Judge Adam Arseneau's not here, man.
A fight for freedom in the 21st century.
Travel abroad in the world and ask people what they know about Canada. The answers are fairly benign and predictable: boring, cold, beavers, Mounties, decent beer, hockey—the usual stereotypes.
Escape to Canada offers a new set of global impressions about the Great White North: gay marriage, marijuana smoking, and draft dodging. In fact, Canada just might be the "real" Land of the Free. Or maybe not…
Facts of the Case
Creator of Stupidity and founder of the World Stupidity Awards, documentary filmmaker Albert Nerenberg points his lens into his own backyard in Escape to Canada, examining the growing divide between American and Canadian politics, specifically over gay marriage and marijuana legalization.
In 2003, two completely separate bills of legislation passed in both federal and provincial government that would irrevocably shake up the geopolitical landscape of North America. On May 27th, the federal government introduced laws that effectively decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. This, along with existing provisions for medical use and a de facto tolerance for the drug in Canadian society essentially green-lit a cultural acceptance of marijuana across the country. Barely two weeks later on June 10th, the province of Ontario legalized same-sex marriages, granting the same matrimonial rights to gay men and women as to straight couples. Other provinces soon followed suit.
Almost immediately, Canada was hailed on the international stage as a forward-thinking leader in liberal politics, pushing a trend towards a more open and freer society. In sharp contrast, the United States was clamping down on its excesses and liberal ideology, growing more isolated and politically and morally conservative, getting ready to re-elect George W. Bush into a second term in a few short months. Suddenly, the longest undefended border in the world was heating up—refugees from America began showing up in Canada in search of "greener" pastures, the freedom to marry who they please, and, for soldiers, a chance to get out of being sent to Iraq.
Canada and the United States, two inseparable allies, now found themselves at opposite ends of the moral compass, moving further away with each step…
In case you missed it, the divide between Canada and the United States has grown a little wider on a few fronts in the last few years with the growing liberal tendencies of Canada and the conservatism of the Bush administration. Once the staunchest of allies and like-minded companions, the two governments have locked horns on numerous issues of late—immigration, border security, Canada's refusal to invade Iraq, softwood lumber, trade disputes. American right-wing pundits began pronouncing "Canada" as if it was a dirty word, on par with "France," while Canada joined in with the rest of the world and got down with some serious Bush bashing.
Escape to Canada examines the international perception of Canada as a cold, slightly boring country, but one suddenly exploding into international headlines over its legalization of gay marriage and medical marijuana, events which almost came back-to-back. Canada's stance on marijuana, through some quirky legal loopholes, was blown into limbo and, for a period of time, virtually unenforceable, with police turning a blind eye. Suddenly, Canada was perceived as a "hip" country on the cutting edge of liberal progressiveness, both in recent policies and in stark contrast to its increasingly conservative southern neighbor, the United States, whose unilateral policies had arguably tarnished the country's image in the global community as of late.
A Canadian film itself, the documentary's title is slightly tongue-in-cheek; it does not really argue that anyone should escape the United States in favor of the Great White North, but rather examines Canada's own decision-making policies, criticizing its own government for not being as progressive as they should be. That being said, it certainly spends enough time talking to refugees from the United States entering Canada in search of more libertarian freedoms: pot-smoking, gay marriage, or dodging military service. The irony here being, of course, that all are outcasts from the "Land of the Free." Unable to achieve their desired freedoms in the country of their birth, they migrate en masse to "boring" Canada, where such freedoms are given with barely a second thought.
Oh, if only it were that simple. After glowing praising Canada for its forward-thinking ideology and personal freedoms, Escape to Canada spends the second half of the film watching the floor give way. The law that allowed marijuana use to be loopholed was cemented shut, gay marriage came under fire from Canada's newly elected minority conservative government, and refugee status-seeking Americans have still not been granted citizenship in Canada. Was it too good to be true? It is a complicated question. After the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004, Canada came under increasing pressure from its biggest trading partner to reform itself socially and "toe the line," as it were, to Christian ideals and conservative reform. Large amounts of American money flooded into Canada to fund anti-gay marriage campaigns, with activists descending on Parliament Hill like a swarm of undead zombies. Meanwhile, the American DEA ramped up the heat on Canada and its constant source of choice weed, pressuring the government to make high-profile arrests in Canada, including Marc Emery, noted cannabis activist and self-proclaimed "Prince of Pot."
