Bonde commande



Director and cameraman engagé,  Martin Duckworth is the author of a  large and significant body of work, dealing with issues of peace and  justice: for example, «Temiscaming, Quebec», «Wives' Tale» (co- directed with Sophie Bissonnette and Joyce Rock), «No More  Hiroshima», «Return to Dresden», «Our Last Days in Moscow», «Oliver  Jones in Africa», «Acting Blind».


Making documentaries is a privilege which came to me late in life.  I had been a church organist, a long-distance runner, a photographer, a devotee of Tom Thompson and Paul Robeson, a believer in the Regina Manifesto of the CCF, a single father of two young girls, and a teacher of history in Sackville, New Brunswick.   Father Maurice Chamard, doyen des étudiants à l'université de Moncton, was my confidente and best friend.  He was also a film buff.  In 1961, he and I organized a summer conference on Quebec culture and politics at Mt. Allison.  We brought down Fernand Dansereau from l'ONF to present a film he had just produced.  It was Gilles Groulx’s documentary “Golden Gloves”.  That film changed my life.  I was struck by the beautiful way in which it integrated musical and visual rhythms with story telling of social significance.  It made me realise that by making documentaries, I could perhaps make creative use of all my disparate passions.  I was 28 years old, and the Film Board was in its golden age of documentary film-making.

Fernand introduced me to Tom Daly, who got me hired at the Board as an assistant cameraman.  Working with Jean-Claude Labrecque, I fell in love with the wonderful smooth pans you could make with the Worrell gear head, and with the dream-like images you could make with the condensed depth of field of a 600 mm lens.  Doing camera on films directed by Derek May, Don Owen, Mort Ransen, Joe Reeve, Mike Rubbo, Don Shebib and Tanya Tree, I learned about the importance of having a dramatic story to tell, selecting two or three central characters around whom to build the story, and establishing intimate relations with your characters by involving them in creative decisions.   Painting and classical music had always played a central role in my life, but now I realized the importance of paying careful attention to the masters’ uses of light and shadow, shades of colour and contrast, foreground and background, framing and composition, principal and secondary themes, major and minor keys, solos and choruses, the building of tension, climax and release.  

I also learned that few of us making documentaries can bring all these essential elements together in a film of any relevance or originality without a good producer.  It takes money to make a film, and a good producer can provide the kind of objective guidance through the pre-production, production and post-production phases that most of us need to ensure that our films will get funded and seen.  Fernand Dansereau was a provider of that kind of guidance to young film-makers in French Production at the Film Board in the sixties, and in English Production it was Tom Daly.  Tom guided me through the making of my three first films.

“The Wish”, shot in 1968, dealt with my separation from my first children, my twin daughters.  I had raised them alone for most of their first three years in Sackville.  They returned to their mother in Toronto when I moved to Montreal to join the Film Board.  We continued to spend idyllic times together at our family cottage on Lake Memphremagog, so that cottage became the metaphor in my film for the profound, but only partially fulfilled, love that the three of us had for one another.  I used the frozen frame, the long focal lens, old archival stills, the cycle of day and night, the call of the loon, and the breaking of a wish-bone in an attempt to condense and extend the passage of time.  

“Passing Through Sweden” came out of the four months I spent in Sweden with Mort Ransen in l969 shooting a series of films about Swedish social democracy, co-sponsored by the Film Board and the Swedish Film Institute.  Mort and I both came back with enough un-scripted material, shot on our spare time, out of which we were able to put together un-programmed films expressing our own feelings about Sweden.  I had spent a decade earlier painting a school house in rural Sweden, while longing for the woman in Helsinki whom I had met when going to college at Yale, and who was to become the mother of my twin children.  So “Passing Through Sweden” has a dream-like quality to it, with characters that don’t develop and hardly speak, with impressionistic images in black and white, and with suggestive ambient sounds.  The closing sequence of the boy and girl giving each other an affectionate farewell at the dark entrance to a railway station came pretty close to expressing my own ambiguous feelings about love at that point in my life.

