Cronenberg questions motives behind Bill C-10

Critically-acclaimed, award-winning director David Cronenberg told the Senate committee yesterday that checking film tax credits against a public policy test would prove disastrous for the film industry.

The famed Toronto-born director said he is still shocked by the Ontario Board of Censors' decision to remove a portion of his 1979 film The Brood, and worries that such subjective decisions could once again be made in the name of "public policy."

The 65-year-old Cronenberg went on to say that the proposed measure buried in Bill C-10 to restrict federal funding is a solution to a non-existent problem. Government granting agencies, such as Telefilm Canada, already check applications against the Criminal Code and do not approve funding to any production that breaks the law.

"Why do you need this additional layer of the same thing?" he asked the Senate committee. "Other than to satisfy the sense of control of that the ministry of Heritage has – is that the only reason? Because there seems to be no other reason."

Bill C-10 is at its third reading in the Senate and on the brink of becoming a law. It includes a tax amendment that will allow the Heritage Minister power to deny tax credits to television and film products deemed offensive or contrary to public policy – even if government agencies have already invested in them.

Cronenberg is known and celebrated internationally for movies that include numerous scenes of sex, violence and horror: Shivers (1975) is about a suburban high-rise plagued by sexually-transmitted parasites that turn the residents into sex-crazed fiends; Crash (1996) follows a series of characters turned-on by car crashes, alternating between intense crashes and steamy sex scenes; and Eastern Promises (2007) features a knife-fight between a naked Russian mobster and two assassins, as well as a voyeur watching a man have sex with a prostitute.

The director said any of his controversial projects "could have been denied funding."

After being criticized, Heritage Minister Josee Verner said that the proposed tax change would address "only the most extreme and gratuitous material, not mainstream film such as Eastern Promises." Cronenberg laughed at the comment in front of the committee, noting that he's rarely been called "mainstream."

He said that the comment only came after the movie was critically acclaimed, when it was "very safe to say this movie is OK."

"I'm not confident at all that the Telefilm money that was invested in Eastern Promises – and helped to make it happen – would not have been withdrawn by the minister of heritage, or whatever committee (she delegated to screen the film)," said Cronenberg.

If passed, he said, the system created would lead filmmakers to engage in self-censorship, akin to the work of artists in the Soviet era. In addition, Cronenberg said that financial institutions would no longer support Canadian productions if tax credits could be withdrawn after movies are produced.

"To me, that is totalitarian, which is what we would expect in Beijing, perhaps, but not Canada," he said.

Cronenberg expressed many of the same sentiments as actress Sarah Polley and Chinese director Ang Lee did last month. All agree that tax credits should only be denied to films that violate Criminal Code articles on child pornography or hate material.

"Anything else is too vague, too slippery, to be acceptable," Cronenberg told the committee.

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