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Allan King

Director, Producer, Screenwriter
(b. February 6, 1930 Vancouver, British Columbia)

A leading pioneer in documentary filmmaking, Allan King directed some of Canada’s most innovative documentaries, dramas, and works that play on the border between these two modes of filmmaking. As a teenager, he helped run the Vancouver Film Society. After graduating with a degree in philosophy from the University of British Columbia, he began his film career in 1954 as an assistant editor at Vancouver’s first television station, CBUT. Two years later he directed Skidrow (1956), an intimate portrait of Vancouver’s homeless people living with alcoholism. It gained international attention and helped define what would later be called the West Coast School of filmmaking.

King left CBUT in 1958 to live on the Spanish island of Ibiza, while he set up Allan King Associates in London, England. During the next eight years, he directed 19 documentaries and short dramatic films as well as other works for various CBC-TV programs. Rickshaw (1960) was an unrelenting depiction of the poor in Calcutta. A Matter of Pride (1961), a portrait of a middle-class Canadian family devastated by unemployment, was denounced in Parliament by the Diefenbaker government. King’s television dramas include Joshua: A Nigerian Portrait (1963), a collaboration with Wole Soyinka, as well as two films written by Robert Goldston: Bjorn’s Inferno (1964) and Running Away Backwards (1964).

In 1966 King relocated to Toronto, where he directed Warrendale, a cinéma-vérité film shot in a home for emotionally disturbed children. The CBC cancelled Warrendale’s 1967 broadcast, citing the obscenities used by the children. Amid the uproar that followed, Warrendale won a special award from the National Society of Film Critics (U.S.), a British Academy Award and the Prix art et essai at Cannes. King then began producing what he labelled “actuality dramas” for theatrical release. A Married Couple (1969) was a study of the tempestuous relationship between two people who are particularly verbose. For Come On Children (1973), King organized his own hippie commune. The result was a deadly accurate time capsule of the Woodstock generation. (One of the film’s principals, a would-be rock star who argues with his parents about school and his career path, would change his name to Alex Lifeson and become one of the founding members of the celebrated Canadian rock band, Rush.)

Finding it difficult to support himself with theatrical documentaries, King turned to drama. His anthology television dramas for the CBC were highlighted by an adaptation of an Alice Munro short story, Baptizing (1975); the filming of Carol Bolt’s plays, Red Emma (1976) and One Night Stand (1978); and Maria (1977), from an original script by Rick Salutin. In 1977, King made his first theatrical feature, the critically acclaimed adaptation of W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind. A second feature, Silence of the North (1981), made for Universal Studios, was marred by bitter battles over creative control.

His difficulties with Silence of the North piqued King’s interest in small group dynamics and led him to the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. In conjunction with Tavistock’s experts, he devised a conference on unemployment that was recorded as the CBC documentary Who’s In Charge? (1983). The facilitators’s confrontational probing of the unemployed participants led to acrimonious debates in the press and an unsuccessful attempt by a small group of conference participants to prevent the documentary’s broadcast.

During the 1980s and 1990s, King directed more than 60 television series episodes. In 1993, he won a best director Gemini for an episode of Road to Avonlea. In 1989 he made a third feature, Termini Station, and in 1998, returned to documentary with The Dragon’s Egg (1999), the story of a small group of Estonians and ethnic Russians who learn to work together in the barren landscape of post-communist Estonia. A long-time advocate for Canadian film, King served as president of the Directors Guild of Canada from 1970 to 1972 and 1989 to 2002.

King was the subject of a retrospective at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2002, accompanied by the first book-length study of his work by Seth Feldman. In 2003, at the age of seventy-three, King returned to feature-length filmmaking with Dying at Grace, a look at the lives of terminal care patients at Toronto’s Princess Grace Hospital. Unflinching and emotionally devastating, the film is one of his finest works and compares favourably to his better known, legendary work of the 1960s and 1970s. In 2005, he completed Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company, an equally affecting look at a group of elderly men and women suffering from dementia and similar diseases. His final completed film, EmpZ 4 Life (2006), looked at teenagers living in a Toronto suburb rocked by recent shootings. The film focuses on the kids’ struggles as well as the efforts of several deeply committed individuals trying to end the cycle of violence (largely by providing the kids with the tools to make it through high school): Brian Henry, a volunteer for a youth agency called HOOD-LINC, as well as mathematician/playwright John Mighton, who runs a remedial math class. The film was made after a summer when the city was rocked by a number of shootings. (The period was luridly labeled by the media as the “Summer of the Gun.”) EmpZ 4 Life cuts through that sensationalism and shows the day-to-day realities of its young subjects – a reality which often includes outrageous and bigoted mistreatment by some police officers. In his seventies, King was taking more risks and was more open to contemporary events than many filmmakers half his age.

Sadly, King passed away on June 15, 2009, at the age of seventy-nine. At the time, he was working on a new film entitled Endings. His wife, playwright and filmmaker Colleen Murphy, and colleagues Sarah Goodman, Sarah Zammit and Avi Federgreen have announced plans to complete the project. Piers Handling perhaps summarized King’s career the best in the introduction to Feldman’s monograph on King, when he wrote that, though English Canada could boast many talented and accomplished filmmakers, few could be said to have changed the medium they worked in. King was one of the few.