But the film I shot for Mort that summer, his satirical yet lyrical “Untouched and Pure”, got me even deeper into the painful ambiguities of love.  His main character was a Swedish painter of dreams and nightmares.  She was pregnant.  I stayed with her in Stockholm until the baby was born, and she and the baby then came back with me to Montreal.  She persuaded me to leave the Film Board and go freelance, in order to make sure that I lived in what was the real world for most people, one in which a secure job was hard to find.  We bought a used Volkswagen bus with my NFB pension fund and moved to Mexico.  We had a near-fatal car accident near Tepotzlan, and I spent the first six months of my new life as a free-lancer in a bed at the Montreal Neurological Hospital mending a fractured skull. 

That was during the October Crisis of 1970, so I missed out on an event that became a major turning point in the lives of everybody who had been working for a more equitable society in Quebec.   Even when out of the hospital, I had to concentrate on regaining my memory and ability to think straight.  Tom Daly helped me recover by programming a film I proposed to make about my friend Pat Crawley recovering from a similar brush with death.  Pat had been filming an aerobatic view of Ontario when his single-engine plane crashed, killing the pilot.   His footage of that crash made it possible for me to experiment for the first time with dramatic re-creation, to discover the power of music in expressing the tension between actuality and eternity, and the miraculous potential of a good frame and a good cut to express the wonder of life. 

Then I met Pierre Maheu, who helped me become re-integrated into post-October Quebec by asking me to do the camera on the two films he made in the tragic last years of his life (“Le bonhomme” and “l’Interdit”).  I shared an apartment with him and Paul Chamberlain at Parc Lafontaine.  Living and working with them, and shooting films for Gilles Groulx, Maurice Bulbulian, Tahanni Rached, Laura Sky, Jim Littleton, Jim Monro and Anand Patwarden about the great labour and political struggles of that rebellious decade, confirmed what I had come to believe was the most important element in the making of a good documentary—that you select topics and situations that make it possible for you to share lives with both your characters and your crew members, many of whom become friends for life, and you do something together in a way that is an expression of what you believe a better world could be like.

It was an exciting time to have a camera and a budget.  The established order was being seriously challenged.  The Film Board responded by setting up Challenge for Change, designed to put professional film-makers at the service of community groups.  I made two films under that programme. 

The first one grew out of my attempt to introduce the Challenge for Change idea to the inmates and guards of Collins Bay penitentiary in Kingston that the video camera could help solve their problems of communication.  I can't claim that I succeeded, but my time at Collins Bay made it possible for me to get to know Peter Madden, a talented writer doing time for robbery.  I got permission to spend a night with him in his cell with an Éclair camera, and was able to get enough footage to make a film called “Cell 16”.  That film helped him get out on parole, when he met and later married a friend of mine, and became a founding member of the Montreal play-wrights’ workshop.

“Temiscaming, Quebec” fitted better into the Challenge for Change framework.  I spent six months living in that mill town filming the efforts of workers and managers to re-open a paper mill that had been closed down by a US company.  The making of the film may have helped get government support for a worker-management co-ownership deal, but it also revealed the irrevocable class differences at the heart of our economic system.

I made two other films in that period which presented the workers’ point of view.   “12,000 Men” was about the bloody struggle of the Cape Breton coal miners for union recognition in the early 1920s.  It was produced by the Halifax office of the NFB, and played daily in the Cape Breton Miners Museum in Glace Bay for years.   “Wives’ Tale” was about the crucial role played by miners’ wives in the successful six-month strike of the Sudbury nickel miners in 1979.  Sophie Bissonnette, Joyce Rock and I made the film by living with miners’ families throughout the strike, and surviving on unemployment insurance.  We covered the costs of equipment and stock through appeals made to labour, church, and feminist organizations across the country, and with a grant from the Canada Council.  Arthur Lamothe, as our producer, helped get Tele-Quebec and SODEC to come to our rescue at the post-production stage

It was also in the seventies that I started a new family with Audrey Schirmer, whom I met at an anti-Vietnam war rally in Toronto.   She had been working as a photographer for a New York weekly called American Report, covering mainly US resistance to the war.  She made me painfully aware of the US military-industrial machine behind Ronald Reagan’s escalation of the arms race in the nineteen-eighties, so the films I made in that decade were mainly designed to aid the peace movement. 

