Markus Heide: Border Film and the US-Canada Divide

Do Canadians produce films? They most definitely do, and create varied, intriguing projections of North American cultures which may go far beyond projects already undertaken by Hollywood south of the border. Although Canadian film production may for the larger audiences be overshadowed by the massive scale and number of Hollywood productions, every now and then Canadian film and television break even that boundary, as proven, for example, by the international acclaim for the Quebec film maker Denys Arcand and his 1980s hits Jésus de Montréal (1989), Le déclin de l’empire americain (1986), and its more recent, Oscar-winning sequel Les invasions barbares (2003). But now I am jumping more boundaries than my topic implies; indeed, if there is a divide between U.S. and Canadian film, then there is a different divide between English and French Canadian film – and yet a different one between French Canadian and U.S. film.

The idea of divides, and specifically of borders which in some ways seem so easy to locate between nations but in others remain forever blurred and leaking, was the focus of Dr. Markus Heide’s talk at the JMC Current Issues Seminar on November 12. Dr. Heide, based at the Swedish Institute for North American Studies, Department of English, at Uppsala University in Sweden, focused on borders as ideas and images depicted in film and television, and also on their role in film production. Heide placed his talk in the framework of border studies, a field which in the words of David E. Johnson and Scott Michaelsen (Border Theory: The Limits of Cultural Politics, 1997), owes its existence to “the U.S.-Mexico border – the birthplace, really, of border studies, and its methods of analysis.” Heide recognized the importance of the U.S.-Mexico border in early North American film through Charlie Chaplin, who famously crisscrosses over the strikingly undefended U.S.–Mexico border in the silent film era classic The Pilgrim (1923).

Kuva 1From Chaplin’s border crossings, Heide turned his eye decisively to the north, showing how the U.S.–Canadian border has changed shape and taken on different meanings in the everyday life of communities on both sides of the border and in both documentary and fiction film engaging with the border as a location for various lived experiences. Drawing on border studies, Heide approached the border as a location which may appear as a divide, but is sometimes, perhaps more importantly, a zone of cultural contact, mixing, and hybridization.

The U.S.–Canada border was traditionally – and famously – framed as the world’s longest undefended border. So, long after the casual crisscrossings in Chaplin’s film became impossible due to increasing monitoring and even militarization of the U.S.–Mexico border, such nonchalant crossings remained, if not encouraged, then nevertheless rather unhindered on the thousands of miles of the U.S.–Canada border. That border often appeared in the landscape as merely a line in the middle of vast forests where all the trees had been cut down, or in the treeless Prairie as a line which barely left a mark on the landscape. Since 9/11, Heide pointed out, this kind of a soft, undefended border has been transformed into a protected border; not a militarized border like its counterpart in the south, but one which is under increasing pressures to stabilize and control this mutable zone from both sides of the border, and perhaps even more so from the south.

In the Canadian context, Heide showed how the dominance of Hollywood in the era of the fiction film spectacle caused Canadians to turn their eye toward the documentary film. The title of his example from this era, Two Countries, One Street (1955), speaks volumes of the experience of living on a “soft” border: the border exists; everyone probably knows where it is, but it may not appear as much of a divide in one’s everyday life. Heide showed that since those days, the U.S.–Canada border has changed shapes many times, and those changes are reflected in Canadian film, television, and other cultural products. As indigenous peoples have in the past fifty years or so found new ways to declare their continuing presence in North America, they have also found ways to speak against a border which does not reflect any traditional indigenous boundaries (Heide’s examples included the Canadian author Thomas King’s famous short story Borders and the recent U.S. film Frozen River, 2008). The border does not have the same meaning for all communities or individuals divided by it, and for some, denying the significance of the border has become an important means of self-identification.

On other fronts, Heide showed how Canadian television has taken the iconic U.S. story of A Little House on the Prairie and turned the setting into something rather more Canadian in the series A Little Mosque on the Prairie (2007-2012); and how the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) production The Border (2008–) at once mimics the frantic pace set by the U.S. hit series 24 and still carries different undertones, reflecting the documentary sensibilities of Canadian film and television history. Is Canadian film and television all about borders galore, then? In terms of national borders, no; but Heide’s talk opened up an important aspect of North American lived experience which is too often overshadowed by the interactions on the other U.S. land border, and suggested an enriched approach to borders and border studies by turning its gaze to the north.

Text: Dr. Janne Korkka, Coordinator of North American Studies Programme, Department of English
Photo: Laura Saloluoma

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