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Donald Brittain: Writer, filmmaker, storyteller.

Donald Brittain: Writer, filmmaker, storyteller.

Working with Brittain

Working with Donald Brittain was an adventure. You never knew what each day would bring, and he was a man who believed in the gods of documentary. He knew that on the days when those gods were smiling down on him, magic would happen.

But he was also a man who loved to play games. With his love of the military, he would assign rank to his crew and send them off to battle. He recognized the value of games in the creative process.

He was a generous filmmaker and was confident enough to accept suggestions from anybody. It's not that he wouldn't be critical, but if you came up with a good idea, he'd use it. And give you full credit.

Donald understood that documentary films are made in the cutting room. Every day, he'd go into the editing room and attempt to create structure for his vast amount of footage. And while he was open to suggestions, no one ever knew what direction he planned to take. In those days, all the cutting was done on actual negatives. He'd constantly be going back over his work, and with the most sincere apologies to his cutter, he would insert and remove frames up until the last minute to get the best possible film.

Brittain was a diehard Canadian and that coloured all of his work. He knew every stop the CP line made from Montreal to Vancouver. He loved to tackle Canadian history, but only through biography. He wanted to mythologize Canada, and he understood that the best way to do that was through character.

He also felt it was his responsibility to punch holes in self-inflated people. So much so that it became a running theme in his films.

Writer first, filmmaker second

Brittain was a writer first and a filmmaker second. While a shot was being set up, he'd wander off and mumble lines of narration under his breath. He was always trying to work out how to tie everything together, constantly writing the script in his head. He used to spend late nights in the office, working at his typewriter until the words came out just right. And they had to be his words. Heaven forbid he should open a thesaurus.

And even though writing didn't always come easily to him, he was good at it. He could paint a scene with words to the extent that you could hear it, smell it. Filmmaking didn't come as naturally to him. In fact, it took 8 or 9 years at the Board before he made a good film.

He was hired at the NFB to write the narration for the Canada at War series, and that's where he learned his craft. After that he made Fields of Sacrifice, which is just a brilliant set of poems.

Once he got into the groove of making good films, he had a process that was all his own. He would do tons of research, but in the most bizarre way possible. He'd take out books having to do with the period he was filming, but never on the actual subject itself. He was after the surrounding aspects of the story, the historical context in which his story played out.

The catch?

He rarely did his own research. Rather, he had trusted colleagues and friends do it for him while he read the sports pages… or the comics.

Personal favourites

One of Brittain's favourite films was Volcano, not only because it got such a big reaction, but because he could identify with Malcolm Lowry. He understood alcoholism. Brittain drank. Sometimes he tried to hide it, but sometimes he was quite open about it. One time, he walked into his hotel room, pointed to a table in the entranceway that housed two bottles of scotch and said, "That's the sign of an alcoholic. You always want to have an unopened bottle, just in case."

But while Volcano may have been his favourite, his two most beloved were Paperland and On Guard for Thee, although neither film enjoyed the critical or audience success he had hoped for.

Paperland was his way of exacting revenge on an executive producer here at the NFB, while On Guard for Thee, he felt, said something profound about Canada. It was a cautionary tale about loving your police force too much and giving them too much power. As he says in the film, "When everything's secure, no man is safe."

And that sentiment pretty much summed up his approach to life. Despite the many years, and many films Brittain directed for the NFB, he never took a job here. He felt if he was tenured, he'd be less creative. He loved baseball, cards and the track too much. He felt that if he had a salary, he would disappear easily into the sidelines of life and never make another film. He had seen it happen to his friends, and he didn't want to follow in that path. So instead, he trudged on and made film after film after film.

And as film lovers, we're all the better for it.

NFB producer Adam Symansky was both a friend of Donald Brittain's and served as producer on several of his films. Having worked with him towards the end of his career, he has a lot of interesting stories to tell. We've compiled this playlist of Brittain's films and contextualized them within the framework of Adam's recollections. Enjoy.

Adam Symansky

"Symansky is a rarity among producers. He despises bureaucracy, is a master at cutting through red tape, and wages an unending battle against institutional inertia. He works like a dog. He will make strategic decisions, contribute conceptual insights, splice film, drive trucks, and try to market the product. Above all, he protects his directors so they can get on with the job at hand."

-Donald Brittain

  • The Champions, Part 1: Unlikely Warriors
    The Champions, Part 1: Unlikely Warriors
    1978|57 min

    The trick here was to create films about a whole period in Canada – the 50s, 60s and 70s – and not just about 2 men and their politics. This film was to be the embodiment of 2 separate tracks in the evolution of the country. When the first 2 films were completed, Donald knew there would be a third – it was just a question of when.

    When Trudeau took his long walk in the snow in February of 1982, Donald knew that he had an opening for his third and final film. The crew waited all winter to shoot the scene. The delivery date loomed and there was NO snowstorm. Then one Saturday night while eating dinner, I got the call from Donald. "Have you looked outside? It's snowing. Big snowflakes. Get the crew, the racoon coat!"

    It was Andreas Poulsson (Cinematographer) and his wife's coat that stood in for Trudeau. Donald had him walk into the wilds of Westmount Park, which Donald assured everyone was just like Rockcliffe.

