Harry Gulkin says he didn't even know a documentary was being made about him. It's an odd claim coming from a fixture of Montreal's film community. How could such a movie-savvy person not know a film was being made about him?
"Director Nicola Zavaglia asked if he could come out to my place in the [Eastern]Townships and try out his new video camera," Gulkin recalls, stroking his white mane with his hand. "That was a few summers ago. Then, he came out the next summer with the same camera to test out. By the third summer, I figured out that he wasn't testing anything out, but was actually interviewing me for a larger project."
The result is an hour-long documentary on Gulkin's often-tumultuous life and philosophies, titled Harry Gulkin: Red Dawn on Main Street. In personal, first-person, non-fiction filmmaking style, Zavaglia talks to the revered 77-year-old Gulkin about his major influences and his fights for workers' rights as a committed communist, as well as his career as a film producer (best remembered for the 1975 landmark Lies My Father Told Me) and mentor.
Exuding an aura of calm, Gulkin sits, Buddha-like, in his spacious house in Montreal's Mile End neighbourhood, reflecting on the film about his life.
He acknowledges suffering terribly after Stalin's death when it was revealed that the Soviet empire had in fact been a brutal dictatorship, not a utopia as many had been led to believe. He was shattered by the revelations. "There were a lot of positive things about our struggles. But I question the extent to which, as a trade union, we became involved with the politics of implicitly supporting the Soviet position and explicitly opposing the U.S. position. I don't think the union really had a place taking these positions, but we did."
He ended up shifting his considerable energy into the fledgling Canadian film business. As a producer, his high point came in 1975, when Lies My Father Told Me became an international sensation, winning over worldwide audiences and garnering a Golden Globe Award for best foreign film.
It was based on a Ted Allan short story about a young boy and his powerful bond with his aging Orthodox Jewish grandfather. Gulkin says the film had a strong local sensibility, capturing the streets of Montreal's Mile End neighbourhood magnificently, while attaining a phenomenal level of universal appeal. "That film had some very basic things about it that made it immediately recognizable to audiences everywhere."
In an irony befitting the Canadian film business, Lies My Father Told Me will be released in Canada in a 30th-anniversary DVD edition next month -- by an American company.
If Gulkin had abandoned the promise of a Soviet communist utopia, after the mid-seventies success of Lies he found that he was expected to be part of the planning toward a Canadian cultural utopia, one that people hoped would result in a burgeoning, thriving national film business.
"Then came the tax-shelter years, and they were very generous, but tended to put the creative decisions in the hands of accountants and lawyers. I think that held back the development of an indigenous art. Today, there's Cronenberg, Egoyan and Rozema, and then the odd thing here and there. But we don't really have a body of work like we thought we would."
The hit-status of Lies meant that he and the other filmmakers behind it became the brunt of sky-high expectations for the young Canadian film industry and culture. In 1975, there were only a few things going on in Canada, feature-film-wise: Paul Almond, David Cronenberg (who many still regarded as a dirty shame due to his roots in the horror genre) and Goin' Down the Road.
"But none of those things had really travelled. There was our film and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, released the year before. Those were two films that had found international audiences.
"That was a pretty intense feeling. We thought we were at the beginning of a Canadian national cinema that had legs. It didn't really happen. There wasn't a chapter two. Now I see that curling comedy, Men With Brooms, on TV. This was supposed to be a breakthrough?"
Does Gulkin see anything contemporary in English Canadian cinema that he likes? "I thought that Thom Fitzgerald's first feature, The Hanging Garden, was really interesting stuff."
He continued to produce, seeing through the features Two Solitudes (1978), Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1979) and Bayo (1985) to release. In 1987, he landed at the Quebec provincial film-funding body, now called SODEC, as a project manager, a position he's held ever since. As François Girard ( The Red Violin) -- who was mentored by Gulkin -- notes in Red Dawn on Main Street, Gulkin has left an indelible impression upon Quebec and Canada's film community.
"You meet with the filmmakers, are able to review their material and discuss it with them, and then make your recommendations," says Gulkin, who says he cherishes the position. "It's a very rewarding thing, when you can see the results."
Now that he's had a film made about his life by a friend, what's the thing that strikes Gulkin most while watching Red Dawn on Main Street?
"When you get your 15 minutes of fame you suddenly start to believe the propaganda that you've been spreading about yourself. I became such an expert after the success of Lies My Father Told Me. Now, I feel that Nicola could have been a bit tougher on me. The film does veer a bit toward hagiography at times."
Harry Gulkin: Red Dawn on Main Street airs tomorrow on Bravo! at 8 p.m. EST.