The philosopher King

In January 1957, the CBC broadcast a tough, short documentary set in the dives and flophouses of Downtown Eastside Vancouver. Strikingly shot in black and white with moving scenes of drunks fighting in alleyways and panhandlers begging passers-by for change, it depicted the lives of downtrodden members of Canadian society. That film was Skidrow, and it retains the capacity to shock and touch a viewer. It also marked the debut of Allan King, one of Canada's finest filmmakers.

In January 1957, the CBC broadcast a tough, short documentary set in the dives and flophouses of Downtown Eastside Vancouver. Strikingly shot in black and white with moving scenes of drunks fighting in alleyways and panhandlers begging passers-by for change, it depicted the lives of downtrodden members of Canadian society. That film was Skidrow, and it retains the capacity to shock and touch a viewer. It also marked the debut of Allan King, one of Canada’s finest filmmakers.

Five decades later, King is finally getting his due as a creator of fine dramatic films and TV productions, and, more importantly, as this country’s leading exponent of cinema vérité, which he has memorably termed ‘actuality drama.’

The bearded, bespectacled director, still vigorous at 76, has in recent years received lifetime achievement awards from Hot Docs and the Directors Guild of Canada, a Toronto Arts Award, an Honorary Doctorate from Simon Fraser University, and the Order of Canada. A major advocate for Canada’s cultural industries, King also served as DGC president in 1970-71 and again from 1993 to 2000.

It’s hard to believe that King was once disparaged by Cinema Canada’s Michael Dorland as the ‘sinister documentarian of the future’ after Who’s in Charge?, his 1983 documentary about unemployment, was denounced in Parliament after airing on CBC. Or that the distinguished Robert Flaherty Film Seminar was reduced to appalled silence after his vérité feature Come On Children (1973) had its unfortunate premiere there.

‘It was as if I’d shat on the floor,’ recalls King, with some satisfaction, of the seminar’s reception to his film on Toronto kids who espoused hippie values but accomplished nothing when given a farmhouse and months to be creative.

King’s career is remarkable not just for its longevity and highlights, but also for the number of times he could have simply given up. It’s a measure of his fortitude and, he admits, ‘good genes,’ that King was eager and able to tackle such difficult topics as death and dementia in, respectively, his recent comeback triumphs Dying at Grace (2003) and Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005).

‘None of this would be happening now,’ laughs King, commenting on his recent, and highly deserved, tributes, ‘if it weren’t for Rudy Buttignol [then head of network programming at TVO], who brought me back to documentaries after so many years.’

King has often reinvented his career, having lived in Vancouver, Spain, England, Toronto, and now Saskatchewan, while working in diverse genres: feature dramas, episodic TV, MOWs, short and feature documentaries and experimental productions incorporating both fact and fiction. Through it all, he has garnered numerous accolades.

Even his more commercial period saw him pick up a number of prizes. In 1978, One Night Stand, his MOW adaptation of playwright Carol Bolt’s mature exploration of modern sexuality, garnered four Canadian Film Awards. Ready for Slaughter (1983), about farmers trying to save their farms from foreclosure, won the Banff Festival’s best TV drama trophy, while the director took home a 1993 Gemini Award for an episode of Road to Avonlea.

But the true peaks came both earlier, and – thanks to his autumnal reawakening – much later. Skidrow established his reputation with the CBC, allowing him the luxury of working with Canada’s pubcaster when he and then-wife Phyllis departed for the island artist colony in Ibiza, Spain in 1958.

In 1960, he went to India to make the compassionate doc Rickshaw, about a Calcutta rickshaw driver’s dead-end life. Ultimately finding Franco’s fascist Spain too disagreeable, King established a freelance film company in London in 1961. A collaboration with friends and colleagues including Richard Leiterman, Bill Brayne and Chris Wangler, Allan King Associates became the go-to company for prestigious CBC productions made abroad. King shot interviews with Orson Welles, Peter Sellers and Nehru.

In 1963, he traveled to Africa to collaborate with future Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka on the docudrama Joshua, A Nigerian Portrait, about a man who moves from a village to the city. The following year saw Lynn Seymore: Our Dancing Export, an incisive profile about the Canadian ballerina training abroad. King returned to Spain for the innovative essay Running Away Backwards (1964), about Canadians living in Ibiza.

In 1966, Patrick Watson, the CBC’s rising star, producer and journalist, lured King back to Canada. Their mutual interest in young people, coupled with King’s fascination with psychology, resulted in Warrendale (1967), one of the most remarkable films of the ’60s. It was while making this poignant yet brutal portrayal of a treatment home for emotionally disturbed children based around psychologist John Brown’s controversial ‘touching’ methods, that King launched his ‘actuality drama’ approach – the non-judgmental, character-driven style of filmmaking that propelled him onto the world stage.

After the CBC and BBC refused to show the devastatingly raw film, King was allowed to submit Warrendale to film festivals. He won a major award at Cannes and shared prizes with Michelangelo Antonioni’s chic Blowup at the BAFTAs and with Luis Bunuel’s erotic surrealist masterpiece Belle de jour for the New York Critics’ Award. But perhaps the finest of accolades arrived by post, when legendary French director Jean Renoir wrote to praise him as ‘a great artist.’

