Allan King: passing of a documentary giant

By Colin Browne
(Canscene) — John Grierson, founder of our National Film Board, Ralph Foster, who left NFB to get the Australian Film Board started and Allan King who died last month, are some of the persons who helped place Canada in the front ranks of worldwide documentary film making. Another key figure in documentary is Colin Browne who offers these words in praise of King’s work:

Allan King and Thomas Riedelsheimer were mentors at our first Art of the Documentary workshop in Vancouver in 2006. It was a marvellous session, as Brett has reported. On the evening of the public presentation, May 26, 2006, I offered the following words of welcome  to Allan, a poet of the cinema, whose fierceness, compassion and friendship were gifts beyond compare. Reading them over, I wouldn’t  change a word.

“Allan is one of the very rare artists who have revealed this country  to itself. When he began making films here in Vancouver in the 1950s,  the way we saw each other on the screen was mediated by the  institutions that—whether you think they had our best interests in  mind or not—ruled us. Or tried to. They decided what images of  ourselves were best for us to see. It might have been argued that we  were a young country with a complex, potentially unstable population, open to incitement. We were fed, for the most part, pablum.

“Making his first film, Skid Row, when he was twenty-six in 1956,  Allan brought a fierce, lyrical, intelligent curiosity to looking at, recording and representing the world he saw and heard around him. He  was from the beginning suspicious of institutions. He told me this  morning, after reading Spinoza last night, that he was reminded of  the gravity and responsibility of his task as an artist, and that is  to ask: ‘Why?’ He is passionate about freedom. ‘Why?’ is form of  resistance to paternalism and the fog of authority.

“Skid Row, shot by the incomparable Jack Long, may be one of the  first instances in Canada’s cinema history in which a filmmaker  reaches out to us and trusts us to perceive and to feel on our own,and for this reason, and for many other reasons, the film is a  remarkable work of generosity.

“Allan has always been an independent thinker with an independent  vision. His films ask hard questions, and as a result they’re filled  with life and its complexities. He was one of the small band of  documentary filmmakers who helped develop what is now called, a  little loosely, Cinéma Vérité, or Direct Cinema. Filmmakers like  Allan and Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx were at the forefront of  this movement: they knew how to move the camera—although he would  come to call his own technique ‘actuality drama’. Think of titles  like Warrendale and A Married Couple, and more recently, the  extraordinary films Dying at Grace (2003) and Memory for Max, Claire,  Ida and Company (2005), both of which have shown here at the VIFF.

“Allan’s films have been seen around the world, and not just the  documentary films he’s best known for. He has worked extensively in  television, and if you’ve ever seen Road to Avonlea you’ve probably  seen an Allan King episode. His feature film, Who Has Seen the Wind ?(1977), broke box-office records the year it was released and won the  Grand Prix at the Paris International Film Festival that year.

“He is a national treasure. This year he will receive an honorary  degree at Simon Fraser University. While he’s been here we’ve been  talking about Malcolm Lowry, who he knew in the old days in  Vancouver. Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano, as you probably know,  begins with a quotation from the Antigone:

‘Many are the wonders of the world, but none is more wonderful than
man…’

“Allan knows this, and his films reveal it. And yet in the original Greek the lines above rest on an ambiguity; the word deinon, means  both ‘wonderful’ and ‘terrible’. Allan knows this too, and so do his  films.

“Many are the wonders of the world, but none is more wonderful/ terrible than man….”

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