  • Bethune
    1964|58 min

    This was the first film where Donald started playing with recreations. He had no footage to work with, so he recreated a lot of scenes. In fact, one of the operations in the film was done on a dead pig – but it looks just like stock footage.

    When the film was finished, the Americans were upset about it. Foreign Affairs picked up on their displeasure and proclaimed that the film couldn't leave Canada. So John Kemeny, the man who brought Bethune to Brittain in the first place, secretly shipped it out to Dok Leipzig, where it won first prize. The film could no longer be contained, so they had to release it.

    When Trudeau decided to open the lines of communication with China, he had to figure out how. So 4 years after the government tried to block the film, they got the Canadian ambassador to Stockholm to invite the Chinese ambassador to watch it. In the end, the film they tried to bury became the pretext for getting Trudeau into China.

  • Fields of Sacrifice
    Fields of Sacrifice
    1963|38 min

    By the time this film was made, Donald had been at the Film Board for several years. He'd started out as a production manager and then made several films that were purely utilitarian. He also did a few little dramas about racism that displayed social conscience, but they weren't very good. In fact, he thought he was on the verge of being fired.

    Then he was hired to write the Canada at War series, and he kind of redeemed himself… except that from then on he was regarded as a writer. Then along came the project about war graves – another sponsored film that nobody wanted – and they gave it to Donald. Who knows what Brittain was thinking when he took it on, but drinking his way through Europe was probably uppermost in his mind. In fact, there are outtakes from this film of him drinking in several taverns that are hilarious.

    But this was the film where Donald first showed off his poetic ability. The relationship between words and images, the irony he depicts by juxtaposing images, the cinematography – it's all there. This film is most memorable because it's clearly the film where Donald discovered his own unique style of narration.

  • King of the Hill
    King of the Hill

    Marrin Canell was a great friend of Don's and worked with him on several films. The problem when you become really good friends is that you tend to become less and less critical of your friend. You know the guy's going to pull it off and you don't want to be brutal. Marrin felt he was too close to Donald to be an effective editor or producer for him, but one thing they shared was a love of baseball.

    Donald loved the game so much he invented a solitaire card game based on baseball. When he was near death, that's what he would do a lot of the time. He loved the world of baseball; he loved the Expos.

    For King of the Hill, they filmed two seasons. But they couldn't get access to the team for the second season, so they had to make the first season work for both. It's an interesting story, as a lot of that film is faked.

  • Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr. Leonard Cohen
    Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr. Leonard Cohen
    1965|44 min

    A lot of Donald's work was salvage jobs for other people, and that's how he came to do this film. Don Owen shot the tour of the four poets, couldn't get it to work and Brittain came in and saw that the only thing that worked was the Leonard Cohen segments.

    The most interesting thing is the exploration of documentary truth, where Cohen writes in the bathtub, caveat emptor, and then the two of them sit in the theatre and Don questions him about that scene. It's an interesting exchange. The whole film is basically the two of them saying, "Don't believe everything you see just because it's documentary."

    They stayed friends all their life. Cohen was at Don's funeral in tears. They recognized each other as authentic human beings. The lived the lives they wanted to lead.

  • Memorandum

    Donald made this film because he felt it was important that someone, other than a Jew, tell the story. But that wasn't the only reason.

    Donald's wife, Brigitta is German and she used to tell this story about how on their first date, Donald told her straight out that he hated Germans, hated what they'd done. The hatred stemmed from his horror over the Holocaust.

    He needed to investigate the past and the more he looked into what happened, the more he realized these were ordinary human beings – ordinary, banal human beings. These were people who in no way had any interest in taking responsibility for their bloodless kills. And that's what's so special about the film – there are no heroes and very few villains.

  • Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry
    Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry
    1976|1 h 39 min

    Cut from the same cloth as Malcolm Lowry, Donald understood the brotherhood of drunkards. As such, this was one of his favourite films.

    The crew arrived in Mexico just before the Day of the Dead. Donald was comfortable working with a small crew. Cinematographer Douglas Kiefer shot a huge number of the extraordinary images without direction and Brittain knew how to bind them into a film.

    Producer Robert Duncan did all the research, and John Kramer edited that film for months. On Sunday afternoons Don and John would get together and play chess with each other and debate; John became his surrogate son. It became very involved. There were a whole series of connections in that film, not just between Don and Malcolm but between Don and the crew. He was happy to share the directing credit on this one. He felt the universe had aligned itself properly; he was able to do something quite extraordinary.

    There's also the whole bit about Richard Burton, another alcoholic, who he desperately wanted to narrate the film. He finally tracked him down in a hotel room in London and flew there to convince him to do it. And he succeeded.

  • Paperland: The Bureaucrat Observed
    Paperland: The Bureaucrat Observed
    1979|57 min

    I had just become an executive producer when this film was edited. I remember watching it and saying, "I'm so offended! I'm a civil servant, and I'm not like that!" Of course, years later I understood exactly what Donald was getting at. It was all those small-minded people who refuse to take risks, who cover their asses all the time, who make sure that whatever happens they won't be blamed. You don't want to be blamed for making mistakes, so you don't make mistakes but then you don't actually have any successes, either.

    That's what that film was all about.