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Donald Brittain

Director, Producer, Screenwriter
(b. June 10, 1928 Ottawa, Ontario - d. July 21, 1989 Montreal, Quebec)

Donald Brittain is Canada’s most renowned and honoured English documentary filmmaker. Working as a director and writer, he explored Canada's social and cultural past, often rescuing aspects from the nation’s collective amnesia.

Brittain attended Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and then, from 1951 to 1954, he was employed as a police reporter with the Ottawa Journal. While working as a foreign correspondent, he travelled extensively in Europe, Mexico and Africa. In 1955, he joined the National Film Board to apprentice as a screenwriter. Brittain’s scriptwriting skill combined with his flair for selecting and organizing images created a forceful impact, demonstrated best in Fields ofSacrifice (1963), Bethune (1963), Memorandum (1965), Dreamland (1974), Volcano: An Inquiry Into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry (1976), The Dionne Quintuplets (1978), On Guard for Thee (1981), The Children's Crusade (1984) and The Champions trilogy (1986).

In 1963, Brittain made his name as a director with his first major film, Fields of Sacrifice. During his early years at the NFB, he wrote and directed some of his most memorable films, including Bethune, Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965, co-directed with Don Owen), Never a Backward Step (1966, co-directed with John Spotton) and Memorandum (co-directed with John Spotton), a stirring reminder of Nazi death camps, which many critics con­sider to be his finest film. The film’s title refers to Hitler’s memo about the “final solution”; the story follows a Jewish Holocaust survivor on an emotional pilgrimage to Bergen-Belsen. Travelling through the new Germany, the man remembers, recalling scenes still vivid in his memory, portrayed in flashbacks. The film’s final minutes evoke a profound and poetic sense of loss and resignation, pointing with disturbing clarity to the human capacity to repeat such gross injustice and inhumanity.

Brittain left the NFB in 1968 to work on feature pro­jects and multi-screen filmmaking in the USA and Japan, but returned in 1970 to freelance at the NFB and CBC. His filmography contains some of the best documentaries ever made; notably, the biographical docudramas Volcano, narrated by Richard Burton, which won six Etrogs (now Genies); Canada's Sweetheart (1985), about the notorious mobster and union boss, which won two Geminis; and The King Chronicle (1987), a six-hour mini-series about Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King. In the 1980s, Brittain directed two dramatic films for the CBC's topical series For the Record.

As director, writer and narrator of his own films, Brittain was one of the best commentary writers of the time. He approached his subjects in a didactic style and with an ironic detachment that distinguished his work and would eventually establish him as the master of the television documentary. Known for both his witty and often withering portraits of famous and infamous Canadians and his examinations of obscure areas of Canadian life and fashion, Brittain is arguably the most comprehensive chronicler of post-WWII Canada.

Shortly before his death in 1989, Brittain started work on Family: A Loving Look atCBC Radio (1991), which was completed by Robert Duncan. In 1990, Brittain was posthumously appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in recognition of "his masterful visual records of our social and cultural past."

Film and video work includes

Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, 1956 (writer)
Canada's Armed Forces, 1957 (writer)
Canadian Infantrymen, 1958 (writer)
A Matter of Survival, 1958 (writer)
Sight Unseen, 1958 (director; writer)
Setting Fires for Science, 1958 (director; writer)
St. Lawrence Burns, No. 1-8, 1958 (director)
Winter Construction? It Can Be Done, 1958 (director; writer)
A Day in the Night of Jonathan Mole, 1959 (director; writer)
Everybody's Prejudiced, 1961 (director; writer)
Canada at War series, 1962 (director; writer)
Willie Catches On, 1962 (writer)
Fields of Sacrifice, 1963 (director; writer; producer)
The Campaigners, 1964 (director; writer)
The Changing City, 1964 (writer)
Return Reservation, 1964 (director; writer)
Summerhill, 1964 (director; writer; producer)
Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr. Leonard Cohen, 1965 (co-director with Don Owen; writer)
A Trip Down Memory Lane, 1965 (producer)
Helicopter Canada, 1966 (writer)
Juggernaut, 1967 (writer)
To Be Young, 1967 (writer)
Saul Alinsky Went to War, 1968 (co-director with Peter Pearson; writer)
A Message to the Twenty-First Century, 1970 (director)
Tiger Child, 1970 (co-director with Roman Kroitor, Kiichi Ichikawa; writer)
World of Enrico Fermi, 1970 (writer)
The Apprentice, 1971 (producer)
The Noblest of Callings... The Vilest of Trades, 1971 (co-director with Ralph L. Thomas; writer; TV)
The One Man Band that Went to Wall Street, 1972 (writer)
The People's Railway, 1972 (writer; producer)
Catskinner Keen, 1973 (director; writer; producer)
Cavendish Country, 1974 (director; writer; producer)
Grierson, 1973 (writer)
Starblanket, 1973 (director; writer; producer)
Dreamland: A History of Early Canadian Movies 1895-1939, 1974 (director; writer)
King of the Hill, 1974 (co-director with Martin Canell)
The Players, 1974 (director; writer)
Stress: The Two-Faced Enemy, 1974 (director; writer; producer)
Thunderbirds in China, 1974 (writer; producer)
Van's Camp, 1974 (co-director with Les Rose; writer; producer)
Arctic IV, 1975 (writer)
His Worship, Mr. Montréal: The Life and Times of Camillien Houde, 1975 (co-director with Marrin Canell and Robert Duncan; writer; producer)
The Summer Before, 1975 (director; writer)
The Sword of the Lord, 1976 (writer)
Henry Ford's America, 1977 (director; writer; producer)
The Vacant Lot, 1977 (writer; producer)
The Dionne Quintuplets, 1978 (director; producer; TV)
Has Anybody Here Seen Canada?, 1978 (writer; TV)
In Search of Bermuda Pirates, 1978 (director; writer; producer)
In Search of the Great Lakes Triangle, 1978 (director; writer; producer)
Secrets of the Bermuda Triangle, 1978 (director; writer; producer)
Small Is Beautiful: Impressions of Fritz Schumacher, 1978 (co-director with Dougles Kiefer and Barrie Howells; writer)
Bow and Arrow, 1979 (writer)
The Lost Pharaoh: The Search for Akhenaten, 1980 (director; TV)
Wop May, 1980 (writer)
Bamboo, Lions and Dragons, 1981 (writer)
On Guard for Thee, Parts 1-3, 1981 (director; writer; producer; TV)
Running Man, 1981 (director; TV)
Dream Horse, 1982 (director; writer; producer; TV)
An Honourable Member, 1982 (director; TV)
The Accident, 1983 (director; TV)
Something to Celebrate, 1983 (director; writer; producer; TV)
Act of God - A Gathering in Denendeh, 1984 (writer)
The Children's Crusade, 1984 (director; writer; producer; TV)
Overtime, 1984 (writer)
Earthwatch, 1985 (director; writer; producer)
First Stop, China, 1985 (writer)
Long Lance, 1986 (writer)
Mobility, 1986 (writer)
Tommy Douglas: Keeper of the Flame, 1986 (writer)
The King Chronicle, 1987 (director; writer; TV)
Goddess Remembered, 1989 (writer)
Family: A Loving Look at CBC Radio, 1991 (director; writer; film completed by Robert Duncan)