On Remembrance Day, 1987, documentary filmmaker Brian McKenna brought his young family to the cenotaph in Westmount, Que. The memorial is a tribute to the sacrifice of local citizens who died on the battlefield during the First World War.
“We were all decked out in scarlet poppies watching old soldiers in blue berets and clanking medals, remembering and praying,” Mr. McKenna said in 1992.
After the ceremony, one of his daughters, Robin, ran her fingers over one of the names inscribed in granite: Adrian Harold McKenna. “Is he related to us, Daddy?” she asked. Daddy said he did not know, but that he would find out.
The soldier turned out to be Mr. McKenna’s great uncle, who died from a bullet to the lung in 1916. The ancestral discovery instigated a passion for telling the stories of Canada at war. In 1988, with his younger brother Terence McKenna, he made The Killing Ground, a CBC docudrama on Canada’s role in the war that did not end all wars after all.
“The Killing Ground is a work of such truth-seeking passion and unsentimental eloquence that to watch it is to weep for the courage of our forebears and the criminal idiocy of our species,” Globe and Mail television critic John Haslett Cuff wrote.
After creating Wartime Productions Inc. with his first wife, Susan Purcell, in 1989, Mr. McKenna would establish himself as one of Canada’s foremost documentary chroniclers of the country’s military history. The Montrealer intrepidly asked the difficult questions related to almost every major military conflict in Canada’s history.
“I have this feeling there that there’s this Jungian subconsciousness in this country that has all this pain, all these stories of [the First World War] passed on genetically,” Mr. McKenna told Saturday Night magazine in 1992. “This pool of suffering that we’ve never really tapped.”
Mr. McKenna, an award-winning documentarian who began his career as a parliamentary correspondent with the Montreal Star and later came into his own as a founding producer of CBC’s investigative series The Fifth Estate and then thrived as an independent filmmaker, died May 5 in the palliative care unit at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital after a short illness. He was 77.
“Brian was a force of nature and a revolutionary and passionate journalist,” said Tony Burman, a former editor-in-chief of CBC News. “He had this inner need to figure out how things really worked.”
As a writer, director and producer, Mr. McKenna’s name is attached to more than 60 productions on more than just war. A segment he produced for The Fifth Estate investigating CIA brainwashing at a Montreal psychiatric hospital made the front page of The New York Times in 1985. He also directed and wrote 2000′s Fire and Ice: The Rocket Richard Riot.
As a historian, he was an insistent revisionist; as a filmmaker he advanced the documentary form. His techniques included having long-dead figures played by actors who spoke directly to the camera.
For the 2007 CBC film The Great War he recruited 150 descendants of Canadian soldiers, nurses and airmen to bring wartime diaries and letters to life. One of the recruits was the unproven actor and nascent politician Justin Trudeau, who wore a mustache and muddy boots to portray the dashing Quebecker Major Talbot Papineau, his fifth cousin, twice removed.
Speaking to The Globe in 2007, the future prime minister credited Mr. McKenna with guiding him through the process, saying his direction was an “absolute saviour for me.”
His most well-known and controversial work was 1992′s The Valour and the Horror, a three-part CBC series that critically examined Canada’s role in the Second World War. The series, co-written and narrated by his brother Terence, was watched by roughly 20 per cent of the English-language television audience.
It was loudly denounced by some military veterans who accused it of demeaning their wartime service. Particularly contentious was the episode entitled Death by Moonlight, which suggested bombing raids were ordered indiscriminately against German civilian targets, and that Canadian soldiers committed unprosecuted war crimes and their leaders were incompetent.
Commenting on the filmmakers at the time, military historian Jack Granatstein said, “What they seemed to be doing was hitting everyone who fought the war with a wet fish in the face.”
The series triggered a CRTC hearing and an investigation by the Senate of Canada, as well as a failed $500-million lawsuit against the filmmakers filed by veterans who claimed numerous mistakes and distortions defamed Canadian bomber crews.
Speaking in a Senate hearing as veterans in the audience jeered, guffawed and yelled, Mr. McKenna defended the accuracy of The Valour and the Horror as “bulletproof,” and said the miniseries was a reaction to the lionizing that marked traditional war documentaries.
“Surely after 50 years it was time to look at the events and personalities with candour,” he said.
As the fiery debate over the series raged, Mr. McKenna was introduced to author Salman Rushdie, who had secretly travelled to Toronto as a surprise guest at a PEN Canada gala to raise funds in support of freedom of expression. Mr. Rushdie was in hiding because of a bounty placed on his head by the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran for his allegedly blasphemous 1988 novel The Satanic Verses.
“Welcome to the club,” the beleaguered novelist said to Mr. McKenna as they shook hands.
The documentarian was awarded the Gordon Sinclair Award For Broadcast Journalism in 1993, the same year the English version of The Valour and the Horror won three Gemini Awards and the French-language edition was honoured for best direction and best documentary at the Prix Gémeaux. The awards represented a vindication of the McKennas by their television peers.