Jean-Rock Marcotte, Liette Aubin and I formed Les Productions du Regard to produce “Back to Kampuchea”, with Developpement et Paix as primary investors.  The President of D & P at the time was the Dominican priest Roger Poirier.  He also ran le Centre St. Pierre, a home base for most of the movements of social action in the Centre Sud area of Montreal.  While helping to get the film made, he became for me another Maurice Chamard--a confidante and guide as Audrey and I learned to cope with our autistic daughter. 

"Back to Kampuchea" was inspired by the story of Chan Bun Han, a friend who had left Cambodia in 1970 to study in New York, and who returned to Phnom Penh to look for his family soon after the Vietnamese freed his country from the Khmer Rouge in 1979.  I think that is the most painful location experience I've ever had, shuffling through bombed-out and garbage-clustered streets, museums of torture, and mass graves with the stink of decaying bodies.   Bun Han learned that most of his family, including 15 siblings, had disappeared in the killing fields, and I learned that Pol Pot’s insane regime had been backed by both China and the US.

“Back to Kampuchea” was the only film long-métrage I've made, and the only one that has produced picket lines as well as audiences.  Maoists helped bring out the crowds  by trying to block the entrance to the repertory cinema that Roland Smith used to run on Papineau street.  Chan Bun Han married a woman friend of mine that he met while the film was being edited in Montreal.  Documentary film-making, I tell you, is the marriage of life and art.

Having no interest in running a business, I left Jean-Rock to preside over the subsequent good fortunes of Les Productions du Regard, and I found a producer in French Production at l’ONF interested in international affairs.  Jacques Vallée played a role for me in the eighties comparable to what Tom Daly had done in the sixties.  Backing me with respect and trust, he made it possible for me to make three of my best films, all of which combine intense personal dramas with large political issues.

“No More Hiroshima” is about the participation of Hiroshima survivors in the great peace march of 1984 in New York City, when a million people rallied in Central Park to protest against Ronald Reagan’s preparations for a “limited nuclear war” against the USSR.  That film is a good example of how documentary film-making can establish rare intimacies with film characters when you are working with them toward a common goal.  H. Murata, the film’s main character, chose this moment to tell his Hiroshima story publicly for the first time.  His confessions were so moving that some “connaisseurs” of Japanese culture protested that Japanese men do not “break down” like that, and that the scene must have been scripted and staged.

The making of my next two films I like to think demonstrate the ability of art to rise above the restrictions of life.   Both were shot under Cold War communist regimes, and I came home both times feeling that the state “guides” had prevented me from getting the kind of material you need to make a good film.  I decided to edit both of them myself to in order to give my passion for music full rein, and both films worked out all right, but only because the footage on the musical performances turned out to be strong enough to provide the dramatic structure. 

“Return to Dresden” is about the pointless allied bombing of the Venice of the North in the closing days of World War II.  The central character, Giff Gifford, was a social worker and a friend of mine who had been a bomber navigator in the raid that destroyed downtown Dresden in 1945. I travelled with him as he returned to Dresden in 1985 for the re-opening of the Semper Opera House.  I discovered in the cutting room that the libretto of the opera performed that night served beautifully as the narrative of the film.  It was von Weber’s “Der Freischutz”, about a knight who causes grief by following military orders without question.  Giff had founded Veterans Against Nuclear War, also in response to Reagan’s preparations for a  “limited nuclear war”, and the film may have helped VANA to become one of the most effective anti-war organizations in the Canadian peace movement.

“Our Last Days in Moscow” was inspired by the participation of Montreal pianist Kuo Yen Lee in the Tchaikovsky piano competition of 1986.  She was accompanied by her pianist husband, Pierre Jasmin, who was then president of les Artistes pour la Paix in Montreal.  The story line of the film was supposed to be about the renewal of Pierre friendships with Russian musicians he had met when studying in Moscow 10 years earlier.  The “guide” assigned to us by the Soviet authorities made it as difficult as possible for us to film off-stage encounters, so the story became as much about how the competition affected the Montreal couple as about their relations with the Russian musicians.  This time it turned out to be Kuo Yen’s interpretation of pieces by Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev in the competition that provided the structural basis for the film.  I like to think that the film helped les Artistes pour la Paix to become as strong a force in the Quebec peace movement as VANA was in Canada.

