Toronto is often disguised as a major American city in film, so the history of films that portray the city as itself is relatively humble – but that doesn’t make it any less important or interesting.
Adam Nayman finds sharing that history rewarding in “The City Where Movies Are Made,” his popular first-year film studies course at Innis College that is part history, part film theory, and part urban studies. In the course, students explore “the intersection between real and real-life histories of the city,” meet local directors and producers, and learn about Toronto’s film festival culture.
“All movies tell some sort of real story of the places they are shot or the culture they portray,” says Nayman, author, film critic and course instructor at the Cinema Studies Institute. “Even if they end up distorting it, you can still learn something.”
Students break down films such as Go on the road (1970), which is considered one of the most famous films about Toronto. Directed by Donald Shebib, it tells the story of two young men who leave the Maritimes, where job opportunities are scarce, in exchange for the bright lights of Toronto.
This film portrays the city as cold and hostile.
“It’s a movie where Toronto could be the villain, but it’s not a deliberate villain,” says Nayman, who has a master’s degree in film studies from U of T. “It’s so big and neutral, but you see it’s those guys and their choices that are to blame, as opposed to the city not treating them well.
Still, the film is believed to have played a role in creating a strained relationship between Toronto and the rest of Canada.
Nayman also delves into the height of Toronto’s cinematic history in the 1970s and 1980s, when filmmaking was driven by financial incentives.
“The government lifted all kinds of restrictions and created tax loopholes that attracted foreigners and impresarios who created a fascinating cycle of genre films,” says Nayman.
“In trying to get the industry going again and get movies here, a lot of people have used Toronto to make cheap thrillers. And there’s a happy ending to that because some of the films made from this cycle are pivotal works of art.
For example, this period launched the career of famed director David Cronenberg whom Nayman calls “one of the greatest artists this country has ever produced.” His early films, like the 1983 sci-fi horror Videodrome“made Cronenberg a culture warrior who is a Toronto filmmaker by choice because he still wants to connect with Canada,” Nayman says.
Toronto is often disguised as a major American city in movies, which explains those New York City police cars and taxis parked on King and Bay streets (photo by Can Pac Swire, CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr )
Nayman’s course also explores films from the late 1980s and 1990s that reflected Toronto’s growing cultural and sexual diversity.
I heard the sirens sing (1987) is a comedy-drama directed by Patricia Rozema that features a female love triangle and celebrates Toronto’s art scene.
“It’s a really seductive movie,” says Nayman. “The local artistic community is captured in different aspects of Rozema’s cinema.”
Rude, a 1995 crime film directed by Clement Virgo, tells three separate but interrelated stories about black life in Toronto’s Regent Park neighborhood. It is the first Canadian feature film written, produced and directed by an all-black crew.
“This film is a landmark, and the title is deliberative. It’s meant to be a provocation,” Nayman says, referring to the lack of black representation in the Canadian film landscape.
More recent films Nayman reviews portray Toronto as a bohemian hipster paradise with a thriving independent arts and music scene.
“You watch a movie like This movie is broken by director Bruce McDonald, who is a famous Toronto director with a very rock ‘n’ roll sensibility,” says Nayman, adding that the 2010 film shows a young man hoping to convince his longtime crush to become his girlfriend in the taking them to a Broken Social. Stage concert at Harbourfront.
“They used a real concert as a backdrop,” says Nayman. “Celebrating this couple and the hipster lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock and roll, Toronto has never seemed so utopian.”
In many ways, this film also represented the displacement of a neighborhood’s identity.
“This film was paralleled with rampant gentrification in the West End,” says Nayman. “Movies have gentrified with the neighborhood.”
Putting Toronto in a similar light was the 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs the worlda romantic comedy about a struggling musician trying to win a contest for a recording contract while battling his girlfriend’s seven evil exes.
With scenes shot at Pizza Pizza on Bloor Street West, the steps of Casa Loma, Lee’s Palace and other locations, it offers a virtual tour of Toronto.
“When I showed it 10 years ago, more students raised their hands and said, ‘I know this neighborhood or I know this band,'” Nayman says.
“That’s happening less and less – not just because those benchmarks are fading, but because a lot of my students aren’t Toronto natives. It tells an interesting story about Toronto and the University of Toronto. And that’s also one of the sub-themes of the film: Toronto as a new home.
Iman Bundu took Nayman’s course as part of their BA in Film Studies and Critical Studies in Equity and Solidarity. Graduating in 2021, they are currently completing a Master of Arts in Film and Photograph Preservation and Collections Management at Toronto Metropolitan University.
“’The city where movies are made’ was a key factor in my decision to pursue film studies,” says Bundu.
“The course made me aware of how the development of the industry has been shaped by cultural attitudes and government policies. And the most enjoyable part of the course was learning the history of Canadian cinema through the lens of the films presented.