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A scene from King's Dying at Grace.

Reality," Allan King said in a CBC Radio interview a few years ago, "is something we avoid at almost all costs. As a filmmaker who has specialized in exploring reality, I have discovered that audiences have great difficulty with it. We spend all sorts of time, not telling lies, but telling stories that are not quite the truth."

Allan King, who died on Monday in Toronto at age 79, spent more time telling stories than focusing on painful realities in his long, productive career. Ultimately, though, he didn't seem to see all that much difference between an actor conveying the emotional reality of a scene and a subject in a documentary revealing a private truth to the camera.

He had said drama was his first interest and he came to documentary because that was where opportunities were available. After his major successes as a documentary filmmaker in the late 1960s, most of his work was dramatic. From the early seventies on, he made 13 short dramas, three feature films and almost 50 television episodes, from Friday the 13th to Road to Avonlea and a Bell commercial, before an impressive late-career return to his documentary roots.

His reputation rests on two intense, controversial films that pushed the limits of privacy and blurred the lines between reality and drama. His work was never a fly-on-the-wall inventory of events presented in chronological order. Instead, King treated the camera as an instrument to provoke and reveal human behaviour, and he then moulded the results into an artistic shape. King knew he was challenging audience's expectations by filming the sort of events that are usually protected by a "curtain" of convention: "When you move the frontier of realism or naturalism forward, you endanger what the audience wants."

At the same time, he rejected the notion that a film's subjects are unaware of the camera and he believed the best documentaries came about because people wanted to use the camera to express something about the way they lived their lives.

Warrendale (1967) and A Married Couple (1969), a documentary about the disintegration of a marriage, remain landmarks for their rawness, anger and discomfiting level of intimacy. (It's impossible to forget, even if you want to, the scene in A Married Couple when the wife, Antoinette Edwards, seeks to restore her sense of intimacy with her husband, Billy, by trying to pop blackheads on his back.)

Though he was inspired by the direct cinema style pioneered in Canada, the United States and France that avoided voice-over narration and direct interviews, King brought his own ideas to the form. He was unusual in treating his subjects as collaborators, developing relationships before the cameras ever rolled. His films are notable for their intense empathy and a kind of experimental boundary-pushing into the extremes of how and why we behave the way we do.

King had no manifestos or hard rules about what was acceptable and what wasn't in documentary filmmaking. Though he was a strong believer that the strength of filmmakers was their built-in artistic "b.s. detector," he was quite flexible about re-arranging things for dramatic effect. In Warrendale , for example, he saved a revelation of the cook's death, which occurred earlier during the filming, as a climactic event in the film. He preferred to call A Married Couple "fiction" because the emotional climaxes were similarly arranged. In each case, his method was about finding moments of conflict that revealed character.

Some of his other films - such as 1972's Come on Children (in which a group of teenagers are taken away from parental supervision to see how they interact), or his 1983 film Who's in Charge (a conference on unemployment), or his 1998 film The Dragon's Egg (about the attempt to rebuild society in Estonia) - are documents of social experiments. The latter, about a project to have Estonians and ethnic Russians work together to reconcile age-old grievances and build a community centre, was one of King's personal favourites.

While he avoided any direct political statements or philosophical messages, King said, more than once, that his films were intended, in some sense, to "help" people, by extending the audience's compassion.

Occasionally, he was accused of manipulation or exploitation. Some of the subjects of Who's in Charge? , for example, unsuccessfully sought a court injunction to prevent the film from being shown. But King believed the film helped the participants overcome their own victim mentality. "It was about them understanding they had to take their own authority, which was painful for them to do."

King's films scrupulously avoid anything that suggests false hope, and, at times, one senses a kind of pessimism about the human condition: "I think Spinoza was right," he said. "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."

King certainly seemed to recognize that his most distinctive work was in documentary filmmaking, and in his 70s he returned to it with a sense of mission, undoubtedly pushed by his own sense of mortality. Dying at Grace (2003), about five people on a palliative-care ward, is a profoundly difficult film to watch but as masterfully constructed as any of his films. As King said, some people found it terrifying and others comforting - no one said the film made them depressed.

That film was followed by another exploration of life's end, Memory for Max, Clare, Ida and Company , about a group of Alzheimer's patients. Then, in 2006, he ventured into an experience far from his own with EMPz 4 Life , about young black teens living in housing projects in Toronto, a carefully observed, compassionate film that offers no solutions.

Asked a few years ago what works made him most proud, he picked Warrendale , A Married Couple and Dragon's Egg . Some of his work was directed, some completely undirected, sometimes he used voice-over and interviews, and at other times he eschewed them, but "whenever I go back and try to classify my works by genre, I can't do it."

"Mostly," he said, "I think, it has been the consistency in my work that strikes me."