Timing, they say, is everything. For Allan King, timing was crucial. Born in Vancouver, he grew up in that time before television, when the main graphic force on a young creative mind was the big screen. He was also lucky enough to be there at the very beginning of television broadcasting and when a friend suggested that he should apply to the new CBC station in his hometown, CBUT, because “anyone” could get a job in television, he applied. King was hired and just two years later he made his first film. It was, and remains, a remarkable piece of work. In the post-war boom that saw the creation of suburbs and a seemingly endless expansion of the workforce, there were still those far less fortunate than others and this is where Allan turned his attention. His film was called Skidrow (1956) and it immediately set a new standard for what would become Canadian television documentary filmmaking. Later, when it became obvious that Allan was one of a handful of like-minded people plying their craft in Western Canada, the film became the prime example of what was known as the “West Coast School” of filmmaking. What helped set Skidrow apart was, thanks in part to timing, the arrival of the relatively low-cost “synch-sound” camera. While the film is particularly poignant thanks to a masterful script by writer and social worker Ben Maartman, the narration is punctuated by the then unique intimacy provided by the homeless men themselves talking about their bleak lives in a truth that is as raw as it is hopeless.
Four years after he landed his first job in television, King pulled up stakes and headed for England. He established Allan King Associates with the primary goal of producing documentaries for the CBC in general, and for the program Close-Up in particular. It turned into a fairly steady stream of images about the world seen through Canadian eyes. The subject matter, no matter where it might be set would be translated for Canadian sensibilities. A perfect example was 1960’s Rickshaw. He had travelled to India and was confronted by the almost impossible life of a Calcutta rickshaw driver. This now middle-aged man had left a small village to come to Calcutta where he had pulled a rickshaw behind him for years, running barefoot through the crowded, dangerous and polluted streets. Now, years later, no richer and seemingly no wiser, he was about to return home to his village just as poor as when he began so that his son could take over the rickshaw and begin his life on the streets of Calcutta. A year later Allan turned his camera on Canada and produced the highly controversial A Matter of Pride. Here was Canada in all its post-war prosperity and so-called booming economy and yet there were some who could not make ends meet when their careers ended or when they became unemployed. The film focused on a middle-aged salesman and the pain he and his family endure, told in long on-camera interviews that are as powerful today as they were when they were first filmed. A Matter of Pride caused such concern that it was denounced in Parliament and the Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, applied so much pressure to the CBC brass that Allan was summoned to network headquarters in Ottawa to be given one of those tiresome “biting-the-hand-that-feeds-you” speeches. But that didn’t stop him. In fact, as he entered the 1960s his pace seemed to quicken. There would be 10 productions in the next seven years and then it was Canada’s centennial.
For those of you who were around in 1967, you know it was a very special year. Timing had a lot to do with it. The leading edge of the baby boom had helped elect a new, younger Prime Minister. Across the country, city after city had launched special 100th anniversary projects. Montréal had been awarded an international exposition, and it was the crowning jewel in a string of special events from coast-to-coast planned to mark and celebrate Canada`s 100 birthday. For the first time, or so it seemed, the focus was on us. And in this light and in this time came a dark tale of real life for some emotionally disturbed teenagers housed in a facility called Warrendale, outside of Toronto. Brutally frank and uncompromising, the film documents a level of personal pain and tragedy never before seen on film. Looking back, it serves to remind emerging documentary filmmakers of how powerful the vision of cinéma-vérité can be. At the time, CBC balked. The language was raw and could not be broadcast. But then Warrendale won the Prix d’Arte et d’Essai at the Cannes Film Festival. It also shared the British Academy`s Best Foreign Film Award with Antonioni`s Blow Up and the New York Critics’ Award with Buñuel’s Belle du Jour. Director Jean Renoir commented that Allan King was “a great artist.” And so we all, eventually, had the chance to see Warrendale. To give you some idea of what went into the making of Warrendale, when Allan decided to use the leftover footage for a series he was able to edit 18, 30-minute episodes for what would be called Children in Conflict.
King followed this success with A Married Couple (1969), which featured the real life couple Antoinette and Billy Edwards (pictured). Clive Barnes of The New York Times wrote, “it is quite simply one of the best films I have ever seen.” It was featured at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes in 1970.
With so much talent, it should not surprise anyone that King would eventually try his hand at dramatic filmmaking. Being Allan King, of course, meant that his approach would be different. The word usually applied in the world of film, is “experimental.” What sets King apart from so many is the fact his experiments were so successful. These include Joshua, a Nigerian Portrait (1962) and Running Away Backwards (1964).
While many may remember the so-called “Golden Age of Television” for the live dramas of the 1950s, in Canada it could be argued that age came later and it came on film. Allan King’s contributions include 1974’s Red Emma and 1977’s Maria. Most critics agree that these films set the standard for the genre at the time. At the same time as he was creating his own vision of television drama, Allan King was working on the feature, Who Has Seen the Wind (1977), which co-starred Gordon Pinsent and Helen Shaver. Based on the book by W. O. Mitchell, it remains one of the most critically acclaimed films ever produced in Canada. It won the Grand Prix at the Paris International Film Festival and the Golden Reel Award for the highest grossing Canadian film of the year.
As a result of a career that was defined by his statement “I make films to ask the question, ‘Why?'” Allan King was warmly recognized in Canada. For example, in 1988 he received the Ontario Film Institute Award for Excellence in Canadian Cinema and, 10 years later in 1998, he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian international documentary festival, Hot Docs, in recognition of his long and distinguished career. He was a founding member of the Directors Guild of Canada and its president from 1989–99. In 2000 he received the Directors Guild of Canada’s Distinguished Service Award and the Arts Toronto Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2002 Warrendale was denoted a masterwork by the AV Preservation Trust in a ceremony at Rideau Hall and the Toronto International Film Festival presented a retrospective of his work showing 17 of his films. King was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2006.
Allan King’s final works included Dying at Grace (2003) and Memory for Ma, Claire, Ida and Company (2005). He was diagnosed with a brain tumor in April of 2009 and died in his Toronto home in June at the age of 79. The Canadian government recognized his passing when the Honourable James Moore, who was Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages at the time issued a release stating, “Our country has lost one of its greatest and most innovative independent filmmakers with the death of Allan King. His startlingly realistic documentaries brought new attention to this genre, which has since continued to grow in popularity. His extensive body of work has left an indelible mark on Canadian filmmakers past, present and future.”