Whenever I hear talk of quintessential Canadian cinema, or read any one of the many top-ten lists I have encountered, a reference to Donald Shebib’s 1970 film Goin’ Down the Road is almost inescapable. By today’s standards, its low-budget nature might leave some feeling underwhelmed, but do not be misled. The film’s realistic narrative and documentary-esque camerawork, accompanied by its inexpensive independent aesthetic, combines to make it one of the most significant and educating portrayals of Canadian society I have seen yet.
Goin’ Down the Road opens with two Nova Scotians, Peter (Doug McGrath) and Joey (Paul Bradley) driving fifteen-hundred miles west toward Toronto, in the hopes of seeking new work and better lives than what their rural hometown has to offer. What ensues then is a series of highs and lows for the young men, as they seek to make it in the city working several manual labour positions, while also trying to achieve aspirations of their own in the sometimes unforgiving social and work environment of Toronto at the time.
I have watched a number of films in recent months, whose narratives similarly relate to social elements of Canadian culture, such as Jean-Marc Valleé’s C.R.A.Z.Y., Jean-Claude Lauzon’s Léolo, and in particular Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine. While all great films in their own rights, they are also very polished with much larger budgets than that of Shebib’s film, and his accomplishments are no less, if not greater! This comes down to the minutiae of low-budget compromises, if I can even call them that, that collectively make Goin’ Down the Road a different kind of beast.
I could talk about the film’s cinematography, which is shot in a cinema verité style, only without the unquestionable acknowledgement of the camera’s presence, arguably one of the few things keeping this film from feeling like a fully-fledged documentary. Or I could single out the infrequent but effective use of music, whose lyrics powerfully reflect the experiences of the film’s lead characters. But in the end, it is the way that these elements aid the storytelling that is most significant.
Things happen in the other films I have mentioned, which drive the overarching narratives and character development, while revealing certain elements of Canadian varying societies. While Goin’ Down the Road, then does not neglect these cornerstones of storytelling (though they do admittedly fall by the wayside at times), Shebib’s narrative vignettes seem to be all the more concerned about revealing social truths, particularly regarding the treatment of Easterners in the city environment.
Shebib makes this most clear in the way he shoots and edits the scenes depicting Peter and Joey’s box-loading job at the ginger-ale bottling warehouse. I cannot overlook comparisons that can be made between the shots of bottles being capped by machinery, and the opening shots of cogs and machinery in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, whose imagery was used to signify the worker’s loss of individuality to industry. I believe Shebib is doing something similar with his imagery, demonstrating the demoralising, even dehumanising nature of Peter and Joey’s work moving crates. Shebib then adds dramatic dimension to the story through Peter’s higher aspirations in life, and Joey’s dwindling motivation to seek out more monotonous work after losing his this job later in the story.
Goin’ Down the Road is the type of film that demands a different form of engagement from what audiences are normally accustomed. Instead of seeking pure entertainment, Shebib manages to tread the very fine line between documentary filmmaking and dramatic storytelling, and my understanding is that Canadian cinema, especially independent, has benefitted greatly from its nuanced approach. On a personal level though, I felt it educated me through dramatic engagement, and has given me a newfound perspective on Canada’s sociohistorical background, as well as similar issues prevailing today.