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DOXA film festival shines spotlight on Allan King

Allan King in 2007

The Globe and Mail

It may be hard to fathom for journalism students today, but there was a time when you did not need a j-school or filmmaking degree - or, in fact, any related education or experience - to get a foot in the door at the CBC. Such was the case for Allan King, who in 1954 landed a job at the local CBC Television station in Vancouver - in those days housed in an old auto dealership - despite having zero experience as a filmmaker.

"He started in some kind of junior capacity temporarily and then was very quickly a producer," says George Robertson, who worked with King and also shared a house with him in the city's West End, where he remembers King cut a hole in the wall between the bedroom and living room and hung a sheet so they could bring in a projector and watch films. "Those were wonderful days," says Robertson, who later worked with King on the award-winning film Rickshaw and remained a close friend until King's death in 2009.

In his 20s, with an education in philosophy, King received essential on-the-job training from his more experienced colleagues at CBUT's film unit. Ten years before his seminal Warrendale, he was producing documentaries about British Columbia that aired nationally.

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"It was an absolutely important time. It had a lot to do with his self-discovery. The more experiments he began to take, the more confident he became," says Robertson, who adds that half the time "we didn't know what the hell we were doing."

Three of those early works - King's first film Skidrow and the rarely seen Gyppo Logging and Portrait of a Harbour - will be screened at Vancouver's DOXA Documentary Film Festival, which opens on Friday. The mini-retrospective offers an illuminating glimpse of the early work of King, who went on to become one of the masters of Canadian documentary.

The documentaries, all of which aired on CBC's Here and There in 1957, were shot on 16 mm film and featured poetic, even flowery, narration.

"The man who gathers bottles for a living follows the shadowy route of men who have hit the skids," begins Skidrow. The 37-minute film features interviews with men who have fallen on very hard times - sleeping outdoors, drinking rubbing alcohol, sitting through a Salvation Army sermon in exchange for a hot meal.

Technically, the synced sound that allowed for those interviews was revolutionary at the time. Content-wise, the subject matter hit close to home for King.

"He grew up during the Depression with an alcoholic father and so he was very interested, he always said, in the kinds of guys that he found on skid row because his father had ended up on skid row in the thirties," says Zoë Druick, author of Allan King's A Married Couple. "So there's an autobiographical interest in what makes someone's life go terribly wrong, which persists throughout all of his films."

Portrait of a Harbour documents a typical day around the port of Vancouver, including a crab-processing plant where a fast worker will separate some 40 pounds of crab meat in an hour. ("They'll tell you it takes a woman to do it well," the narrator offers.)

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Gyppo Logging explores the difficult and isolated life for loggers on Minstrel Island - an amazing feat, when you consider the immobility of the equipment at the time.

"I think compared to what [audiences]were seeing most of, which was studio television, this seemed very on-the-spot and very authentic," says Druick.

What doesn't feel authentic to today's ear is the dialogue. There are no interviews in either Gyppo Logging or Portrait of a Harbour, but snippets of conversation that feel incredibly stilted, maybe even staged.

"Documentaries have always been staged, but these ones were really staged, because they did so many takes of those interviews," says Colin Browne, who teaches film at Simon Fraser University and was a friend of King's. "So did they write [the lines] Not necessarily, I don't think. Did the [interviewees]have enough time to memorize them? Quite possibly.

"And while it feels very stilted to us, you can see Allan and [ Skidrow cinematographer]Jack [Long]reaching for what came to be called cinéma vérité." Or what King called "actuality drama."

Robertson recalls an experiment he and King undertook for their first collaboration, the 1957 film The Pemberton Valley. "It seemed to me and I'm sure to Allan as well that rather than interviewing people and getting them to talk about their lives in their own words … we ought to write dialogue for them, which I'm a little embarrassed to confess now. Because when I see it again … it seems pretty hokey."

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Nevertheless these films are important artifacts, both from a historical and cinematic perspective. And those who know King's work say they clearly telegraph - and made possible - his future career as a celebrated filmmaker.

"For Allan [his experience at CBUT]was absolutely crucial," says Browne. "These were his first films. This was his foundation."

Spotlight on Vancouver: Allan King's Early Works is at DOXA on Sunday at 6:45 p.m., at Vancouver's Pacific Cinémathèque. DOXA runs from Friday through May 15. For schedule and ticket information visit

Top picks at DOXA

Louder Than a Bomb Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel's opening-night film follows four extraordinary high-school students in their quest for slam-poetry domination in and around Chicago.

The National Parks Project Thirteen filmmakers profile 13 Canadian national parks, one in each province and territory, with stunning footage and great Canadian music created and recorded right in the parks.

At Night, They Dance A chance to see Isabelle Lavigne and Stéphane Thibault's documentary about a family of belly dancers in Cairo before it heads to Cannes later this month.

The Hollow Tree A treasured stop for any Vancouver tourist, Stanley Park's hollow tree came close to being axed three years ago. Daniel Pierce documents the fight to save it in this world premiere.

Freedom Riders Stanley Nelson was on with Oprah this week to talk about his film, which documents the effort 50 years ago of young civil-rights activists to fight segregation on a Greyhound bus.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams The festival closes with Werner Herzog's acclaimed 3-D film which brings to life ancient drawings found in the Chauvet Caves in southern France.

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