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The country’s major funding provider for films is updating its eligibility criteria amid growing criticism that projects be primarily in English, French or an Indigenous language. 

Filmmakers like Vancouver-based Mayumi Yoshida say Telefilm Canada’s criteria are outdated and don’t reflect the breadth of Canadian experiences, especially those of immigrants and people of colour. 

“I feel like it’s an erasure of identity,” said Yoshida. “As storytellers, it’s kind of limiting our voice to only those languages instead of authentic language.”

Yoshida, best known for her role in the series The Man in the High Castle and The Terror, says she applied for funding from Telefilm last March for a feature set in Japan and Vancouver that reflects her experience of immigrating to Canada 11 years ago. The film, her first feature, is based on the short film Akashi, which was released in 2017. 

Mayumi Yoshida, left, and Yayoi Hirano in the short film Akashi. Yoshida says she was ‘gutted’ when her Telefilm Canada application was rejected. (Adam Van Steinburg)

But Yoshida says her application was turned down because the film is mostly in Japanese and doesn’t meet Telefilm’s eligibility criteria. 

“I was gutted,” she said. “Because the story is specifically based on my experience as an immigrant, I felt like my story wasn’t of value.” 

Filmmakers like Yoshida say the language requirements are all the more perplexing given the recent success of films like award-winning blockbuster Parasitefrom Korean director Bong Joon-ho, and American Academy Award-winner Minari (which experienced its own controversies when it was nominated in the foreign language category at the Golden Globes). 

Audiences have come to terms with the “one-inch barrier” of subtitles, critics say, and are hungry for powerful stories told in any language. 

René Bourdages, Telefilm’s vice-president of cultural portfolio management since December 2019, says the proliferation of digital platforms and the accompanying technology allowing for multiple subtitles has made audiences more accustomed to seeing text on screen. 

More importantly, Bourdages says, Canadian society as a whole and the film industry are increasingly acknowledging the systemic barriers that funders like Telefilm have implemented. 

“Telefilm has been, in the last year in particular, delving into these problematic historical legacy architectures and guidelines,” Bourdages said. “It’s a priority for us to address these concerns and move forward.” 

This spring, Telefilm publicly acknowledged its language controversy and promptly struck a sub-committee from its diversity and inclusion working group to review the guidelines. Bourdages says the group hopes to have a framework for new criteria in place by this fall. 

“We want to be able to allow a filmmaker to tell the story in the proper language that the story dictates,” he said.

‘These are taxpayer dollars’

The criticism about Telefilm’s language requirements isn’t new.

Shant Joshi, a Canadian producer based out of Toronto and Los Angeles whose work focuses on telling stories from the perspective of queer, BIPOC and other underrepresented perspectives, says several of his films have been turned down because of Telefilm’s language requirement over the years. 

Most recently, Joshi says, the application for his planned collaboration with critically acclaimed Indian filmmaker Onir was rejected despite favourable feedback from Telefilm.

“These are taxpayer dollars,” he said. “And your taxpayers are not solely English speakers and French speakers or Indigenous language speakers.” 

Deepa Mehta’s Water was able to get Telefilm funding because she also shot a version in English — which was never released. (Mongrel Media)

Joshi points out that as far back as 2005 Deepa Mehta had to manoeuvre around the language rules when she made her Oscar-nominated film Water in Hindi: she shot an English version at the same time just to qualify for Telefilm funding, even though it was never released.

Telefilm funding isn’t necessarily a windfall, Joshi says — he was hoping for about $250,000 for his feature — but it acts as a signal to other funders and is often a linchpin for more money. 

He says he’s glad Telefilm is updating the language requirements, but thinks the organization needs to do more work to address systemic racism across its policies.