True stories well told
The independent films and videos of Ardele Lister
Archived article from Feb 18, 2000
By Phyllis Gottlieb
As an aspiring filmmaker in 1970s Vancouver, Ardele Lister confronted two major problems: there were few women role models and virtually no Canadian film industry. So it's not surprising that identity issues became a major theme in the films and videos she's directed, produced and written over the past quarter century.
Now an associate professor at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, Lister is constantly extending her exploration of the politics of identity.
Look, for instance, at her longest and most complex work, "Conditional Love," an hourlong compilation of home movies, propaganda films, documentaries, Hollywood features, animation and interviews that explores the question: What is a Canadian? The video premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1997 and won as best documentary at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in 1998. Since then it has been shown at several independent film venues, including Rutgers.
"The exploration of national identity began to really interest me when the Free Trade Accord was being negotiated between Canada and the United States in the late '80s," recalls Lister, who grew up in Calgary, but has lived in New York since the 1970s. "I was very concerned that the homogenization of trade would also affect culture and identity. I started to wonder what it was that made Americans Americans and Canadians Canadians."
More specifically, she began examining how ideology and patriotism were transmitted through film.
At first Lister thought she could explore both American and Canadian identities in a single work, but the topic turned out to be too complex. In 1991 she completed the American piece "Behold the Promised Land," which probes the myths embedded in national consciousness by juxtaposing contemporary interviews conducted during July 4 celebrations with earlier film clips extolling America's virtues.
"It was not too difficult to see the relation between the propaganda made in the United States in the 1940s and '50s and the ways in which people still articulated their notions of patriotism," she points out. "One could see the threads. Freedom, democracy, a place where you can speak your mind -- all the remnants of this ideology were present in the contemporary speakers."
Are you a Canadian?
When she turned to Canadian identity, however, her investigation was stymied. Always in the shadow of Hollywood, the Canadian film industry was slow to get started. In fact, Lister points out in her film, it was barely off the ground when the United States came in with the Canadian Cooperation Project, an agreement to put a halt to Canadian feature-film production in exchange for Hollywood's promise to make films that referred to Canada, allegedly to increase tourism.
"I had a hard time finding equivalent footage that articulated Canada to Canadians in the way America had been articulated to Americans and the rest of the world," she recalls.
After looking in libraries from Victoria to Halifax and talking to people all over the country, Lister concluded that Canada could best be described as a "postmodern nation -- a multicultural, bilingual country that was really a tapestry of cultures living rather harmoniously together without a unifying national ideology."
"Canada always had a multiplicity of narratives that were competing for visibility, a sense of truth or authenticity, so when Canada did start to articulate itself it did so with a lot of humor," she continues. "What other country would describe itself as 'having the size of China and the population of Iran, the cultural development of Afghanistan, the economic structure of the Congo and the climate of Siberia,' in a film by its national film board produced to celebrate its centennial?"
By the time Lister had arrived at this understanding, nine years had passed and the film had gone through numerous edits. There were 80 hours of tape and no apparent narrative structure. It was then that she realized that her own lifelong quest to understand her Canadian identity had to be the organizing principle in this roughly chronological national coming-of-age story.
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