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Obituary

Allan King's documentaries spoke to the human condition Add to ...

A man whose own early life was emotionally and economically destitute, Allan King embraced film as an entry point to other people's traumas - not to ridicule or exploit them, but to empathize with the human condition in its infinite variety. Unlike many Canadian filmmakers who are, in Mordecai Richler's inimitable phrase, world-famous, coast to coast, Mr. King was renowned as a filmmaker far beyond our borders.

Self-taught, curious, intellectual, passionate, he transformed documentaries from beautiful, geographical travelogues into gritty chronicles of real peoples' troubled lives with genre-busting films such as Warrendale , A Married Couple , Dying at Grace and Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company .

He died yesterday at his home in Toronto, two months after being diagnosed with a brain tumour. Mr. King, who was 79, is survived by his third wife Colleen Murphy, four children, six grandchildren, his sister Sheila DeJong and his extended family. A memorial service is planned for the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto on Monday, June 22.

Allan Winton was born in Vancouver on the cusp of the Depression, one of two children of John Owen Winton and his wife Kathleen (née Keegan). John Winton was an alcoholic, which led to the breakdown of the marriage, when Allan was six years old.

When his mother couldn't support the children on her own, she had to place them in foster care. The authorities feared contact with their mother would upset the children, so she was allowed to visit them only once a month until she finally found a job that paid well enough for her to reclaim her children.

After a brief reconciliation with her husband, she divorced him when Allan was 15 and subsequently remarried. Both children took their stepfather's last name, which was King. Later, writing about his fractured childhood, Mr. King observed: "All this made an indelible mark on my view of the world."

He began making films in high school as an assistant to his friend Stan Fox, who had managed to get hold of a war surplus 16 mm camera and had built an elementary film-processing lab in his basement. Both boys became projectionists at the Vancouver Film Society in 1947 and soon began programming the group's screening program. That allowed them to preview as many films as their eyes could absorb, including most of the German expressionist and Soviet montage films in the catalogue of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Having learned the hard knocks that no child should ever have to experience and serendipitously exposed himself to innovative, classic and experimental films from around the world, he also found an empathetic community of film buffs to nurture and encourage him. All of which prepared him to study philosophy at the University of British Columbia.

By the time he graduated with an honours degree in 1954, he had accumulated more life experience, cultural capital and intellectual resonance than people twice his age. He also had acquired marketing and organizational skills through managing UBC's concert series two years running.

Postwar Europe beckoned and he and his first wife Phyllis Leiterman - they had married in 1952 - spent a few months tramping about art galleries and museums until a telegram from his high school friend Stan Fox alerted him that a Vancouver station had opened as part of the fledgling television service of the CBC. Mr. King was hired as an assistant film editor, but quickly began working as a director and producer and made his first CBC documentary, Skidrow , about alcoholic men (like his father who had died a couple of years earlier) living in the flophouses of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Stifled by the rules and the bureaucracy of the CBC, Mr. King moved with his family to Ibiza in the Balearic Islands in 1958, determined to create his dream of becoming an independent filmmaker. Of course, living under the repressive regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco created its own difficulties, causing Mr. King to retreat to the more familiar culture of London, England, in 1961, where he began working with other Canadian ex-patriates, including cinematographer Richard Leiterman and editor Bill Wade.

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