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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.

Despite the fact that he had moved away from Canada, the CBC was the best client for his documentaries, which displayed a number of innovative techniques: mobility because they used lightweight cameras; grittiness from shooting on location and spontaneity from recording events as they happened rather than staging scenes according to a written script.

His first major feature documentary work was Warrendale , a film commissioned by the CBC about emotionally disturbed children at a mental health facility in Toronto. The late filmmaker Jean Renoir is said to have considered Warrendale the most remarkable documentary he had ever seen.

The film began as a commission in 1965 from Patrick Watson, the co-host and co-producer of the controversial This Hour Has Seven Days . Mr. Watson wanted Mr. King to profile John Brown, a Toronto child psychologist, who had pioneered a treatment for severely disturbed children by placing them in a surrogate family environment and "holding" them in a firm, but supposedly loving embrace when they acted out.

Mr. King spent a month getting acquainted with the children in one of the residential houses before bringing in his crew and equipment. Filming began two weeks later and lasted for five weeks. By then the children and the staff were so familiar with the camera crews and their omnipresent equipment that, for the most part, everybody forgot they were being filmed and began treating the cameras like another piece of furniture.

The effect was to give viewers an astonishingly intimate look inside the daily, horrific reality of these children and adolescents. Indeed, Warrendale was so disturbing and the language so outrageous - for the times - that the CBC, which had cancelled This Hour Has Seven Days in May, 1966, refused to broadcast the documentary.

Instead, Mr. King negotiated the rights to distribute Warrendale in cinemas. After an initial 13 week run in Toronto, it was subsequently screened around the world to stellar reviews, earning a raft of awards, including the International Critics Prize at Cannes and sharing the best foreign film at the British Academy of Film Awards with Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup .

From troubled children, Mr. King turned his lens to unhappy adults by making a powerful and painful film about the disintegration of a relationship. A Married Couple is based on the lives of advertising executive Billy Edwards and his wife Antoinette, people Mr. King knew in Ibiza.

Again the crew shot many hours of footage and interviews, disarming the subjects until they spoke frankly about the fault lines and pressure points in their marriage. Clive Barnes, then film critic for The New York Times described it as "quite simply one of the best films I have ever seen." A Married Couple was featured at the Director's Fortnight at Cannes in 1970.

His third major chunk of emotional life was about disaffected teenagers. Entitled Come on Children , this 1973 documentary follows 10 troubled teenagers, including Alex Lifeson, who would later become famous as a guitarist with Rush, as they ramble about on a farm talking about life, existence and what's wrong with the world.

Mr. King followed the same techniques and instincts as he had in his two earlier documentaries, but the results were less successful. The problem was largely that kids sitting around talking, which is what teenagers do much of the time, is interesting mainly to themselves. Their lassitude and their ennui is boring to watch, no matter how essential a life process it seems to be.

In the early 1970s, after two lavishly praised but unprofitable documentaries and one that had earned neither kudos nor sales, Mr. King was close to bankruptcy. So, he turned away from documentaries and began making feature films.

By now he and his first wife had divorced and he was married to screenwriter Patricia Watson. Beginning by directing her adaptations, including A Bird in the House and Red Emma , as half hour dramas for CBC, he eventually raised enough money to make a feature film of W.O. Mitchell's iconic coming of age novel, Who Has Seen the Wind . Filmed mainly on location in Saskatchewan, it became the top-grossing Canadian film of 1977 and won the Grand Prix at the Paris International film Festival.

He followed this success with One Night Stand , an adaptation of playwright Carol Bolt's odyssey about modern sexuality. Made for television, One Night Stand won five Canadian Film Awards.

Mr. King returned to his documentary beginnings in 1983 with an explosive film about unemployment called, Who's in Charge? The film followed a four day conference at which 30 out-of-work people meet in a communal residential setting, complete with food and drink, and discuss their problems and their prospects. As the days pile up, so do their frustrations with themselves, each other and the conference facilitators.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. King made a living directing episodes of television series including Danger Bay , The Road to Avonlea , Madison and Lightning Force . He also served as president of the Director's Guild of Canada from 1989-1999 and made another feature film, Termini Station , based on a script by his third wife, Colleen Murphy. They had married in April, 1987, after his divorce from Ms. Watson.

In his 70s, Mr. King found a new audience and critical success with a series of documentaries about upheaval, death and disability. The Dragon's Egg (1999) dealt with the coming of democracy to Eastern Europe through the experiences of a small group of Estonians. Dying at Grace (2003) gently and empathically follows the lives of patients in palliative care at the Salvation Army's Grace Health Centre in Toronto. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival that year and won raves as "a defiantly humane film" and "the culmination of all he had been doing in dramas and documentaries for 50 years." The film won a Gemini for editing and the Donald Brittain Award for best social or political documentary and was screened at film festivals around the world.

Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005), which was filmed at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto, followed the daily routines of eight resident patients suffering from some form of dementia, people who can't remember that they can't remember how to organize their own lives. Painful as it is to watch, it also takes us to a place where many of us fear we may be heading.

The final major film that he completed was EMPz 4 Life , which studied racial stereotyping of young black men in Toronto, in 2006. He was developing his last film, Endings , when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour in April.

ALLAN KING

Allan Winton King was born in Vancouver on Feb. 6, 1930. He died at home in Toronto on June 15, 2009. Mr. King, who was 79, leaves his third wife Colleen Murphy, four children, six grandchildren, his sister Sheila DeJong and his extended family. A memorial is planned for the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto on Monday, June 22.

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