A self-taught artist, Pepita Ferrari was stunned when she came across works at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts by female painters whom she had never heard of. She asked her contacts at the National Film Board of Canada to produce a documentary about the Beaver Hall Hill Group that would detail the challenges they faced and record their contributions.
In the end, Ms. Ferrari was convinced to produce and direct the film, which would be called By Woman’s Hand, herself. She became a documentarian by happenstance and went on to direct pieces such as The Petticoat Expeditions, a three-part NFB series about British women travelling in the 19th century in what was then Upper Canada, and A Silent Triumph, a profile of Joseph Giunta, a Montreal artist who toiled in private for 30 years following the death of his young son.
In 2008, Capturing Reality: The Art of the Documentary, her landmark film about the creative process, had its international premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. In it, she interviewed 38 of the industry’s leading lights, including Albert Maysles, Errol Morris and Nick Broomfield.
“The thing about documentary is we labour behind the scenes and we’re very rarely seen by a general public,” she told interviewer Colin Marshall in 2009.
Her subjects were people who managed to find an insistent voice through watercolours and oils, as well as through letters and books and adventure. They didn’t give a fig about the approbation of their families or society at large and, in a way, they reflected her own independent spirit, as she transformed herself into what NFB commissioner Claude Joli-Coeur described in a statement as a “true champion of documentary cinema,” a writer, director, producer and most important of all, mentor to those who came after.
After a long battle with cancer, Ms. Ferrari died on Dec. 30 at the home she shared in Lac Brome, Que., with her long-time partner, Louis Piché, two dogs and four cats. She was 66 years old, an inveterate keeper of diaries and taker of notes who continued to plan for the future until she could do so no longer.
“Writing stories was always something Pepita was passionate about,” Mr. Piché said. “A lot of the films she did were from stories that caught her heart. It’s why she made films. It wasn’t a business to her.”
She was born on March 2, 1952, in Sydney, Australia, the eldest of Leo Ferrari and Kathleen Crowley Ferrari’s three children. Her father had a college degree in chemistry and was expected to pursue a career in that field. Instead, when Pepita was 3, he uprooted the family and moved to Quebec City to study philosophy and theology at Laval University. He wanted to get away from his overbearing family, but also to follow a passion – setting an example that the little girl never forgot.
In Quebec City, she learned to speak French and started a love affair with the province that would eventually become her permanent home. Then, in 1958, the father uprooted the family again, this time for a three-year sojourn in Halifax, and again in 1961, when he joined the faculty of philosophy at St. Thomas University, a private, Catholic liberal-arts institution in Chatham, N.B.
When St. Thomas moved to Fredericton in 1964, the family went along. Throughout, the father was an engaging extrovert, a prankster who loved to sing silly songs with his three children. He encouraged them to be creative; to that end, before they went to sleep in the bedroom they shared, young Pepita would tell her little sister, Jacinta, stories she made up, picking up each night where she’d left off the night before. For their entertainment, she also created girls’ “magazines,” complete with articles and illustrations about subjects that interested them both, including fashion, bicycles, horses and dogs.
At one point, when Ms. Ferrari was in her late teens, the parents broke up. It seemed her father needed to be free of his past, while her mother remained a staunch Catholic. As the eldest, she was caught in the middle of what proved to be a bitter split. Mr. Piché said it affected her for years.
Although she completed a year of courses at St. Thomas, her father would not pay for Ms. Ferrari to study art, so she struck out on her own, taking some courses and eventually moving to Montreal in 1974. She was working as an animator at CinéGroupe in the mid-1980s when she met Mr. Piché, a colleague who was also an animator. They bonded over their shared love of literature.
“Pepita’s office was by the door, so I always stopped and chatted on my way out,” Mr. Piché said. “As we got to know each other better, we danced around the idea of a relationship because we were in the same office and didn’t want to have it blow up and still be obliged to work with each other.”
In 1989, the couple started their own company, Films Piché Ferrari; Ms. Ferrari did her documentaries for the NFB through it, starting with By Woman’s Hand, in 1994. They moved to a home in Lac Brome in 1997, where they continued their work while looking out over an expansive back garden.
Her last film for the NFB was a 2011 short portrait of Margie Gillis, the Canadian solo dancer and choreographer. Along the way, Ms. Ferrari was also the executive director and a board member of the Documentary Organization of Canada, the collective voice for independent filmmakers across the country.
Besides Mr. Piché, Ms. Ferrari leaves her siblings, Leon and Jacinta Ferrari, and her sister’s children, Muireann and Cai Meiklejohn.