
Albert Shin was born in Canada of South Korean descent, and decided to make his debut feature film, In Her Place, in Korean. His film played the Toronto International Film Festival, and garnered seven Canadian Screen Award nominations in 2015.
Even though it also qualifies as a Canadian film, it too was ineligible for funding from Telefilm because of language, a situation Shin calls “frustrating.”
He feels a film can be “uniquely Canadian” due to the artistic sensibility of its writer and director, even when it is set outside of Canada and filmed in a language other than English, French or an Indigenous language.
A ‘very difficult choice’
The executive director of Telefilm Canada says the agency receives four to five times more requests from filmmakers than it can afford to fund.
“It’s a very difficult choice to make,” said Carolle Brabant, who is stepping down this month after eight years in the job, adding, “We would love to, if only we had more money to do so.”
Brabant said there has been some discussion around changing the eligibility requirements, but “we’re not ready yet.”
Chair of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television Martin Katz pointed out that Indigenous language films used to be ineligible, as well. That rule was changed a few years ago.
“If we look at a film like Ava, which is such a beautiful film in Farsi, and it’s really about issues that young women all over the world are facing at the same time, I think we look at that and step back and ask ourselves the question ‘Why are our rules like that? Why are our rules not different?'”
Given that Canada participates in international co-productions all over the world, Katz thinks there should be a way to make those films “part of the Telefilm family.”
One veteran Canadian filmmaker did find a way. Deepa Mehta got around the language rules when she made her Oscar-nominated 2005 film Water in Hindi: she shot an English version at the same time just to qualify for Telefilm funding, even though it was never released.
Films ‘uniquely Canadian’
For those filmmakers caught in the funding gap due to their choice of language, change can’t come soon enough.
“We can make films that take place in different countries but they’re uniquely Canadian because we’re a country that embraces other cultures and other creeds and religions,” Shin said.
“We can be in the forefront of that — we have the population to do it, we have the stories to do it. This is a unique thing that Canada can bring to the world cinema stage.”
For now, Shin has to keep those ideas on hold. He’s writing his next feature film in English so it will be eligible for Telefilm funding.
Foroughi, however, is already planning her next movie in Farsi.
“[Telefilm] has to believe in us,” she said. “I think we have talent even if the film’s language is in Chinese or Korean or Arabic or Persian, but we are Canadian.”