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Rob Cohen's new doc 'Being Canadian' tries to explain our neighbors to the north

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Canada, also known as America’s winter hat, is misunderstood, maligned and ignored ... or at least that’s the theory of “Being Canadian,” a new documentary by L.A. TV comedy writer Rob Cohen. Rob recently traveled cross country -- theirs not ours -- to see if he could pin down what makes a Canadian a Canadian.

It took eight years to get Rob Cohen and his team’s movie to the big screen, but only about five minutes to make this the most Canadian interview ever -- when they say, “Sincere apologies, Saskatchewan, we love you,” it demonstrates how Cohen’s politeness bonafides are established by saying "sorry" to the provinces that didn’t make the final cut of the movie.

(Canadian PM Mackenzie King, who owned several Irish terriers, all of them named Pat.)

Rob explained how frustration with his fellow TV writers in Hollywood inspired his "Roger and Me"-like journey.

“Like most Canadians living outside of Canada, I think you're constantly under attack because people don’t know or care about Canada and you constantly hear comments that make no sense,” says Cohen.  “We would get along great and then I’d say 'borrow' or 'sorry' and the jig was up. They would freeze like they’d caught a spy.”

His goal was a movie that explained Canada to Americans by asking random Canadians to explain what it means to be ... well ... them.  Pretty simple task, eh? As producers Colin Gray and Megan Raney Aarons learned, not so much.

“We actually had scheduled meet ups in each cities, we had T-shirts and placards and tried to get people to share their comment was an ongoing challenge going across Canada,” says Gray. Raney Aarons chimes in:- “One park where we tried to organize a meet up, we had two people show up: One guy in a mullet wig, one Brazilian dude. Those were the people who showed up and wanted to talk about Canada.”

"Being Canadian" official trailer

Now there are lots of famous talking Canadians in the movie, such as Martin Short, Alanis Morissette and Paul Shaffer, but most make their homes down here. Why? Because if you’re too chatty in Canada, they deport you.

Ha, kidding. They’d just ask you to go.

But just for fun, imagine what it would be like to ask Americans what it means to be American. Americans will talk about anything. In fact, the movie features two drunk-sh geography majors who were asked if they knew the capital of Canada: “Let’s guess Arkansas!” they agreed.

Is it any wonder that Canadians define themselves, in part, as not being from the USA? 

That is long held belief in Canada, but not everyone thinks it’s true. David Frum is dual citizen and former White House speech writer who’s now an editor with The Atlantic magazine. He is not in the movie.

“If you take all of North America," he says, "and delete all of the South and delete Quebec, what you find is what’s in between those two zones, is a place where culturally there are a lot of similarities.”

So why then, don’t Canadians jump up and down yelling about how Canadian they are? To hear Frum tell it, with Eastern and Western Canada not liking each other, not to mention the French-English divide, they just don’t want to rock the boat. “Canada has a challenging difficult project to hold together, and that has made Canadians worry about too much self assertion.”

By the way, his definition of what it means to be a Canadian was pretty spot on: “Every time a Canadian votes in a parliamentary election, every time a Canadian reacts to criminal attack by calling a police officer instead of reaching for a gun, over time they bump into someone on the street and say 'sorry', they are doing what it means to be a Canadian.” Frum, by the way, is the son of the late Barbara Frum, a beloved CBC host and essentially the Susan Stamberg of Canada, but even cooler.

And filmmaker Andy Cohen’s conclusion? “My summation would be Canada is a much hipper place than when I left and I think they love being ballsy about it in a Canadian way.”

Cohen spends a lot of the movie interviewing American celebrities about what they think of Canada, which boils down to ... they don’t, really. And frankly, who doesn’t already know that? But the film really finds its feet when it deals with the maple syrup theft crisis, flag design and psychotherapy.

And if that weren’t incentive enough to watch, this flick has also been certified 100% Celine Dion free. “She was an early 'no' so we took her at her word and moved on,” says Cohen. When asked in what official language he was turned down, he answered “Her managers.”

Which is to say, if you want to know what being Canadian is all about, “Being Canadian” is a good place to start. And being Canadian myself, I can say “Being Canadian” might just teach you a few things about ... well, you know.

"Being Canadian" opens Sept. 18 and will be in limited release in L.A., including at the Crest Westwood. Full disclosure: Off-Ramp contributor Collin Friesen is an actual Canadian.