Montreal-born filmmaker Harry Gulkin, who was known for co-producing the 1975 movie Lies My Father Told Me and for being the biological father of actor and filmmaker Sarah Polley, as she revealed in her 2012 documentary Stories We Tell, is being remembered as a passionate, generous and funny man who was a great defender of the film industry.
Mr. Gulkin died on Monday of pneumonia at the age of 90.
Johanne Larue of SODEC, a Quebec government arts-funding agency, knew Mr. Gulkin for more than 30 years and said he was a very colourful character who loved life.
“He was a passionate, generous man, who took to heart all the projects that fell in his lap,” Ms. Larue said in an emotional interview.
She first met Mr. Gulkin when he taught her screenwriting while she attended a Montreal university in the 1980s.
“He knew how to understand and defend [projects],” Ms. Larue added. “He was a great orator, like a lawyer defending a cause.”
Mr. Gulkin joined SODEC in 1987 and spent 20 years there. He and Ms. Larue, 56, often worked together on film projects.
She said Mr. Gulkin was adamant about putting the reality of anglophone Quebeckers on the screen.
“Usually, many people, when they shoot in English, these films become Canadian or they become American look-alikes,” she said. “But Harry’s productions were truly about the experiences of anglophone Quebecers … [and] I think that’s the most important thing that he gave us.”
Ms. Larue teared up when she described Mr. Gulkin as “a unique and incredibly funny guy.”
Lies My Father Told Me, based on a short story by the Jewish Montreal writer Ted Allan, follows a young boy’s close friendship with his Orthodox Jewish grandfather in the 1920s. The movie won a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Mr. Gulkin said the film captured the street life of Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood, but also had a universal appeal. “That film had some very basic things about it that made it immediately recognizable to audiences everywhere.”
Mr. Gulkin received a special Genie Award from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television in 2008.
Harry Gulkin was born a “red-diaper baby” in Montreal on Nov. 14, 1927, to parents Raya (née Shinderman) and Peter Gulkin, who were Communist Russian immigrants. He attended Baron Byng High School, but dropped out in 1944 to become a Merchant Seaman and trade union organizer.
He returned to Montreal in 1949 and worked for the Canadian Tribune, a communist newspaper, but Mr. Gulkin abandoned communism in 1956 when information came to light about the genocide that took place under Joseph Stalin’s regime. During the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Mr. Gulkin worked at a variety of jobs until discovering a talent for marketing that led to an executive position with a supermarket chain.
Mr. Gulkin also produced the Montreal-set films Two Solitudes (1978), an adaptation of Hugh MacLennan’s bestselling novel, and Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1978), an adaptation of the Mordecai Richler children’s fantasy.
In 2008, the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television presented Mr. Gulkin a special Genie Award as “a person of outstanding vision and merit, who has built through his love of film a stronger and more vibrant film community.”
Ms. Polley’s acclaimed documentary Stories We Tell used interviews and dramatizations to explore her family’s secret that she was the product of an extramarital affair between her mother, Diane Polley, and Mr. Gulkin.
Ms. Polley has described Mr. Gulkin as “one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met.”
He was also the subject of the 2004 National Film Board documentary Harry Gulkin: Red Dawn on Main Street.
Mr. Gulkin’s other daughter, Cathy Gulkin, 63, wrote in an e-mail, “It’s said that every successful woman has a supportive and encouraging father behind her, and my dad was both those things.”
She said he let her know she could be anything she wanted to be when she grew up.
When she announced at the age of 7 she wanted to be an astronomer, he went out and bought her several books about the stars and planets.
“When I lost my way a little in my early 20s, he took me aside and read me the riot act,” she recalled.
“He demanded to know what career I was going to pursue and I blurted out ‘filmmaker.’"
And that’s what Ms. Gulkin became.
Mr. Gulkin leaves his daughters, Ms. Gulkin and Ms. Polley, and a son, Jim.
With files from The Globe and Mail