My next two efforts at films on international subjects were in English Production at the Film Board, and proved very difficult to pull off.  The Board started suffering from budget cuts in the late eightees, which forced it in to co-productions. “Oliver Jones in Africa” was my first experience with a co-production.  It allowed me to explore some more the ties between music and film forms and social context, and there are some scenes with punch, but without a single producer to provide me with strong support, I was not able to push the editing to what I thought was its full potential.  The disagreements between the two co-producers about how to cover the costs of music rights made it difficult to concentrate on getting the job properly done. 

“Peace-keeper at War” survived much greater difficulties because of strong support from Judith Merritt, the film’s editor and producer.  I got a film programmed about the first Gulf war, as experienced by a Montreal Palestinian returning to her home in Kuwait.  The Kuwait government wouldn’t allow her in when we got there, so I had to re-structure the story around my own experiences in post-war Kuwait film, and write a first-person narrative in Mike Rubbo style.  By the time the first cut was ready, there had been a change of regime in English Production, and the new Head found it too directly critical of Canadian foreign policy and threatened to stop it.  Judith and I had to round up support of almost half of the English Production staff to get the Head to allow us to finish it as a “personal view”.  

I am very proud of "Peace-keeper at War", which is a major effort at making history flow like a symphony through the integration of archival material with actuality footage of the forces at work today in the Gulf area.  Unfortunately, what the film says is still relevant.  But the Film Board has exercised a subtle type of censorship on it by signing for the rights on archival footage for only the first five years. That meant that it had to be withdrawn from general distribution in 1996.

It was about this time that I met Pierre Vallieres and Francis Simard.  I had long considered a Pierre’s “Les negres blancs de l’Amerique” one of the most powerful calls for radical change I had ever read.  And Francis’ “Pour en finir avec octobre” I thought made a strong case for the relevance of the FLQ manifesto.  ACPAV invited me to make a film with Pierre and Francis about the fight against poverty in le Centre Sud.  We developed a treatment with the fully engaged Soeurs Auxiliatrices.  But it didn’t work out between me and Simard.  It still feels as the most painful professional failure of my life.  There was a chance to make a film that could have really made a difference, and I blew it.  I think my curiosity about what I had missed in 1970 was found by Francis to be out of place.  I stayed friends with Pierre until his death, finding his dedication to social struggle in spite of his disintegrating health to be a source of strength. 

Jacques Vallée got one more film programmed for me in French Production before he retired to devote his life to sculpting.  “Riel Country” (1996) grew out of his idea for a film about the threat to the French language outside Quebec.  I proposed building a story around Louis Riel’s vision of a multi-ethnic society.  I had been shooting films on native issues over the previous decade for Peter Raymont, Boyce Richardson and Barry Greenwald, and had become aware of the central role played by Louis Riel in establishing the character of this country.  I found a group of French high school students in St. Boniface and a group of native high school students in Winnipeg, both aware of their inheritance from Louis Riel, and filmed them sharing their experiences within the context of the Festival des Voyageurs in St. Boniface.  The passage of the Via Rail train passing through the Festival grounds every day on its way to Vancouver provided the metaphor for the historical context of the story, the railway having been built both to open up the West and to put down the Riel Rebellion.   The film was co-produced by Joe Macdonald of NFB English Production in Winnipeg.  He and Vallee showed that a co-production can be made to work, even across ethnic barriers, through the sharing of trust and good will.  But even good film producers seem powerless in the face of the new behemoth of TV.  CBC was able to get away with cutting several minutes of “Riel Country” in a very sloppy way without asking for the approval of anyone at the NFB.

That was my last film at the Film Board, until this year.  My life as a documentary film-maker took big turns in the mid-nineties when 16mm was replaced with video, when market-oriented TV series seemed to take over the programming and scripting of documentaries, and when Audrey and I had to find a place in the world for our handicapped daughter, then becoming a young woman.  Cineflix producer Glen Salzman found a TV market for stories about eccentric individuals, and introduced me to Diane Lenoir.  An artist of extraordinary talent, she maintains her sanity by dealing in her paintings with her childhood traumas.  “Brush with Life” was my first experience with mini video.  I learned that it can open marvellous doors of one-on-one intimacy that are not accessible to an Éclair or an Aaton. 

