Sample Film and Theatre Studies Paper on Incendies: A Scorched Identity of Canadian Cinema

 Incendies: A Scorched Identity of Canadian Cinema

Canadian cinema has been in a state of long-term adolescence compared to many other national cinemas since the beginning of the industry, in a sense that it is lost in the ability to establish its identity on a national cinematic scale. This continual struggle is represented in Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies (2010) through religious comparisons, language barriers, change in generations, and identification of the orphan. Incendies represent Canadian cinema and its persistent struggle to create an established identity amidst being hindered by self-destructing yet newly defining cultural, societal, and historical issues.

Canada’s film industry is depicted through four different parts that resemble Canada’s lack of established cinematic identity on a national scale. Firstly, the issue of religious differences is present throughout the film. While much like Canadian cinema, Incendies is a film that contains religious qualities but is not defined by them. To add to the matter, the film also shows the language barrier, thus furthering the feeling of alienation. Furthermore, the different perspectives on identity value are shown through the old versus the new generation, represented by the twins and their mother. Finally, the depiction of the orphan in the film is what identifies Canadian cinema through ironic means, thus creating an identity out of a lack of identity. One way Canadians and many others explore the idea of finding an identity for themselves is by identifying with a religion.

Many French Canadian films utilize the belief or disbelief of religion to create a tie with a large number of Catholic populations in Quebec and their historical struggle with the Anglo-centric Canadian government. From this, Incendies represent them through the war between the Muslims and the Christians in the middle-East. Earlier in French-Canadian cinema, the Quiet Revolution between the two religions inspired a generation of directors to question their identity. Thus creating a “filmic revolution [that] mirrors a rise in self-awareness and creative emancipation as it sets in motion a loop of identification whereby people create images of who they are, which in turn informs later generations of where they came from.” This was Canadian cinema’s early attempt to identify itself through the inspired events of religion. But like Incendies, just because the films were inspired by religion, and feature symbolic traits of religion, does not mean that the film is specifically about religion. Incendies represent the two worlds of religion through the bridge that borders the North and South of the country. While searching for her orphaned son, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) crosses over from the quiet side to the war zone and escapes from being murdered because of her cross necklace. The addition of religion is a more ironic comment about how it can do more evil than good in the world. As Killeen states, “there’s nothing holy about a holy war in which civilian buses are torched, babies are stolen from the arms of their mothers and the difference between life and death is a cross necklace.” The question of one’s identity through religion is a common feature in Canadian films and represents Canada’s inability to define itself, even through religious means. The film begs the same question through the representation of language in differing cultures.

The language barriers in the film represent the different alienation cultures feel toward each other. Despite having the same backgrounds, which references the way, the French and English films are viewed as two separate entities in Canadian cinema, thus splitting apart some of its progressing identity as a combined force. Incendies include many instances of alienating their audience through other languages for the viewers to be included in the feeling of desperation and isolation. At the beginning of the film, Jeanne Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) is introduced as an assistant to a professor of “pure mathematics.” Math can be a common language that can be the same no matter what official language one speaks. Still, Jeanne’s professor gives a detailed description of what “pure mathematics” is. And suddenly, standard mathematics has evolved into an “overwhelming complexity of finding new problems upon every answer you solve,” which is the way Jeanne and the audience feels every time she encounters someone who cannot speak her language. These issues in the film transition to the multicultural background of Canada’s culture and its cinema and states that “language remains the main source of division between Canadians. Not just between English and French but between ‘established Canadians’ and ‘new Canadians’”. These issues bring light to the lack of community present in Canadian films and Canadian cinema as a whole. This is especially prevalent in the division between English and French-speaking parts of Canada, and it is important to note that “our two film traditions explore similar thematic terrain – alienation, isolation, a sense of emptiness or being incomplete, there is little hope in uniting the nation without embracing difference over sameness.” Monk asserts an argument that frequents the film and relates to the struggles of Canadian cinema. The relation between the two is that language can be powerful and binding if utilized in a way that works as a team, rather than recognizing language as a trait of negative differences in Canadian culture. This calls attention to the fact that as a cinema, Canadians are weakened in identity when split into two or more separate categories because of language, when in an ideal sense, Canada could assert its identity through the combination of language and the cultural influences it is enriched with. This relates to the cultural influences that are shown in the film throughout generations of one family.

The depiction of the old and new generations in Incendies is representative of the search and eventually the acceptance of one’s identity in regards to Canadian cinema. Before Nawal Marwan’s death, the audience is exposed to her journey to find her son. After her death, the search is continued to her other children to find her son, Nihad (Abdelghafour Elaaziz), and their father, Abou Tarek (Abdelghafour Elaaziz). Near the end of the film, the audience is told that the twins’ brother is also their father out of rape. This makes Nihad/Abou a multitude of identities that interlink the family. In relation to Canadian cinema, it is apparent that “discourses of national identity have traditionally been focused on the tension between an English-Canadian identity crisis and a more secure uncertainty about who ‘we are. While the situation is more complicated than it is often made to seem, it now involves a growing awareness of the nation’s ethnic diversity and from the associated idea of Canada as a multicultural state”. This is more like the complicated relationship between Nihad, Nawal, and the twins because the chaotic description that depicts a lacking identity is, in fact, the identity of the family in the end. This comments on Canadian cinema’s uncertain and frequently questioned identity and how the different generations represent those and are tied together symbolically by Nihad.

Nihad, the orphan, represents Canada’s lack of identity and place in the world of cinema, and ultimately, the newborn identity is made out of a lack of identity. Throughout the film, Nihad is known as an orphan, which symbolically asserts him not knowing his place in the world. Monk states, “in the context of nationalism, the orphan is a potent image of dislocation and outsiderism, as it suggests the lack of a family structure and a larger identity. The orphan does not belong to a specific group or clan, which mirrors the core of the Canadian identity as a culture steeped in ambiguity and otherness”. Monk’s analysis of Canada as the orphan is shown in Incendies in the beginning scene when Nihad gets his head shaved by his capturers. Before then, Nihad lacked identity and purpose, but having his head shaved in a new family represents his newfound identity asserted from a lack of identity in the first place. When he decidedly becomes Abou Tarek, even though he committed something monstrous to his mother, his mother expresses in both letters to both his identities her acceptance of him as her son and her children’s father. In this modern depiction of Oedipus, Nihad’s role of the orphan creates an identifying factor toward Canadian cinema’s struggle to identify itself, thus creating an identity out of uncertainty.

Incendies depicts the Canadian struggle cinema has experienced with possessing an identifier from a national standpoint. It calls upon aspects of religion, language, orphans, and generational changes to express the conflict of Canadian films. Although Canada has had its setbacks compared to other national cinemas, it can still hold a certain charm and ambiance that comes with the lack of identity around it. Canada’s bi-lingual, cultural, and historical influences are things that add strength to the cinematic experience of its films. They should be embraced by all aspects of Canadian filmmakers and critics to assert their identity. Incendies, although a disturbing movie, argues an optimistic standpoint for the future of Canada and its value in terms of national cinema and identity.



Incendies. Dir. Villeneuve, Denis. Perf. Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, and Maxim Gaudette. E1 Films Canada, 2010. Film.

Killeen, Graham. “’Incendies’ crackles with intensity of Mideast strife.” Journal Sentinal. Journal Sentinal, 2015. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.