Martin Allor, Part 1: Cultural Industries in Québec

Interviewed by Evelyn Ellerman at Montréal on March, 2012

My name is Martin Allor and I'm a professor of Communication Studies at Concordia University. My background is in communication and cultural studies; I've done a lot of work over the last 20 years around questions of Québec cultural policy in the areas of film and media creation and production.

Ellerman. Can you expand a bit on your interest in that nexus between government funding policy and filmmaking?

Allor. One of the things that's relatively well known is that the Québec film and television industry has a much deeper penetration in terms of audience reception. For example, the number one Canadian film in terms of box office in the last year was Starbuck, a Québec francophone film that took in $3.5 million in cinemas, almost all of it here in Québec. Yet the federal funding agencies were the same; so I became curious about 15 years ago about what could explain the distinctiveness of Québec film industry beyond the obvious factor that language is a kind of cultural barrier or enabler. I was interested in trying to map out the ways in which film and television and other media forms were connected to a cultural policy apparatus. But also, more broadly, in terms of public discourse and cultural forms in Québec that might offer a better explanation than simply saying that language is a kind of shield. So I've spent a good deal of time researching that.

E. When you are looking into that, you would have come across a unique body in Québec called la SODEC. Talk about the role you see la SODEC playing in the development of the film industry in Québec.

A. One of the obvious things about la SODEC is that it's about cultural industries, not just about film. Compared to most other provinces, it has a much bigger funding envelope. So Québec filmmakers can double dip. They can apply to Telefilm and they can apply to la SODEC. A certain percentage of feature films that are produced every year in Québec have received funding from both agencies, which goes a long way to providing fairly significant production budgets. That's one aspect. For me, la SODEC cannot be understood without understanding the ways in which cultural governance works at the level of provincial policy in a way that's quite distinct from other provinces.

The first Ministry of Cultural Development was inaugurated in Québec in 1965. Much of this model was derived from France. Outside of Montréal, we don't have many libraries. We have Maisons de la Culture, which include libraries, but also performance and exhibition spaces. It was a model taken directly from France under André Malraux, when he was culture minister there. But then there are other issues, like the arguments that have been going on in public discourse here for over a century: arguments about Québec’s cultural identity, about whether Québec constitutes a nation inside Canada or separate from it; about the way that language and culture play out in a more general public discourse about those relationships.

When the Parti québécois government was elected in the 1970s, it commissioned a white paper on cultural development and that inaugurated a whole series of policy streams about culture and the broader frame: everything from education to senior citizens, to literature, film, theatre, and television within a framework of cultural development as a central aspect of public life. And it's really continued since. In the 1990s, there was a major revision of Québec's public policy. This was done under Liberal provincial government. It identified in one of its annexes the ways in which culture mattered in seventeen different ministries, not just the Ministry of Culture or Communication. But literally every other ministry was considered to have a component or aspect of its actions that could be connected to culture. That’s a very broad and view of what constitutes the politics and public life of Québec.

E. That’s quite extraordinary. For English Canada, that seems almost like a foreign country in the sense that, in English Canada, we very often feel guilty about discussing culture. We have discussions about whether we can get beyond the notion of the “Canadian” film, or the national identity in our cultural texts. You are saying that, in Québec, this is celebrated; in fact, it is at the base of what people are doing. And there is no question. Has that changed at all over the last 30 or 40 years?

A. Not really. If you remember, it was a Lesage Liberal government in 1965 that inaugurated the first Ministry of Cultural Development. It is really in the public discourse more generally, not just in the policy discourse or governmental discourse where culture matters. It is part of the identity of being Québécois, however you conceptualize that, whether you’re a federalist or sovereigntist. It has to do not just with language, but the language of culture. It's cultural identity and all the arts are seen as an integral part of that. For example, federal programs were recently altered under the federal Conservative government, like cutting back on support for international touring for arts companies. In Québec public discourse, that is seen as completely shortsighted and not understanding the role that culture can play as part of the international circulation of Québec or Canada as an entity in the world.

E. I wanted to ask you about that because, in the industry, people are of two minds about the current government. They feel we have a very strong minister of culture, Mr. Moore, who has done some very positive things and has been supportive of the film industry (at least this is the English Canadian view). I do understand the dynamics you’re talking about with the current conservative government, but this is a government that now has a majority. How is that seen in Québec? Is that something that people have to be careful of? Do they see something positive coming out of that government? Is this federal government learning from their mistakes with Québec in the past?

A. I think they're more careful. But, on the other hand, strictly politically, they have so little currency here in terms of the few number of seats they have; they finished third or fourth in a number of ridings in the last election. They were so far behind that some people are saying, “How can they have a majority with so few seats in Québec?” How much negotiation still has to happen is a good question, but it goes on all the time. SODEC is in conversation with Telefilm. Some of the personnel move back and forth between the two organizations. There have been some things that Minister Moore has done that have been favorable and are seen that way here. Others have been things that people have vehemently disagreed with. The provincial government has put up extra funds to make up for things that have been eliminated at the federal level, such as supporting dance troupes. Cirque du Soleil doesn't need any help anymore, but other performing troupes do for international tours. Touring is seen as central to a sense of who we are in the world.

Martin Allor, Part 2: Role of the NFB in establishing the film industry in Québec