Being Canadian and fairly political, I remember all the events transcribed in Escape to Canada very well, and Nerenberg indeed hits the mark on his topics. Despite electing a Conservative federal government, Canada indeed sees itself as a fairly liberal society, especially in comparison to the United States, the benchmark to which Canadians inversely define their own identity. Ask any Canadian to define what being Canadian means, and a very common reply will be "not American." Never has this been truer than in the last few years, with legalizing gay marriage, medical marijuana, and refusing to participate in the war in Iraq, much to the ire of Canada's biggest trading partner. The influence that the United States has on Canada—both financially and culturally—is far-reaching, whether Canadians wish to admit it or not. It is an interesting subject to explore, especially from the perspective of Americans.
Indeed, Escape to Canada is at its best as a film when exploring the opinions and personal stories of disaffected and displaced Americans, who have come to Canada not out of desire, but out of forced necessity. Most of them never gave Canada a second thought (easy to miss on the map, all tucked away down there) but found themselves in awe of freedoms and rights most Canadians barely give a second thought to. For gays looking to marry, for recreational drug users suddenly faced with legal entanglements, or for disillusioned youths forced to sacrifice their lives in an (arguably) meaningless war, Canada suddenly appears as a glowing bastion of safety, security, and liberty. My personal favorite comes in the form of a young man arrested on a small possession charge, being legally maneuvered into pleading into a shocking ten years in jail under a "three strikes" state policy; the alternative, he was told, could have him serving a life sentence in jail. Visibly shaken on-camera, he describes how he slipped over the border between Canada and the United States through the forest and never looked back, breaking down at the end of his tale from a combination of relief and disbelief at his good fortune and bad luck.
The film is a little fuzzy on details and dates, which is unfortunate. Escape to Canada has an agenda to tote, and totes it well, but does so at the expense of the hard data and facts that most people come to expect from a documentary. Overly political, it criticizes the American government and Canadian government in equal parts, the former for being horrendously behind the times, the latter for not being progressive enough and backpedaling. While some of the ideas suggested in the film make head-slapping amounts of sense (like the mayor of Vancouver suggesting that marijuana should be legal and taxed up the ying-yang by the government, with every cent going into supporting health care in Canada), many of the film's on-screen proponents are pot-smoking burnouts, whose arguments range from the persuasive to the incomprehensible. Personally, I'm not convinced that marijuana should be legal, and Escape to Canada didn't really sway me either way. That being said, much of the brouhaha surrounding the so-called "war on drugs" is thoroughly trounced and humiliated here as a colossal waste of time, money, and prison cells—and rightfully so.
Like all documentary films, the technical presentation of Escape to Canada is based primarily on the quality of its source material. Compiled from numerous interviews, stock and news reels, and all manner of material, the visual quality is pretty inconsistent. Even during its best moments, the film is grainy and muted, with an underwhelming letterbox transfer. Audio is equally mediocre, a simple stereo track, with muted dialogue and hissing source material left unfiltered.
In terms of extras, the disc is thin. About an hour of extended scenes are included, most just raw unedited interview footage (including one with Tommy Chong). Nice to have, but you can see why the majority of the material was left out. Irritatingly, the sequences are broken up into ten chapters, with no "play all" feature. Toss in a theatrical trailer, and that's it. No subtitles or anything.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Escape to Canada has some meat on its bones, but much of its rhetoric feels like empty calories, at least by documentary standards. Much of the film is staunchly anti-American, especially towards George W. Bush (hardly a surprise considering the filmmaker and the production company), and begins to hurl all kinds of accusations of financial manipulation and political pressure into the mix—failing to back any of it up with proof of any kind. I don't doubt the claims per se, but shouldn't documentaries be a bit more, you know…thorough? Give me a hastily-scanned financial document, a written testimony, an interview—anything to prove the point, and I'll be on board. Escape to Canada doesn't seem at all interested in proving anything, only connecting dots with suggestion and anti-Bush rhetoric.
Stupidity did the same sort of thing, and it irked me to no end. Documentaries are one thing, but political propaganda is another thing altogether. Have the tinfoil hats at the ready.
An interesting subject matter, but at times a mediocre presentation, Escape to Canada does hit its mark more often than not, especially for those interested in the subject matter. The film does an excellent job of highlighting the growing gap between Canada and the United States, both culturally and politically, but has a tendency to soapbox and push agendas rather than tackle issues head on.
Still, as a Canuck, it's nice to see Canada gettin' some love, eh?
The verdict is postponed while this Judge makes a run to Tim Horton's for some munchies, man.
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