With Glowing Hearts: A Brief Note on Canada and Criticism

By Jesse Cumming, Canada

Jesse Cumming

As a film critic from Canada, a relatively small country with a modest film industry, I’m interested in the question of critical communities: what films are discussed, how are they discussed, and by whom. In this country most independent films have a limited festival run, and an even more limited commercial life, leading to relatively high stakes for positive and (especially) negative criticism. As someone also involved in experimental film, a debate I’m familiar with arises: is there value in a negative review when there is a chance it will be one of the only pieces ever written about the film? Or does treating all work with a general benevolence serve to devalue the truly exceptional films?

I find that in the world of Canadian film and film criticism negative opinion tends to be rare (or at least not published) – a current state of affairs that I lament less than others. A few exceptions that come to mind include articles by writers like Ezra Winton and his recent challenge against the politically impotent documentary BEE NATION (2017), or Adam Nayman’s criticism of Xavier Dolan’s films. Each writer, for their negativity, are deeply invested in the state of Canadian film and its improvement: Winton as he argues for active decolonial documentary practices, Nayman as he addresses the overrepresentation of Dolan on festival slates and in magazine spreads – space that could be shared with or otherwise allocated to other deserving films.

I have the privilege of pitching and writing as a freelancer, meaning that I have the option of writing almost exclusively on films or filmmakers that I believe to be of merit, and those who have already received little coverage. For me, this often also means privileging underrepresented Canadian work when possible, but also retaining a conscious engagement with works by and about racialized, queer, or women filmmakers. My writing is rarely critical in the negative sense, and my awareness of the precarious existence of these films – frequently with limited means of accessibility for viewers – means I might give particular attention to questions of historical context and visual description over analysis. For some, the aversion to a classical review that arrives with pro or con assessment might seem to be an abandonment of the work of criticism, while it might instead suggest a need for an alternative term for such writing, designating between examination and evaluation. But that’s a question for another time.