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Scandalous vérité
Before reality TV, there was Allan King. A retrospective and a new book pay tribute to one of Canada's premier documentary filmmakers, LIAM LACEY writes

By LIAM LACEY, The Globe and Mail
September 10, 2002

Without ever directly imposing a political or philosophical vision on his material, Allan King makes Allan King films: detached, relentless and unafraid of raw anger.

They're often films about groups struggling with issues of life management and self-determination. King says, as he has said a number of times before, that his real interest is why people do one thing when they say they want to do something else.

Today marks the launch of a new book, Allan King, Filmmaker (edited by York University's Seth Feldman), honouring the venerable Canadian filmmaker who is enjoying an 18-film retrospective at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

The 72-year-old King is a cornerstone of quality film and television, responsible for not only documentaries but interviews on television, early filmed dramas (Maria, Red Emma), feature films (Who Has Seen the Wind?) and a great deal of episodic television, from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Road to Avonlea.

But he's also a controversial maverick. He's been challenged in the courts, chastised in Parliament, and berated by critics, for his fascination with often disturbing genre and social experiments recorded on film. Currently he's working three jobs in tandem: setting up a documentary studio at CBC, preparing a new documentary on death and dying, and helping restore his own catalogue of films for the CBC.

Ask him what he is most proud of over the past half-century of his television and film work, and he answers readily: "Warrendale has to be regarded as a highlight. And A Married Couple. And I'm also very proud of Dragon's Egg [a documentary set in Estonia]. Mostly, I think, it's been the consistency of my approach that strikes me. Some are directed, some are completely undirected. Some use interviews, voice-over, others don't. But whenever I go back and try to classify my works by genre, I can't do it."

And then there's his consistency for controversy. Take one of his early TV documentaries, A Matter of Pride, touching on record unemployment statistics. It was the first of his films, says King, to create a political uproar. Focusing on a Hamilton couple, it featured the revolutionary and at the time scandalous image of a man -- an unemployed salesman -- and a woman crying on camera during interviews. The film was attacked by the Minister of Labour as a fabrication. King was called to Ottawa to explain himself. Among other criticisms were that the couple had been given a fee for appearing on camera, and that some scenes were rehearsed.

In fact, they were staged, and King offers no apologies for this. "That's the tradition of documentary going back to Robert Flaherty. These films were directed; they have to be. You can't include all of reality in a film. It's limited by what your camera can see to begin with."

King's interest in artificial, experimental social groups undoubtedly traces back to his childhood in the Depression. He was the son of an alcoholic father and wound up living in several foster homes. He joined CBC Television at its beginning and helped found what was called the West Coast School of filmmaking (as opposed to the National Film Board style). His tightly framed style, hard "objective" presentation of information and avoidance of a specific political agenda all reflect that early television training. He shot stage dramas as a documentaries and he makes documentaries that feel like dramas.

Knowing just where King stands on any particular subject has often baffled critics, and he admits he hasn't really understood the implications of some of his own films for years. His interest is an emotional or dramatic truth: "People are very nervous about being lied to and you have to pay close attention. If something feels untrue, if you're beginning to allow that to leak into a film, then you've lost it. You need a very good bullshit detector."

Long before Survivor and "Reality TV," the explorations of the line between art, social experiment and staged event ran through sixties' popular culture. There was the New Journalism, Pop Art and happenings, in the true-fiction experiments of Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, and in the various forms of cinema known as "direct cinema,' cinéma vérité, or what King called "actuality dramas."

In his most famous film, Warrendale,made for CBC in 1966 but too hot to handle (it made its TV debut 30 years later) he shot in a home for disturbed children. It was ostensibly a documentary about John Brown's pioneering treatment methods of placing children in a surrogate family environment and controlling them with a holding technique. It became a scandalous film, however, mostly because of the children's use of obscenities.

Near the end of the film, the home's cook unexpectedly dies and King records the reaction. In reality, the cook died near the beginning of filming. Again, King offers no apologies for altering the sequence of events, and building the impression of cause and effect. "I've never thought chronology was that important," he says. Rather, it was the "emotional expression" that was what made the film a piece of art.

Among the key experimental documentaries was another hugely controversial effort, Who's in Charge (1983), returning to the subject of unemployment. King gathered 30 unemployed people together for a four-day conference, overseen by the Tavistock Institute, an English psychoanalytic-oriented consultancy company that viewed themselves as facilitators, not problem-solvers. The increasingly angry and frustrated tone of the conference (a chair was thrown) caught a cultural clash and talk of class warfare.

Some of the participants tried to stop the program from airing with a court injunction. A few critics accused King of using the camera for an exercise in sadism, where the distant facilitators either did not answer or turned back the questions of the group. King was intrigued that most of the enmity came from "progressives," that is, liberals or left-leaning people with a sympathy for the poor.

For his part, the conference was an attempt to help the participants overcome their own victim mentality, and he believes it was a success. "It was about them understanding they had to take their own authority which was painful for them to do."

Such a refusal to sentimentalize the devastation of unemployment caused King's political allegiances to be attacked. He says he has strong political views, though they don't generally find their way into his movies nor does he think they should. He turns the question of political into a kind of laboratory hypothesis:

"Certainly resentment becomes an important factor. People will accept a disparity of a certain amount, but the richest are making more than seven times the ordinary level of income, then you breed serious social problems."

The final experimental documentary, a return to the form after a decade and a half, was 1998's Dragon's Egg. The inspiration was Vamik Volkan, another facilitator with a psychoanalytic background, who directs an organization called The Center for the Study of Mind and Interaction at the University of Virginia and who specializes in ethnic conflict. The film, in this case, picks up after Volkan was hired to work with Russians and Estonians in Russia, and the mixed-ethnic communities begin working together to build a new community centre.

There is something hopeful about King's fascination with idealized communities, even the ones in disarray. He's spent time in analysis and some of his films have a quality of group therapy, though he doesn't seem especially optimistic about solutions. He doesn't make any references to Zen, though a calm detachment about the disappointments of the world suggests it. Would he call himself a humanist?

"Sure, I'm comfortable with that," he says. "I think Spinoza was right. God is in reality. It's like that movie [The Night of the Hunter] that Charles Laughton and Robert Mitchum made. The two fists pressed together, with the tattoos love and hate. A lot of people imagine love is stronger but I'm not sure about that."

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