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Tuesday November 27, 2012

NFB stalwart loved telling stories of his native Quebec to rest of country and world

'He embodied the National Film Board's goal to tell the story of the country and its people - and tell it well'

Special to The Globe and Mail

If Roger Blais lived by a mantra, it was this: "Every morning I get up, open the window and look for the sun. If it's not there, I look for it in my heart and if it's not there, I find it in a really good glass of wine."

An artist, a soldier, a filmmaker and a gentle man of action, Blais, who died Nov. 9 at the age of 95, always looked for the bright side and ran his life like the Boy Scout he once was. Service came before everything else, be it to his country, to the National Film Board of Canada, where founder John Grierson hired him soon after the end of the Second World War, to the wife he was married to for 67 years and his six children.

"My father believed in getting involved to effect change," said Pascal Blais, one of his five sons. "When one of my brothers was having problems at school, my father didn't just ask for a meeting with his teacher. He ran for the local school board! Each weekday morning of his term, he would visit each school to ask how things were going and if anything was needed."

And he loved telling stories through films about his native Quebec to the rest of Canada and the world, stories such as that of Benedictine monks in the Eastern Townships who make cheese, the Casavant family in Saint Hyacinthe who have been building organs since 1879 and the history of the St. Lawrence River.

"Roger was effusive. You were invited into screening of his films, no matter if it was a first cut or a final one," recalled Robert Verrall, a filmmaker who landed at the NFB from Toronto in 1945. "With him, the best was always about to happen and he embodied the NFB's goal to tell the story of the country and its people - and tell it well."

Roger Blais was born in Giffard, Que., on Feb. 6, 1917, the youngest of Eugène and Alouisya Blais's six children. His father was an artisan who crafted gold leaf and his mother a homemaker. Though they were not wealthy, they placed a great emphasis on religion and education for they wanted their offspring to have a more secure future. Young Roger learned to think critically while studying at a local seminary; later, he attended the École des Beaux Arts in Quebec City with the goal of making a living as a painter.

Then came the Second World War. Drafted as an artist by the Canadian Army, he was shipped off with brushes, paints and canvas paper to Britain, where he was to create a pictorial record of what he saw. Only he encountered a general who told him the battle would be won with guns, not brushes. Just like that, he was given a rifle and sent to the countryside, where he would wait until the war ended without seeing any combat.

As soon he returned home, Blais married Louise Bellavance, the girl he'd met one night at a ski resort near Quebec City. Forward and charming, he put a waltz on the jukebox, marched across the room and asked her to dance. When she got dizzy, he instructed her to look into his eyes. She never stopped.

Around the same time, Grierson came calling. He saw something in the young man with the good eye and talented hands - a talent that could reach across borders and touch people who'd never spoken a word of French in their lives. At first, Blais worked as an animator but he was more interested in making documentaries that showed people what was going on in the world. Through the 1940s and 1950s, his films ran the gamut; they included Royal Journey in 1951, which followed Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh on their five-week tour across Canada and the U.S., and Fridolinons, an adaptation of author Gratien Gélinas's books that featured a poor, knock-kneed boy who never let life get him down.

In 1961, Blais left his family for six months to shoot a documentary for the United Nations about tribes in what was then West New Guinea. Travelling without a gun or even a pocket knife, everything he learned in the Boy Scouts came to the fore: to be clean, polite, diplomatic and prepared for any eventuality, including cannibals and chieftains who tried to give him women to sleep with for the duration of his stay in their village. "Sometimes, the women would lie outside his hut, crying from the shame of being rejected, but he would not budge," Pascal Blais said. "How could he? He was family man to the core and he'd left our mother pregnant with our sister, the youngest in the family."

In a way, the documentary, From the Stone Age to the Atom Age, was a miracle for Blais who always said that any kind of film-making was about managing the unpredictable and life in the jungle was about as unpredictable as it could get. There were crocodiles and deadly snakes. People appeared and disappeared at will, curious, silent and sometimes carrying spears. Each day, he gave the film reels he'd shot to a tribesman to be delivered to the closest settlement for transport back to Canada. Each time he handed the reels over, he feared he would never see them again. But not a single one was lost.

In 1964, Blais took on another challenge, co-ordinating and overseeing audiovisual productions for Expo 67. He knew exactly what he wanted: local film processing labs and light projector bulbs that had a life span of 3,000 hours, not the requisite 10. Out of this emerged Quebec's film-making framework that is still going strong today. Back at the NFB after the fair, he became an administrator and ambassador, courtly in a suit and tie. Filmmaker Paul Cowan, who started at the board in the early 1970s and whose documentaries include a character study of Billy Bishop, said: "He looked to me like he should be in a Canadian embassy. He was from another world, elegant and very different from us."

When he retired in 1980, he didn't slow down a bit. Fiercely independent, he drove a car well into his 90s, spent time with his family, read, wrote and lectured. In 2000, he was made an officer of the Order of Canada. Five years later, he was named a knight of the Ordre National du Québec.

When his health began to fail over the past few years, he moved to a veterans hospital on Montreal's West Island. Every Sunday, his wife, children and grandchildren would take him out to an Italian restaurant on the waterfront. "You know what? It was always sunny," said Pascal Blais. "It was as if he brought the sun with him." Blais leaves his wife, six children, 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

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