In director Adam Nerenberg’s key triptych – Stupidity (2003), Let’s All Hate Toronto (2007), Escape to Canada (2005) - he starts each with a legit question - Why do people do stupid things? Why do most Canadians seemingly hate the city and citizens of Toronto? Why were Americans flocking to Canada during the post 9/11 Dubya years? – and he manages to find some interesting conflicts, absurdities, and injustices, but the films ultimately run out of steam because Nerenberg either fails to really present a firm conclusion, or the focus gets sidetrack by marginal material.
Escape to Canada ultimately closes with a one-line conclusion – ‘Canada is cool’ – and it weakens the serious issues he otherwise handles quite well in the doc’s first third. The premise is simple: after 9/11, while the U.S. was becoming a paranoid conservative monster overtaken by religious zealots, Canada was proposing to legalize the possession of small quantities of marijuana, marijuana for legit medical use, legalizing gay marriage, and becoming a safe haven for American draft dodgers.
For the most part, these issues are tightly interwoven, but they’re all geared towards the base theme of Canada’s coolness. The draft dodger stream also feels like a series of unrelated news reports that have been hammered into place during editing; Nerenberg’s point is to illustrate Canada’s affection and respect towards America’s moral rebels, but the tangents disrupt the doc’s flow, as well as pad a running time that could’ve been shorter, or better served by retaining some of the longer interview material that’s in the deleted scenes archive. (The Tommy Chong segment is particularly strong.)
Escape also an ephemeral piece because the director couldn’t have known where things would progress or regress. Gay marriage is now legal, whereas in California, it was rescinded to a civil union lacking formal marriage status.
Pot, however, never became legal here, and Vancouver’s ‘Prince of Pot’ – Marc Emery – is set to plead guilty to a manufacturing marijuana charge in a Seattle court in September of 2009, and the hedonistic smokers have gone underground or behind doors again. Nerenberg does make it clear the reason pot clubs opened up was due to the possession law being in limbo, but once things went back to criminal possession, the party was over.
Escape infers legalization is inevitable – and it may be – but not until a liberal-minded government comes into power, and stays long enough to push through the legislation. There are just too many factors at play: the type of political party in power, the position of the police, Supreme Court challenges, and whether it’s possible for Canada to legalize a substance vehemently vilified by the U.S. government.
There’s also the Canadian government providing pot for medical use, but charging patients high fees that go beyond their budgets; pot is still being used for cash by organized crime; and suburban grow-ops often destroy entire homes because the marijuana plants need light, humidity, and a lot of TLC (as evidenced by Jorge Cervantes’ Ultimate Grow DVD).
Gay marriage is the most compelling stream because it’s such a passionate and divisive issue, and Nerenberg was lucky to be present during some of the historical moments and interview some key people who fought to legitimize gay marriage, as well as film some conservative protestors.
But there’s one baffling problem with the doc (unless it was a flaw in the doc’s DVD authoring): there are no date stamps. Compelling as the captured events are, there are no time captions that give us a sense of progression, nor context of the events. The interviews make it appear as though the pot, draft, and gay marriage debates happened within a few months, and the lack of assigning any temporal stamp places the events as part of some dreamy historical period; for research purposes, the doc’s kind of useless because there’s no temporal context except that it probably spanned the period from 2004-2005.
A sense of time and place is better represented in the DVD’s extended interview gallery, but given the doc’s the main feature, there are a lot of flaws that make Escape a really frustrating experience. It’s a shame the film will age into an ephemeral work that sort of captures Canada’s independent and progressive spirit, but we’re just not sure exactly when it all happened.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan