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Terence Macartney-Filgate (Courtesy Hot Docs)
Terence Macartney-Filgate (Courtesy Hot Docs)

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Terence Macartney-Filgate: For the love of shooting Add to ...

At 87, Terence Macartney-Filgate is not only the oldest outstanding achievement honoree in the 18-year history of Toronto's Hot Docs festival, he's the only one to have given Jim Morrison a failing grade. The latter incident happened back in 1965, the year the National Film Board veteran was teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles, where Morrison (undisciplined, it turns out) and future Doors member Ray Manzarek took his film class.

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"I got another e-mail recently from someone else interested in doing a film about him," says Macartney-Filgate, who lives in a semi-detached house in downtown Toronto with a trio of enthusiastic rescue dogs. "I have a great opening shot for them - a Steadicam moving through the Père Lachaise cemetery [in Paris] It's such a beautiful place."

Even more than Morrison, Macartney-Filgate recalls some of his colleagues that year, including Dorothy Arzner, one of the pioneering Hollywood directors from the late 1930s, and Josef von Sternberg ( The Blue Angel, Shanghai Express), whose students laughed at him when he showed them his final film, the Japanese war drama Anatahan. Then there was an intimate, well-lubricated dinner party with the great French director Jean Renoir of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game fame.

" 'Act before essence' was the phrase he used," says Macartney-Filgate. "I've never forgotten that. In other words, don't invent the philosophy before you make the film. My attitude toward documentary is simply, is it interesting? Not just to yourself, but to other people. That's all that really matters. I once defined documentary as the art of being invisible, but of course, then there's Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield."

Macartney-Filgate was in his teens when he first saw the John Grierson-narrated Night Mail, based on a poem by W.H. Auden, and fell in love with documentary film. After the Second World War and the University of Oxford, he applied to work at the National Film Board of Canada, which Grierson had started. Initially hired for his technical knowledge of airplanes, he soon graduated from assistant scriptwriter to director-photographer and producer.

Among his colleagues were a generation of filmmakers, from Wolf Koenig to Michel Brault, who were at the forefront of the new unscripted, observational documentaries. Macartney-Filgate's contributions to the new kinds of filmmaking were seven of the 13-part Candid Eye series, including The Back-breaking Leaf and The Days Before Christmas (both of which can be seen on the National Film Board website). The films use voiceover and some direct interviews, though the presence of the interviewer is largely excised: "I just didn't think I had a good voice so I cut it out whenever possible."

In 1960, he took one-year leave of absence from the NFB to broaden his experience, which ended up extending for most of the decade. He was the principal cameraman on Robert Drew's documentary Primary, about the 1960 Hubert Humphrey-John Kennedy U.S. presidential primary in Wisconsin. The film is considered a milestone in direct cinema, though Macartney-Filgate saw the work as "a case of inventing the wheel that we already had rolling at the NFB. They just did it with more money."

He freelanced through the sixties, out of New York. He directed much of the 1963 Academy Award-winning Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World, though the original director, Shirley Clarke, contractually gets the credit. ("She made the mistake of saying to Newsweek, 'Frosty said to me.…' He didn't like that.") He also earned a Peabody Award for a documentary on South Africa and, working with English director Robert Hughes, landed a rare interview with Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov, though it took some persuasion to get the Russian-born novelist to answer questions without first writing out his responses.

In the late sixties, Macartney-Filgate returned to the National Film Board, and eventually went to the CBC, where, over the next 20 years, he created documentaries and docudramas on Dieppe, Lucy Maud Montgomery and Timothy Findley. In retirement, after 1990, he continued to work with Adrienne Clarkson on her arts show for CBC Television, Adrienne Clarkson Presents. In 1996, he also produced the NFB series Canada Remembers, on the Second World War.

Retirement, in fact, hasn't happened yet. He continues to work on new projects and, after more than 50 years, also make films for fun. Before I leave the house, he opens up his Mac computer to show me two short performance videos, recently shot with his Flip pocket camcorder. One shows a teenaged couple performing a choreographed dance in front of the Eaton Centre in Toronto; the other a woman at an East York choir recital, singing the 1930s Tessie O'Shea hit Nobody Loves a Fairy When She's Forty. They're both delightful.

As he closes up his laptop, he explains, unnecessarily: "I just love shooting."

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