Montreal’s film community is expressing a profound sense of loss after Magnus Isacsson lost his two-year struggle with cancer late last week.
“Isacsson will go down in Canadian film history as a prolific, committed and talented artist who extended our legacy of independent activist documentary into the 21st century,” said Tom Waugh, a professor of film studies at Concordia University. “Isacsson broadened the scope of left documentary here from classical labour struggles to environmental, first-nations and arts issues, bringing an impeccable ethics to his vocation and discovering strong narratives in the lives of his everyday heroes.”
Isacsson, who was 64, became renowned in documentary filmmaking circles for his ability to enter controversial struggles and tell the stories through the personal lives of those directly involved. In 1996, he made Power, in which he captured the complexities of the fight between the Crees of northern Quebec and the provincial government, then intent on building a massive hydro project. In Uranium (1991), he explored the effects of radioactive contamination on aboriginal lands. And with The Choir Boys (1999), a film Isacsson cited as his personal favourite, he looked at the dilemmas faced by the homeless by focusing on a choir made up of homeless men.
Isacsson always stressed that his films were more complex because he did not make them in a hurry. Having worked as a producer in both radio and TV, he said he cherished documentary filmmaking, where you could take the time to look at issues with the depth they warranted. “I think my greatest secret weapon is that I’m not in a rush,” he told POV magazine in an interview last year. “The effect in people when you’re not in a rush is amazing. I can build relationships over time.… I’m really attracted to the unpredictable nature of conflict stories and I’m in there for the duration, looking to understand all the complexities.”
Born and raised in Sweden, Isacsson found success early as a teenager with photography. At 18, a number of his photographs were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm. Isacsson’s father founded and ran an art school in Sweden, while his mother taught children with learning disabilities. “Both sides of my family came from remote, underdeveloped parts of the country,” Isacsson recalled. “But they had very strong values and beliefs about being a citizen and having a social consciousness.”
After studying political science in Stockholm, Isacsson moved to Montreal in 1970, working as a radio producer at the CBC and eventually directing reports for both English– and French-language CBC-TV programs, including the fifth estate and Le Point.
But Isacsson said he found working for TV networks “very limiting creatively,” adding that “everything had to be framed as ‘objective’ journalism.”
Isacsson said things began changing for him when he attended the Grierson Seminar in the seventies, an annual event in which filmmakers would screen their work and then debate the issues raised with the film’s subjects and other filmmakers. “After a couple of sessions the debates got pretty heated. One year there was even a fistfight. What really impressed me was the creative freedom. These films were not journalism; they were dramatic or poetic.… They definitely had a point of view. Of course they all brought up important issues, and I find that combination of the social and creative irresistible.
“All the things I had previously been interested in and working on seemed to come together in documentary film. It was like being struck by lightning.”
Isacsson, who won numerous awards at film festivals around the world for his films, acknowledged that his work became far more personal with time. One of his final films, Letter to Bethiele (2010), is a video letter to the daughter he adopted from Haiti, in which he reflects on issues around immigration and social justice on her 10th birthday.
And in one of his final statements, Isacsson told POV that he was greatly dismayed by the state of world affairs. “I think that it’s a sadness we all share – all of us who are actively engaged with global politics. The issues are so huge and there’s so many of them that people feel at a loss for what to do. Certainly one of the purposes of making a documentary film for me is to pinpoint those issues and to highlight some people who are actually doing something positive, something creative about it.”
To honour his career, Montreal’s documentary film festival, the Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal (RIDM), is creating a new award in the name of Isacsson and his frequent collaborator, Martin Duckworth.
Special to The Globe and Mail