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The Back-Breaking Leaf

(Le Feuille qui brise les reins)

Year: 1959
Language: English
Format: 16mm Black & White
Runtime: 29 min
Director: Terence Macartney-Filgate
Producer: Wolf Koenig, Roman Kroitor
Writer: Stanley Jackson
Cinematographer: Terence Macartney-Filgate, Gilles Gascon
Editor: John Spotton
Sound: George Croll, Victor Merrill, Terence Macartney-Filgate
Music: Eldon Rathburn
Production Company: National Film Board of Canada

One of the best documentaries from the Candid Eye series – the last to be directed by Terence Macartney-Filgate – The Back-Breaking Leaf paints a graphic picture of the tobacco harvest in southwestern Ontario from the point of view of transient field workers. It also exhibits both the strengths and weaknesses of the Candid Eye approach. Essentially observational in style, the film’s striking and expressive use of direct sound (in a manner unusual for Unit B at that time) gives weight to its sympathetic portrait of the day-labourers, who sell their physical strength to earn a living.

However, although it allows the people involved to speak their grievances, the film itself remains aloof and detached. Indeed, as Bruce Elder has remarked, the potential dramatic conflicts inherent in the situation are defused in the latter half of the film. Given Macartney-Filgate’s conflicts with his colleagues in Unit B at the time and the producers’ dislike of the material he shot, one is tempted to conclude that the film’s final form is not entirely Macartney-Filgate’s conception. Certainly, the last part of the film is more reminiscent of Koenig’s Country Threshing (1958) than of Macartney-Filgate’s work.

By: Peter Morris