In 2010, TIFF and the University of Toronto Press published Zoe Druick’s monograph on A Married Couple. The same year Criterion released a boxed set of DVDs including several of King’s key films: Warrendale; A Married Couple; Come on Children; Dying at Grace; and Memory for Max, Ida, Claire and Company. For further reading on King’s work see Seth Feldman’s Allan King: Filmmaker (2002, Toronto International Film Festival Group in conjunction with Indiana University Press).

Film and video work includes

Skidrow, 1956 (director; TV)
The Yukoners, 1956 (director; TV)
Gyppo Loggers, 1957 (director; TV)
The Pemberton Valley, 1957 (director; TV)
Portrait of a Harbour, 1957 (director; TV)
Saigon, 1959 (director; cinematographer)
Where Will They Go?, 1959 (director; TV)
Bullfight, 1960 (director; TV)
India: Revolution by Consent, 1960 (director; TV)
Interview with Orson Welles, 1960 (director; TV)
Rickshaw, 1960 (director; TV) 
Dreams, 1961 (director; writer; TV)
A Matter of Pride, 1961 (director; writer; TV)
Morocco, Land of the Atlas, 1961 (director; TV)
Josef Drenters, 1961 (director; TV)
Three Yugoslavian Portraits, 1961 (director; TV)
The Pursuit of Happiness: Beyond the Welfare State, 1962 (director; TV)
The Field Day, 1963 (director)
Le grand Charles, 1963 (director, writer; TV)
Hamburg Germany, 1963 (director; TV)
Joshua: A Nigerian Portrait, 1963 (director; TV)
The Peacemakers, 1963 (director; writer; TV)
Bjorn's Inferno or The Devil to Play, 1964 (director; TV)
Horseman, Pass By, 1964 (director; TV)
Lynn Seymour, 1964 (director)
Our Dancing Export, 1964 (director; TV)
Running Away Backwards, 1964 (director)
Telescope series, 1964 (director; TV, one episode)
The Mostly Unlikely Millionaire, 1965 (director; writer)
Children in Conflict: A Talk with Irene, 1967 (director)
Warrendale, 1967 (director; producer; TV)
I Was Born Greek, 1968 (co-director with Bill Brayne; producer)
The New Woman, 1968 (director; producer)
Who is James Jones, 1968 (director; producer; TV)
Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up?, 1968 (executive producer)
A Married Couple, 1969 (director; producer)
Mortimer Griffen, Shalinsky and How They Settled the Jewish Question, 1971 (director; TV)
Can I Count You In?, 1972 (director)
Delilah, 1972 (director; TV)
A Bird in the House, 1973 (director; TV)
Come on Children, 1973 (director; producer)
The Collaborators series, 1974 (director; TV, one episode)
Pity the Poor Piper, 1974 (director; TV)
Red Emma, 1974 (director; TV)
Baptizing, 1975 (director; TV)
Last of the Four-Letter Words, 1975 (director; TV)
Performance series, 1975 (director; TV, one episode)
Theatre in Canada, 1976 (director)
Maria, 1977 (director; TV)
On the Job, 1977 (director; TV)
Who Has Seen the Wind, 1977 (director)
One Night Stand, 1978 (director; co-producer with Stanley Colbert; TV)
Silence of the North, 1981 (director)
Home Fires series, 1983 (director; TV, one episode)
Ready For Slaughter, 1983 (director; TV)
Who's in Charge?, 1983 (director; producer; TV)
Tucker and the Horse Thief, 1985 (director; TV)
The Last Season, 1986 (director; TV)
Danger Bay series, 1986–1990 (director; TV, 14 episodes)
Friday the 13th series, 1987 (director; TV, one episode)
Alfred Hitchcock Presents series, 1987–1989 (director; TV, 11 episodes)
The Twilight Zone series, 1988 (director; TV, one episode)
Philip Marlow, Private Eye series, 1989 (director; TV, one episode)
Termini Station, 1989 (director; producer)
Bordertown series, 1989 (director; TV)
Neon Rider series, 1990 (director; TV, one episode)
Dracula: The Series series, 1990-1991 (director; TV, three episodes)
All the King’s Men, 1991 (director; TV)
Kurt Vonnegut’s Monkey House, 1991 (director; TV)
Lightning Force series, 1991 (director; TV, three episodes)
Road to Avonlea series, 1991–1996 (director; TV, 14 episodes)
By Way of the Stars mini-series, 1992 (director; TV, four episodes)
Madison series, 1993 (director; TV, two episodes)
The Odyssey series, 1994 (director; TV, one episode)
Kung Fu: The Legend Continues series, 1994–1997 (director; TV, seven episodes)
Ready or Not series, 1994–1997 (director; TV, three episodes)
Leonardo: A Dream of Flight, 1998 (director; TV)
The Dragon’s Egg, 1998 (director; producer; TV)
The City series, 1999 (director; TV, three episodes)
Twice in a Lifetime series, 1999–2000 (director; TV, five episodes)
Dying at Grace, 2003 (director; producer)
Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company, 2005 (director; producer)
EMPz 4 Life, 2006 (director; producer) 
Note: Updated to November, 2010.

By: Seth Feldman
Additional notes by Steve Gravestock