Can anyone fix the Jutras?

There is a contingent of the Quebec film industry who have long complained that the annual Jutra prizes are a bit of a joke.

The Oscar-like nomination method to pick the year’s best films, they say, was flawed. Polytechnique director Denis Villeneuve called it ‘ridiculous.’

Until this year, when Jutra organizers bowed to pressure and brought in a jury, 7,000 members of various industry associations voted in their respective professional categories: producers and cinema owners picked the best film, directors the best director, etc. The first round of voting selected the Jutra contenders, the second the winners.

Villeneuve et al. believe that most of their confreres didn’t see the films and lazily voted for their friends or for headline makers such as C.R.A.Z.Y. or Babine. (How they ascertained who did or didn’t see which films is a mystery.)

The issue came to a head in 2009 after a cabal of disgruntled filmmakers, producers and La Presse journalists made a public fuss over the perceived snub of Yves-Christian Fournier’s Tout est parfait (Everything Is Fine). Although the film received four Jutra nods, including best director and screenplay, it was left out of the prestigious best picture category, which surprised many, including me.

The day after the nominations were announced, influential La Presse columnist Marc Cassivi slammed the Jutra organizers. Then a media leak transformed the affair into a full-fledged industry scandal. It turns out Jutra organizers, in an effort to test the legitimacy of their nomination process, commissioned an outside group of film professionals to come up with a parallel list of nominations. (They wanted to compare them with those picked by the industry at large. Confused yet?)

This list was of course confidential, but someone, likely a Jutra board member with an agenda of their own, slipped it to La Presse. The newspaper gleefully published it under the headline ‘Phantom nominations.’ Of course, among the phantom picks for best picture was Tout est parfait.

Jutra organizers relented and switched their system. ‘I started to have doubts about the process. It was time for a compromise,’ Jutra president Danielle Proulx said publicly.

So this year, a jury of 18 selected the best picture nominees. This meta-jury is then split in two to decide the contenders in the other categories. Although the jury picks the nominees, industry members still vote in their respective professional categories to pick the winners. (I hope you’re still with me.)

Roger Frappier, who helped launch the Jutras over a decade ago, is unimpressed with the new system. ‘I’m very disappointed,’ the producer of Dédé, à travers les brumes, which leads this year’s race with 10 nominations, told journalists. ‘I found that the system worked fine. It’s unfortunate the industry bowed to pressure from a few film critics and a producer.’ (The producer he was likely referring to was the woman who brought Tout est parfait to the big screen, Nicole Robert.)

Frappier is right on several counts, but to say the former selection process overlooked exceptional filmmakers in favor of crowd-pleasing headliners is unfair. As is the claim that no one watched many of the films.

Jutra voters did tend to nominate popular hits such as Luc Picard’s fantasy flick Babine, which led the race last year, and Zoo Films’ box-office hit Les 3 p’tits cochons, which received 13 nominations in 2008.

Yet Les 3 p’tits cochons was largely ignored by voters when it came to actually giving out the prizes. The big winner in 2008 was Continental, un film sans fusil (Continental, a Film Without Guns), a funny and moving and at times utterly inaccessible meditation on social isolation by a first-time helmer, 31-year-old Stéphane Lafleur. Last year Jutra voters awarded the more populist, but very original Ce qu’il faut pour vivre (The Necessities of Life) its top prizes.

My main criticism of the Jutras is that they often overlook artistic, less mainstream auteur works. And it’s not clear whether the new jury system will change this.

The one advantage to nomination by jury is that all the eligible films – and this year there were 39 – will be screened by judges. This is likely why the box-office smash De père en flic was only recognized in two categories, best actor for Michel Côté and best supporting actor for Rémy Girard. Under the old system, it likely would have picked up numerous nominations.

Another surprise on the list this year is the largely unknown but critically acclaimed story of an Inuit woman, Le jour avant le lendemain (Before Tomorrow), which picked up four nominations, including best film and best director for Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Piujuq Ivalu.

But many other original auteur works underperformed, including writer/director Bernard Émond’s La donation, the last film in his trilogy on the Catholic values of faith, hope and charity. The critically acclaimed film was not nominated for best picture, though it did garner three nominations: best screenplay, actress (Élise Guilbault) and cinematography (Sara Mishara).

And the jury completely overlooked the work of a group of directors who have been getting a great deal of attention on the international festival circuit, including: Demain (Maxime Giroux), Carcasses (Denis Côté), Derrière moi by Rafaël Ouellet and Lost Song by Acadian director Rodrigue Jean. These are rather glaring omissions. Carcasses screened at Cannes and was listed as one of Canada’s Top Ten films of 2009. And Lost Song picked up the award for best Canadian feature film at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008.

The jury gave predictable nods to Xavier Dolan’s J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother), which has five nominations, including best film, director, actor and actress for Anne Dorval. Also up for best film and best direction is Polytechnique, which picked up a total of seven nominations.

Creating a fair system to nominate Jutra contenders is next to impossible in an industry as close-knit as Quebec’s, where everyone knows everyone. The truth is that it’s not the method but the attitude of the voters which makes any award-allocating process legitimate. Voters must take their responsibility to pick the best creative work seriously, whether they are on a jury or a member of a professional association. Unfortunately, super-sized egos and longstanding feuds – and friendships – frequently get in the way of good judgment.