I used mini video again in shooting Bob Lang’s “A Place in the World” for his Toronto company.  The film is about Maison Emmanuel, a remarkable residential community for special needs children in Val Morin, Quebec.  The making of that film brought about one of the most magical moments of my life—it opened a place at Maison Emmanuel for my own autistic daughter, and she has blossomed there ever since as a complete individual. 

I have adapted to Betacam SP and DVCam systems these last years by shooting films for Gary Beitel, Sophie Bissonnette, Magnus Isacsson, Judy Jackson, Paul Jay, Bob Lang, Michael Ostroff, Tanya Tree and Don Winkler.  And I have managed to make four more films of my own since “Brush with Life”, even though I have often suffered refusals from the networks on the grounds that my ideas “lack edge”, whatever that means.  Two of my recent films were commissioned: “The Furthest Possible Place”, about an immigrant from Bolivia, for a History channel series on immigrants, and “Des gains pour tout le monde”, a history of the Montreal postal workers for le Syndicat des Postiers.  The other two films came from my heart, and were made possible by producers who trusted me enough to give me free rein. 

“Cher Père Noel” was inspired by my autistic daughter’s passionate belief in Santa Claus, and my own fascination with the million letters written every year to Santa Claus by Canadians of all ages asking him not only to fill stockings, but also to cure illness, poverty and family problems. Producer Marcel Simard of Productions Virage in Montreal had the brilliant idea of shooting it in Acadie, where fantasy has found a welcome home since the first appearance in Baie de Chaleur of the ghost ship of dead fishermen some 200 years ago.  Co-producer Cecile Chevrier of Productions Pharest in Moncton had the second brilliant idea of shooting the film in Caraquet, where fantasy flourishes in music and theatre.  It was the perfect place for casting and finding appropriate locations for a fantasy documentary, in which the parish priest and a group of his parishioners play the role of Santa’s elves answering the letters that arrive at the North Pole from Caraquet. I believe that the real Santa Claus, based on the myth of St. Nicholas, allows for the expression of a genuine yearning for brotherly love among our children.  So I tried to make this Caraquet story look as believable as possible, while giving plenty of space for alternating moments of hilarity, anguish and joy.

“Peaceable Kingdom”, produced by Peter Raymont at White Pine Pictures in Toronto, is about my ancestor Nicholas Austin, the Quaker who established the first settlement at Lake Memphremagog in 1793.  It is again a mixture of actuality footage and re-creation, using neighbours in Austin to play Nicholas and his family.  The Austin town hall was packed for the launching of the film, and cassettes of the film have sold in large quantities at the general store.   So there is a chance that my motivation in making it may be fulfilled: that by reminding local residents of Nicholas Austin’s original vision of a commonly shared land it could help keep out resort developers from this corner of paradise in the Eastern Townships.

I like “Cher Pere Noel” and “Peaceable Kingdom” very much, and they seem to complete a circle with my first films, which also dealt with very personal themes through mixtures of reality and fantasy, actuality footage and re-creation.  So if I were still on staff at the Film Board, I might be tempted to retire and enjoy a pension, now that I am 71.

But in my 34 years as a free-lancer, I never got around to preparing a pension that I could live on.  And in any case, most of the better world envisioned by Louis Riel, enlarged in the Regina Manifesto, and expressed in the work of Roger Poirier and in the music of Paul Robeson, remains to be built.  So I am not ready to quit yet.  Strangely, my future at the Film Board suddenly looks bright again.   I got a film programmed on the English side last year called “Acting Blind”, and on the French side, with Magnus Isacsson, I am making a film about the popular movement against Gaz Metropolitain’s Rabasaka project in Levis.  So I’m going to try to continue making films at least as long as Fernand Dansereau, now directing his new feature film at the age of 78.  He got an early start on me, and I want to catch up.

Montreal, June 2006