It’s a weird feeling watching a movie you’d swear was made for you.

As I was watching Toronto-based documentarian Albert Nerenberg’s latest offering Escape to Canada, the one theme that kept hitting me over the head was that one country in North America is a place where freedom is rising and another is a place where it is being frittered away.

Guess which country is which?

Nerenberg, who previously gave the human race its first comprehensive look at human stupidity with the documentary of the same name (Stupidity, get it?), portrays a Canada that a progressive American would love âe” pot, same-sex marriage, peace, sex and good beer. (Okay, I added the beer part).

This Canada is most assuredly not, as hinted in the first few minutes of the film, boring, even though in the film, Stephen Harper gets tagged with the sobriquet “The Baron of Boring.”

Yes, it does seem the country American liberals (the real small-l ones) dream of.

It was 80 minutes of pure reinforcement for them and for me. For you see, I’m one of the Americans at whom Neremberg seems to be aiming his siren song of Canada. By the end of the film I was ready to pack my bags. But there’s still all that damn paperwork

Now, if you’re a conservative, Bush-lovin’ manifest destiny type American, you might feel differently about Escape to Canada. Nerenberg said he aimed his documentary at both audiences.

“It’s funny that the film so far, has been received very well in the States,” said Nerenberg. “I think most Americans like where it’s going and it’s not an attack on Americans by any means.”

As for the siren song of Canadian freedom, Nerenberg says that’s nothing new.

“There’s been a long tradition of Americans having to go to Canada or choosing Canada because it represents a place where there’s more freedom,” Nerenberg continued. “And it’s not freedom in the sense of, ‘oh, we’re so much more enlightened or so much more progressive.’ It has to do with Canada’s essential nature in my opinion which is this giant ungovernable cold natural wilderness that just can’t be tamed. For that reason, it’s more of a powerful symbol in some ways, of freedom, than America is.”

A major leitmotif of the film is Canada’s striving to break from the American influences over morality in lawmaking and the repercussions it suffers from that, including sharp words from the usual right-wing American talking heads.

Nerenberg is a master at imaging juxtapositions that draw (albeit broadly, but deliciously so) the differences that fuel the paranoia against same-sex marriage and the legalization of pot. Americans protesting Canada’s same-sex marriage are damned with their own camera exposure as hate mongers (e.g., “What are they going to say when I want to marry my cow?”)

And I wish Heather Mallick had laughed out loud at Bill O’Reilly in the clip from The O’Reilly Factor that’s in the film. Nerenberg pushes the buttons of both American and Canadian liberals very well and I found myself doing a lot of cheering. I think it’s a compliment to note that Nerenberg borrows some of Michael Moore’s best techniques (including the line “maybe it was all just a dream”).

But most Americans don’t come off badly at all in Escape to Canada. Woody Harrelson and Tommy Chong have kind words for Canadian freedom and many Americans are shown both getting married and smoking pot in Canada.

Nerenberg says despite the antipathy many American conservatives have shown Canada in the wake of former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s refusal to support the invasion of Iraq, most Canadians think well of Americans in general, if not of their government.

In fact, Neremberg says many Americans have perked up Canadian politics and society with their outspoken nature.

“We’ve had a lot of Americans move here over the years and one thing Americans are always credited with is spicing up the public dialogue,” Neremberg said. “They’re more outspoken; there’s a tradition of public oration that is, I would say, superior to that of Canadians.”

Nerenberg captures well the zeitgeist of the 2003 “Summer of Legalization” in Canada in all its splendour and the scenes of Canada’s same-sex marriages are especially touching and powerful. I especially loved Neremberg’s juxtaposition of alcohol fueled riots across Canada with scenes of peaceful pot smokers.

Of course it’s not all bliss in the land of the Maple Leaf. Neremberg shows the eventual busts of marijuana clubs including the on-camera stroke of a woman arrested in one such police raid. Also shown are some home grown anti-same-sex marriage activists.

And then there are Stephen Harper and his Conservatives taking over the government. Even here, Nerenberg is not too worried, saying that the Canadian people wanted a change from years of Liberal government and that Canada’s conservatives, unlike those in the United States, are more reflective of broader Canadian culture.

“Canada is almost the mirror image of the U.S., where Republicans will campaign on these issues (same-sex marriage, legalization of marijuana) and create a great amount of energy where here, that sort of thing would completely backfire,” Nerenberg said.

“If Harper were to campaign on ‘we’re going to destroy or reverse same-sex marriage,’ he risks being destroyed pretty quickly,” Nerenberg added.

Nerenberg shares the view of many in his film that the legalization of marijuana is an eventuality and that same-sex marriage is here to stay because they both have taken root in Canadian society in very fundamental ways.

“Canadian marijuana has been tied to Canadian youth culture very powerfully and these are long term trends and they’re much bigger than Stephen Harper and his Conservatives,” Nerenberg said. “Same-sex marriage is a long-term trend and a small minority government is dwarfed by the actual scope of these events.”

Another major part of Nerenberg’s films shows American soldiers, such as Brandon Hughey of San Angelo, Texas, struggling with bouts of conscience over the Iraqi War also coming to Canada.

“The United States is supposed to be the land of the free but when I cross into Canada that’s what I felt: I was entering the land of the free,” Hughey said.

Remember that appreciation many Canadians have for American expatriates? Nerenberg said there’s a bonus for the AWOL soldiers.

“When the AWOL soldiers arrived in Canada they became rock stars,” Nerenberg said. “As far as I can tell they were getting laid right and left. They won’t tell you that part because there would be widespread desertion.”

But Nerenberg’s point is that it’s not the pot, the same-sex marriage or even the sex that is drawing Americans to Canada. It’s what the sum of all of those parts represents.

“Were not leaving America because we don’t like it,” said one of the Americans Nerenberg interviewed. “We’re going to Canada to seek more freedoms than in America, the ‘land of the free.’”

Indeed: freedom, Canadian style.

Escape to Canada is currently running in Montreal and scheduled for showing in Toronto at the Bloor Cinema on March 10. From there it will spread across Canada. The film will run in festival showings in the U.S. and Neremberg hopes to break into American theatrical release by summer or fall. Escape to Canada will also be available for purchase.

Keith Gottschalk

Keith Gottschalk

U.S. Keith Gottschalk has written for daily newspapers in Iowa, Illinois and Ohio. He also had a recent stint as a radio talk show host in Illinois. As a result of living in the high ground...