King counts making Warrendale and working with Brown among the major turning points in his life.

‘The big ones were leaving Canada, coming back to Canada, meeting John Brown, getting into analysis and psychotherapy, and later, because of that, getting into the exploration of groups, and an understanding of the dynamics of groups,’ he explains.

King followed Warrendale with another one of his greatest successes, A Married Couple (1970). Long before anyone coined the phrase ‘reality TV,’ Billy and Antoinette Edwards, old friends of King’s from Ibiza, agreed to be filmed by DOP Leiterman – another fellow ex-pat – for 10 weeks. The hip ‘with-it’ couple discovered, along with the crew, that their marriage was at risk. Filming parties, preludes to lovemaking and domestic scenes with the Edwards’ child Bogart, King was able to again create a devastating ‘actuality drama.’

A Married Couple was deemed ‘quite simply one of the best films I’ve ever seen’ by Clive Barnes of the New York Times. Canadian film critic Peter Harcourt wrote ‘it is a study of oppression – largely of the man over the woman, but also of all members of the family by the structures of family life.’

The effect Warrendale and A Married Couple had on the next generation of Canadian filmmakers is inestimable. Many saw them in film classes and repertory cinemas. Buttignol, who would later help revitalize King’s career at TVO, recalls that his first viewing of A Married Couple ‘blew me away.’ Nick Hector, King’s editor on every doc since 1998, comments, ‘A Married Couple changed my life. It made me want to make films.’

For Governor General’s Award-winning docmaker Peter Wintonick (Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media), King’s ‘early films were raw, brutally honest and influential. Allan King’s, Michel Brault’s and Wolf Koenig’s films were the reasons why I decided to dedicate myself to documentaries.’

After the commercial failure of Come On Children, King moved away from documentaries and started directing prestigious dramas for the CBC. It didn’t take long for him to make his major contribution to Canadian drama features, Who Has Seen the Wind (1977).

A brilliant addition to the coming-of-age genre, the adaptation of the W.O. Mitchell novel depicts the struggles of a young boy (played by Brian Painchaud) coming to grips with life and death on the Prairies during the Depression. The film played internationally, receiving accolades in London, the United States and France, where Paris daily Le Matin stated that it was ‘a film of sustained lyricism which recalls John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley.’

Twenty years of TV dramas and a couple of unsuccessful features followed Who Has Seen the Wind. A meeting with Buttignol changed everything. To King’s vast pleasure, Buttignol acquired the rights to broadcast, for the first time in Canada, the long-banned Warrendale and A Married Couple. He also supported 1998′s The Dragon’s Egg – King’s first doc in 15 years – about the problems Russian immigrants faced in post-glasnost Estonia.

King is eager to share the credit for his career success with Buttignol and others who have helped guide him over the years.

‘The key to my working life has been the support given me by exceptional, creative, individuals. The first was Ross McLean,’ he says of the legendary CBC producer. ‘Then it was Doug Leiterman and Patrick Watson,’ who collaborated on the Ceeb’s controversial 1960s talk show This Hour Has Seven Days.

After that, there was a dry bit until [CBC producer] David Peddie got me into drama. After I’d learned a great deal about drama, which was a whole new field for me, then it was John Hirsch. I had an extraordinarily productive time with him. I think I made four or five films in six months with him.

‘Again, there was a dry period, and I had to go into episodic television in order to make a living and to put my kids through school.

‘Then it was Rudy Buttignol and the [Toronto International Film Festival] retrospective in 2002, for which I have to thank [festival director] Piers Handling and [then-head of the Cinematheque québécoise] Robert Daudelin, who probably suggested it to him.’

TVO offered King carte blanche on his next documentary. But, as Buttignol recalls, when the feisty filmmaker came back with the idea for Dying at Grace, ‘I spent about two hours trying to talk him out of it. I knew the topic would be grueling.’ King insisted that the subject was appropriate, and Buttignol acquiesced.

John Haslett Cuff, the former Globe and Mail TV critic who became a filmmaker and made last year’s doc Actuality: The Art and Life of Allan King, believes the film is ‘King’s masterpiece – it’s the culmination of all he had been doing in dramas and documentaries for 50 years.’

King has made two documentary features since the Gemini Award-winning Dying at Grace. Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company, about residents of a geriatric care center in Toronto, and EMPz 4 Life, which follows four teens from a notorious Toronto neighborhood and an ex-con who helps them to find a better life, premiered at TIFF in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

When asked about his legacy, King is characteristically philosophical.

‘One shouldn’t get caught up in evaluating one’s own work – ‘where do I find myself on the ladder?’ That’s for others to do, and it will shift in different times,’ he says. ‘Who knows who will rule the world, and what people will value 50 years from now, or 100 years from now?’

One thing is certain. Like Albert Maysles, Clint Eastwood and Chris Marker – other noted filmmakers whose careers have flourished well into their 70s and 80s – Allan King will not go gently into the night. He’ll rage on, making clear-eyed films that ask ‘why?’ He is, and remains, our philosopher king.