Toronto is often disguised in film as a major American city, so the history of films depicting the city as itself is relatively modest – but that doesn’t make it any less important or interesting.
Adam Nayman finds it worthwhile sharing this story in The City Where Movies Are Made, his popular first-year cinematic foundation course at Innis College, which is part history, part film theory, and part urban studies. In this course, students explore “the intersection between the real and film history of the city”, meet local directors and producers, and learn about Toronto’s film festival culture.
“All films tell some sort of real-life story about the places they were shot or the culture they represent,” says Nayman, author, film critic and educator at the Cinema Studies Institute. “Even if they end up distorting it, there’s always something to learn.”
The students break down films such as Walk down the street (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 few, in exchange for the bright lights of Toronto.
This film paints the city as cold and unfriendly.
“This is a film where Toronto could be the villain, but it’s not an intentional villain,” says Nayman, who has a master’s degree in cinema from U of T. “He’s so big and neutral, but you can see that these guys are at fault for their decisions 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 heyday of Toronto film history in the 1970s and 80s, when filmmaking was fueled by financial incentives.
“The government lifted all kinds of restrictions and created tax loopholes that attracted outsiders and impresarios who made a fascinating cycle of genre films,” says Nayman.
“A lot of people used Toronto to shoot cheap thrillers in an attempt to boost the industry and get movies shot here. And there is a happy ending, because some of the films that came out of this cycle are crucial works of art.”
During this time, for example, the career of the famous director David Cronenberg, whom Nayman describes as “one of the greatest artists this country has ever produced”, began. His earlier films, like the 1983 sci-fi horror videodrome“Made Cronenberg into a culture warrior who’s a Toronto filmmaker by choice because he still wants to connect with Canada,” says Nayman.
Toronto is often disguised as a major American city in movies, which explains these New York City police cars and taxis parked on King Street and Bay Street (Photo by Can Pac Swire, CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr).
Nayman’s course also looks at films from the late 1980s and 1990s that reflect Toronto’s growing cultural and sexual diversity.
I heard the mermaids sing (1987) is a comedy-drama film directed by Patricia Rozema that depicts a female love triangle and celebrates the Toronto arts scene.
“It’s a really haunting film,” says Nayman. “The local art scene is captured in various aspects of Rozema’s filmmaking.”
Not polite, a 1995 crime thriller directed by Clement Virgo, tells three distinct but related stories about black life in Toronto’s Regent Park neighborhood. It was the first Canadian feature film to be written, produced and directed by an all-Black crew.
“This film is a milestone and the title is conscious. It’s meant to be provocative,” says Nayman, citing the lack of Black representation in Canadian film.
Recent films Nayman examines portray Toronto as a bohemian hipster haven with a thriving indie arts and music scene.
“You’re watching a movie like This movie is broken by director Bruce McDonald, a famous Toronto director with a keen flair for rock ‘n’ roll,” says Nayman, adding that the 2010 film features a young man hoping to convince his longtime crush becoming his girlfriend by taking her to a Broken Social scene concert at Harbourfront.
“The backdrop was an actual concert,” says Nayman. “To celebrate this couple and the hipster lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, Toronto has never looked so utopian.”
In many ways, this film also represented a shift in a neighborhood’s identity.
“This film ran parallel to the rampant gentrification in the West End,” says Nayman. “The films have been gentrified along with the neighborhood.”
The 2010 film put Toronto in a similar light Scott pilgrim vs the worlda romantic comedy about a struggling musician trying to win a competition to get a record deal while battling his girlfriend’s seven evil exes.
Featuring scenes filmed 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 put up their hands and said, ‘I know this neighborhood or I know this band,'” says Nayman.
“It’s happening less and less – not just because those points of reference are disappearing, but because many of my students aren’t native Torontonians. It tells an interesting story about Toronto and the U of T. And that’s also one of the sub-themes of the film: Toronto as a new home.”
Iman Bundu attended Nayman’s course as part of her bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and Critical Studies in Justice and Solidarity. After graduating in 2021, they are now pursuing a Master of Arts in Film and Photographic Archiving and Collections Management at Toronto Metropolitan University.
“‘The city where movies are made’ was a key factor in my decision to pursue cinema 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 about Canadian film history through the lens of the featured films.”