I just thought I’d post a report on yesterday’s master class with legendary Canadian filmmaker Allan King, held at Innis Town Hall and organized by the Documentary Organization of Canada. We saw several film clips spanning about 25 years, from the early, gritty CBC works like Skidrow (1956) to the controversial “actuality dramas” like Warrendale (1967) and A Married Couple (1969) for which he is most famous. The screening of Warrendale, with its troubling images of emotionally disturbed children lashing out against an unorthodox touch-based therapy, and A Married Couple, with its frank depiction of domestic conflict, prompted a vigorous discussion of documentary ethics: issues of consent, voyeurism, and editorial control were debated, as was the perennially-relevant question of whether the camera can observe unobtrusively, or whether it inherently elicits “performance” from subjects. As happens in many Q&As, I felt that a few questioners grilled him with undue intensity on ethical concerns without acknowledging the different social/cultural/artistic climate in which he worked, not to mention the simple fact that without the example of pioneers like King, few of us would be attempting to make documentary work.
As moderator (and generally ubiquitous Canfilm guy) Marc Glassman noted, King stands rather apart from the other Canadian documentary pioneers of his generation, in that, from an early date, he maintained his own production company and strove to make films independently of the institutional filmmaking apparatus, embodied by the NFB. As his work is more unflinchingly bold than most contemporary NFB work, I had always assumed that King was more closely aligned with American cinema-vérité and particularly Frederick Wiseman. Wiseman’s first film, Titicut Follies (1967), a close contemporary of Warrendale, likewise examines a mental institution with striking similarities of approach and style (closely observational camerawork, lack of narration or interviews). Like Warrendale, that film was suppressed by authorities (more severely, actually). Furthermore, King’s longtime cinematographer Richard Leiterman manned the camera for Wiseman’s second film, High School (1968). It surprised me, then, to hear that King only met Wiseman relatively recently.
It was also interesting to get a sense of King’s process. He was unlike Wiseman (or a consummate cinematographer-director like Michel Brault) in that he felt his own presence would necessarily detract from the authenticity of a documentary scene, and spent most of the production of his great “actuality dramas” off-set, loading magazines or looking at rushes.
In a slightly sad way, I feel that whereas the “golden age” of Canadian film embodied by King’s work has been well documented and celebrated, the current epoch in which non-fiction filmmakers are so numerous and stylistic/thematic lineages too tangled or diffuse to discern, will defy all such efforts at historical memorialization. The digital documentary scene is very different from the film-based one that preceded it, which essentially consisted of two large institutions for the incubation of talent and technology (the NFB and CBC) and a few lone wolves alongside them (King); assessing (and mythologizing) the current cinema’s significance in thirty years will be a very difficult and thankless task, I think. I don’t know, maybe this is just the kind of nostalgic, “après le deluge” thinking I am prone to.
Apparently, TV Ontario is screening a retrospective of his work; I would recommend everybody check it out. A final thanks to Sadia for letting us in on this great event.