TIFF Report: Souvenir of Canada Review
Here is an idea that should be a CBC executive's wet dream: A documentary based on Douglas Coupland's quirky coffee table picture-book Souvenir of Canada. Let's all get together and celebrate the iconic mundaneness of Canada! Go Canadian Shield!
Normally I can get pretty testy when it comes to the 'Look how great we are. Look at how NICE we are. Just look at us, We're CANADIAN!' attitude which occasionally seizes our government, and often rubs off us from all the provinces and territories in Canada. Coupland is very much aware of this and plays it out with the droll irony so often present in his novels. In fact, Coupland provides an ongoing voice-over narrative for the entire run of the doc, as well as serving as a character in two of the three story threads (namely Coupland's life and family). His earnestness comes through the layer of irony and prevents Souvenir of Canada from ever looking like a vanity project. One key scene has his dad mentioning a scene from one of Coupland's books. Coupland feels awkward that either parents even read one of his books, and both parents felt awkward for reading it, not because they didn't like it, but more as if it was an invasion of their son's privacy (like cleaning up his teenage bedroom). That thread of the movie plays out very, very well. It is impressive how director Robin Neinstein avoided making Souvenir of Canada from coming across as a great big love-in. Perhaps many will still see it as just that; I did not.
Anti-americanism, and general international bewilderment of what Canada actually is, is skimmed over, along with an extremely ironic scene meant to contrast the paradox of the Canadian love of Hockey Fights with the muted reaction to beheadings and suicide bombings on Al-Jazeera (yes it's awkward and out of place here, but that is the point).
As I said, there are three narrative threads: (1) Canada as geography and history. (2) Couplands family and childhood in the 70s in Vancouver. And (3) The building of an art installation (also based on the book) in a suburban home, called Canada House. They are all connected in a string of off-beat images of both the stretching wilderness of Canada as an awe-inspiring and dangerous beauty with the counterpoint of kitschy Canadiana and suburban consumer products. What he calls secret handshakes of Canadians: Ookpik, Chimo, Ryder Beer, Robin Hood Nanaimo Bar Mix, Dad's Ginger Snaps, Beehive Golden Corn Syrup. (Admittedly, depending on how old you are, many of Coupland's references may go over your head.) It goes so far as to be an ode to the inside of a middleclass Canadian cupboard.
Digressions on wood paneling, Moose hunting, Terry Fox, the Canadarm and great high-school 16 mm films (“Let's Talk About Weeds!”, “How to Build an Igloo”) are laced with a melancholic lament for the loss of many of these images as Canada becomes a more hi-tech and global country. Coupland is charming and the film is a happy place to go for 75 minutes, like looking through old photo albums. The next day you cherish the experience, even it you don't remember much in the way of specifics. Expect it to be played to death on the CBC, like those Hinterland Who's Who bits always shown in between re-runs of the Beachcombers.