I know nothing about Canada. I thought I did, but like all things you learn about, the more you learn, the more you realize you know nothing. I was writing a story set on the island of Newfoundland, and the characters were eating in a local diner — what would be on the menu? — when I became aware of this documentary, Being Canadian, which asks a lot of hard questions about Canada (including: “What the hell is Canadian food?”). Synchronicity? Well, like many synchronistic moments, it turned out to be more of a rabbit hole than anything — but at least a highly entertaining one!
Director Robert Cohen left his home of Calgary for Los Angeles just after school, eventually became a successful television comedy writer (The Ben Stiller Show, The Big Bang Theory), and Being Canadian is a self-proclaimed “home movie” in which he sets out on a highly personal journey to rediscover his home country. The film is partly a travelogue — a road trip across Canada, interviewing the Canadian on the street — and partly a series of interviews with prominent Canadians (among them: Cobie Smulders, Michael J. Fox, William Shatner, Jason Priestly, Paul Shaffer, Morley Safer, and more!). There are more than a dozen burning questions framing the movie that are both insightful and infused with a very Canadian self-deprecating sense of humor.
I recently overheard some people in line for a train discussing where St. Louis was; they finally decided on Ohio. While I’m sure Cohen’s assertion that people outside of Canada know very little about Canadian geography is true, people in the U.S. know very little about any geography. When people find out I’ve lived in both Ohio and Iowa it confuses them — aren’t they the same place? Isn’t that like making a sandwich with a slice of bread between two slices of bread? Seeing how people complain endlessly about even the mildest winter, and American migration is generally to the south, I guess it figures that the perception of a country to the north of this one must be a frozen and inhospitable igloo-studded wasteland.
Cohen admits his own lack of knowledge about his country, particularly the Maritime provinces, and his confessions and discoveries are part of the road trip and at the core of the movie. The film gently pokes fun at the modern documentary’s necessity to impose a dramatic arc and ticking clock urgency as he gives himself an impossible few days to drive east coast to west, exploring the truth behind the stereotypes, and in the process defining what it means to be Canadian. His deadline is July 1 – yes, Canada Day. The comic urgency works, as it feels like the whole thing was created in a mad burst of energy (when in fact it took several years).
Is it true that Canadians are incredibly nice, like a more extreme version of Minnesotans? Well, there’s ice hockey… but besides that? My first experience with flesh and blood Canucks was not a good one. Two friends and I were in Florida for spring break our senior year of high school, and though the passing of several decades and a bottle of 151 proof rum make it all a blur now, I recall an episode involving a broken pinball machine and a group of angry, big guys about to stomp us. We knew they were Canadians because they said they were Canadians, called us “wilts,” and asked if we knew what “pumping iron” was. I didn’t think about it at the time, but I do recall an almost apologetic tone to their threats.
Cohen and many of the Canadians he interviews lament the absence of a signature Canadian food, though considering it’s the second largest country, geographically, in the world, that’s not surprising. There is a brief and comic mention of recent hipster foodie obsession, poutine, but he avoids muktuk altogether (and who can blame him), before focusing on maple syrup (Canada produces 80 percent of the world’s supply). He seems a little embarrassed by the Canuck tendency to do things like drink it straight from the bottle, and freeze it on snow… but I’ve done both those things… and it’s awesome. If I am ever your houseguest, you’d be wise to mark the level on your maple syrup bottle.
Then there’s everyone’s favorite subject: the weather. The best scenes in movies and my favorite passages in books usually involve some kind of dramatic, inclement weather. With Canada, of course, we’re talking cold and snow. Twice during the course of his cross-country drive, Cohen encounters snowstorms, which add quite a bit of production value to his mad excursion. Interview subjects seem to enjoy talking about just how bad it can get and like regaling us with accounts of ridiculously frigid adventures. It is even suggested that the long winters have a lot to do with the impressive number of comedians that hail from Canada, quite a few interviewed here (Dan Aykroyd, Seth Rogen, Mike Myers, Martin Short, Howie Mandel, and more!).
Regardless of the hardships, and the occasional weirdness and goofiness of Canada, Cohen seems to love the place, as do the Canadians he interviews throughout the movie (including a former Prime Minister, an etiquette expert, a nutritionist, a psychotherapist, and more!). Ultimately he comes upon a realization that the country he left so many years ago has become a lot cooler, a lot more hip, over the time he’s been gone. Whether that is a fair assessment of the prevailing attitudes about Canada or has more to do with his changing point of view is a subject that can be tackled in the sequel.
As for myself, Being Canadian didn’t do anything to dispel my longtime interest in the mysterious country to the north, and in fact has led me to some new possible obsessions, like the much-maligned TV series The Beachcombers (which looks as if it could have been a major influence on Twin Peaks). I have barely set foot in the country myself (and I’m not even sure if you can count Niagara Falls and the Toronto International Film Festival) so I’m thinking Canada might be my next great travel destination. And even as a place to move; I am considering throwing a dart at a map of Canada and starting over there. Wherever I end up, hopefully they will be too polite to ask me to leave.