This article was originally published in 2008
Donald Brittain is still remembered with affection by friends and colleagues across Canada nearly two decades after his passing. They recall a man without pretense – an old-fashioned figure dressed in rumpled clothes and a St. Louis Browns’ baseball jacket whose keen eye for story structure and vivid narrative style was second to none.
The Brittain they evoke is that of the classic journalist – cigarette dangling from his lips, a glass of scotch nearby, as he wrote brilliant pieces of prose when deadlines were looming.
In Brittain’s case, those nerve-shattering end-points for his projects were brought on by broadcast dates on the CBC or film festival commitments at the National Film Board. From 1954 to a posthumous production completed in 1991, Donald Brittain worked on more than 100 films, a number of which can appropriately be termed documentary classics.
Among Brittain’s best are Volcano (1976), his peerless poetic evocation of the doomed alcoholic writer Malcolm Lowry; Paperland (1979), a devastatingly funny exposé of Canadian bureaucrats; Canada’s Sweetheart (1985), a dramatic recreation, starring Maury Chaykin, of the notorious ’50s union buster Hal C. Banks; The Champions (1978-1986), a meticulously researched and brilliant trilogy depicting the rivalry between ardent nationalist Pierre Trudeau and his Québécois separatist opponent René Lévesque; and Never a Backward Step (1966), a no-holds-barred look at the life and career of Lord Thomson of Fleet, the original Canadian newspaperman who conquered England’s tabloid racket.
An Ottawa native and crime reporter for that city’s Journal in the early ’50s, Brittain toiled at the NFB for nearly a decade before he was assigned a simple task – to make a small film about Canada’s gravesites in France. He came back with Fields of Sacrifice, his first great film, which NFB producer Adam Symansky still calls ‘brilliant poetry.’
‘The ruins of Italy speak of them. The poppies of Flanders stand for them. They still echo across Vimy Ridge. The flatlands of the Dutch can hear them. They are the ghosts on the shores of France…they are the dead – the Canadian dead of the two world wars,’ Brittain wrote in the narration for the 1963 film.
The doc won three prizes: at the Canadian Film Awards (the precursor of the Genies), in a festival in Victoria, BC, and at the prestigious international education festival in Columbus, OH.
From that point on, Brittain’s career changed. In the world of documentary filmmaking, he had arrived as an artist. In the ensuing years, his projects were upgraded and Brittain developed a revolving group of collaborators – John Kramer, Marrin Canell, John Spotton, Robert Duncan, Douglas Kiefer and, later, Symansky.
‘There was a romanticism about him,’ recalls Symansky. ‘Don always liked the notion of us being like a platoon in an army. It was as if we were going into enemy territory, where we could get shot and we’d be able to shoot back. As silly as it sounds, he created an esprit de corps, where people felt that they were part of a dangerous adventure. He had the ability to make us bond as a group and work damned hard to make a great film.’
Not just a fine writer, producer and director, Brittain had ‘the perfect whiskey-tinged and tobacco-stained [narration] voice,’ remembers filmmaker and Directors Guild of Canada president Sturla Gunnarsson. ‘You got the sense when you were watching a Don Brittain film that you were in the same room, sitting next to him, listening to him mutter along, cutting to the heart of the matter. Don was the master of the ‘golden hinge,’ a brilliant nugget in a voice-over commentary that took you from one idea to the next.’
Always a perfectionist, Brittain ‘would even go into the sound booth or the mixing theater to change a line,’ recalls NFB veteran Kent Martin, who directed the bio-doc Donald Brittain: Filmmaker (1991). ‘He’d always say, ‘There should be blood dripping off the Steenbeck [editing machine]‘ before the film was completed.’
Looking back, after 20 years, it isn’t just the filmmaker who is missed.
‘To see how everybody at the film board treated Brittain was amazing,’ recollects Ray Harper, the director of the series Brittain on Brittain (1989). ‘Every single person who encountered him treated him as a friend.’
Main photo: Donald Brittain, James Littleton, Roger Hart; photo via NFB