Having seen The Valour and the Horror, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau met with the Mr. McKenna in Montreal to discuss the shooting of what would become the five-part 1994 documentary Pierre Trudeau: The Memoirs. The first thing the iconic politician said to the filmmaker was, “If you go after me like you went after those British generals, we’ll have a good time.”
Mr. McKenna possessed journalistic irreverence. While Mr. Trudeau and Cuban President Fidel Castro were having a casual conversation in Havana, the former prime minister asked that his feet not be filmed, as he was wearing flip-flops. The feet made it into the footage.
In 1970, the 24-year-old Mr. McKenna covered the Royal tour of the Arctic for the Montreal Star. When Queen Elizabeth II was shown the latest $20 bill, she was not happy with her visage. “I’ve been aged,” she complained.
The quip was off-record, but Mr. McKenna reported it anyway. The Queen’s press secretary later informed him that “Her Majesty is not amused.” Mr. McKenna was, and asked the royal flack if it was true that the Queen travelled with a toilet seat covered with the skin of unborn lamb.
If he had a sense of humour, his journalism was serious, the search for justice an overarching theme of his career. Mr. McKenna’s work with The Fifth Estate included investigations into state-sponsored terrorism in El Salvador’s civil war and Nazi collaborators hiding in Canada.
“He had been bullied as a kid in school, and he wrote an essay about it, which got the bullies to back off,” Terence McKenna said. “He realized then that there was power in writing, which stimulated him.”
Brian Francis McKenna was born Aug. 8, 1945, in Montreal. He was the first of five children to call Agatha McKenna (née Macdonell) and Leo McKenna mother and father. She was an Ontario farmer’s daughter with a big laugh who worked as a secretary during the Depression; he was on the path to priesthood before a change of heart. A degree in theology and a fluency in Greek and Latin won him work as a dishwasher in Montreal.
They married on Valentine’s Day, 1944. While Ms. McKenna ran the household, Mr. McKenna excelled as an insurance broker and was active in the church.
Their first-born was a sportswriter on the newspaper at St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. He went on to earn degrees in English literature and communication arts at Loyola College, a Jesuit institution in Montreal since incorporated into Concordia University.
Mr. McKenna was editor-in-chief at the college’s weekly paper, the Loyola News. There, in 1966, freshman Mr. Burman first encountered an older Mr. McKenna. “I could sense the impatience and restlessness that he had in trying to make sense of what was turning out to be an incredibly turbulent decade in Quebec as well as the world at large.”
During the Summer of Love, both Mr. Burman and Mr. McKenna scored internships at the Montreal Star to cover the Expo 67 world fair. One day, while Mr. McKenna was assigned to interview the Emperor of Ethiopia, Mr. Burman was pegged to speak to star American politician Robert F. Kennedy.
Culturally Catholic and with some Irish blood in his veins, Mr. McKenna was fascinated with the Kennedys. He pleaded with his colleague to switch assignments, which Mr. Burman graciously did. “I remember telling Brian that he certainly owed me.”
Mr. McKenna’s fanatical interest in the assassination of John F. Kennedy would later result in a pair of conspiracy-minded documentaries on the subject.
From 1968 to 1973, he was full-time reporter at the Montreal Star, before moving on to CBC Radio’s current affairs show As It Happens as its Quebec correspondent. With wife Ms. Purcell, he co-authored a best-selling biography of the enigmatic former Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau in 1980.
Mr. McKenna was close friends was Nick Auf der Maur, the colourful columnist and man about Montreal. When Mr. Auf der Maur was dying of throat cancer in his mid-50s, Mr. McKenna encouraged his friend that he could be healed holistically.
“Brian brought this radical idea that if my father drank carrot juice and mediated, he could be cured,” said his daughter, the musician Melissa Auf der Maur. “My father laughed, but I think he thought to himself, ‘This dreamer is really trying to save me.’ It wasn’t possible that my father would ever try yoga, but I loved that Brian tried.”
Another family friend was American singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester, who fled to Montreal to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War.
One of Mr. McKenna’s disappointments was the abandonment by some of the CBC hierarchy during the controversy over The Valour and the Horror. The report by ombudsman William Morgan was critical of the miniseries, and president Gerard Veilleux issued an official apology for airing the documentary.
“To say we were flabbergasted and caught totally unaware is to minimize it,” Mr. McKenna told The Globe’s Kirk Makin. “Holy mackerel – we just got whacked. We felt betrayed.”
Among Mr. McKenna’s many accolades was the Governor-General’s History Award for Popular Media.
One of his favourite authors was the English fantasy novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, who contracted trench fever in the First World War. During Mr. McKenna’s final days, he was read Tolkien’s The Return of the King, a story about friends on the “long grey road” home. He died on the day the last page was read to him.
He leaves his life partner, Renée Baert; children, Robin McKenna, Katie McKenna, Conor McKenna, and their mother Susan Purcell; Emma McKenna, Tess McKenna, and their mother, Anne Lagacé Dowson; and siblings, William McKenna, Joan McKenna, John McKenna and Terence McKenna.