Allan King: Controversial Canadian film-maker whose documentaries lighted on the dramas of everyday existence

Allan King was the foremost Canadian documentarian of his generation. Filming "the drama of everyday life as it happens, spontaneously without direction, interviews or narrative", King and the "direct cinema" movement led to the fly-on-the-wall documentaries of Frederick Wiseman and Paul Watson, but his techniques and ideas are as controversial now as when he pioneered them.

King was born in Vancouver, and studied philosophy at the University of British Columbia. Joining the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), he worked his way up from production assistant to director.

His breakthrough came with Skid Row (1956), about Vancouver's homeless. The National Film Board's John Grierson duly hailed it as "one of the greatest Canadian films ever made." But, accused of voyeurism, it sparked the sort of ethical debates that were to continue to surround him during his career.

Launching himself as an independent film-maker, King moved to Ibiza, then London, employing and inspiring film-makers including Chris Menges and Roger Graef. Initially broadcasters needed to be convinced that the new, lightweight equipment he used could produce broadcastable quality, while unions resisted the move to smaller crews.

Much of the work came from CBC: interviews with Brendan Behan, Anthony Eden, Orson Welles and others, and occasional TV dramas. A Matter of Pride (1961), a documentary about Canadian unemployment, led to claims in parliament that King had fabricated the subject family's suffering. Outside Canada he made Rickshaw (1960) in Calcutta, and Joshua: a Nigerian Portrait (1963).

King's concern for those left behind came from his own family, which had been torn apart by his father's alcoholism, but the resulting dread of worklessness also drove him to notch up a huge filmography.

His 1964 films were particularly wide-ranging. They included The Sound of Christopher Plummer, a relatively conventional portrait of the actor on the set of The Sound of Music, while the fully scripted docu-drama Running Away Backwards ironically profiles Canadian expatriates in Ibiza. He also worked on the groundbreaking series This Hour Has Seven Days, which combined challenging journalism with satirical sketches.

King's social commitment was also demonstrated by Warrendale (1966) about a school for emotionally disturbed children, which pioneered the use of "holding sessions" in which two or three adults cling tightly to their charges. Despite being commissioned by the CBC, it refused to show it and it was released theatrically. It marked a critical high point for King, being praised by Jean Renoir and sharing Cannes' best-picture honour with Antonioni's Blow-up. In 1970 he re-edited the material as Children in Conflict, 18 half-hour TV films. When Warrendale itself was finally closed, its director, John L Brown, founded a similar institution, Browndale, with King as chair of the board of governors.

In 1969's A Married Couple, a portrait of a couple in crisis shifted from tenderness, to violence and tirades of obscenity, and was seen as an attack on the institution of marriage itself. "What we don't know," observes the husband, "is whether we really hate each other or not." Time magazine said that it "makes John Cassavetes' Faces look like Doris Day." The couple initially found the film helpful, although ultimately the marriage failed.

But King began to attract criticisms that he was not so much recording events as creating them. Come on Children (1973) sent 10 teenagers to live without adults to see how they formed a community. Channel 4's recent Boys and Girls Alone reworked the idea with younger children and was widely condemned.

King's production company began to falter and he moved into fiction. He worked with Carol Bolt, adapting her plays Red Emma (1976) and One Night Stand (1978). In between, King also directed the film Who Has Seen the Wind, based on W O Mitchell's prairie-childhood novel. Silence of the North (1981) stars Ellen Burstyn as a woman living in the far north of Canada during the depression, and Termini Station (1989) is about an alcoholic woman and her daughter living in small-town Ontario.

There was also television, including several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1985-88), Road to Avonlea (1991-96) and Kung Fu: the Legend Continues (1994-97). The four-part Emmy- winning miniseries By Way of the Stars (1992) is a transcontinental drama whose hero journeys from Europe to Canada.

By now, although King's documentaries were rarer, they still remained controversial both for their subject matter and for his approach. In 1983 he produced Who's in Charge? (Sig Gerber directed), inviting 30 unemployed Canadians to a "symposium" on their situation. It outraged some who thought it was as much about the spectacle as the issue and King was described as a "media monster", an appellation he particularly treasured. In 1999 he made The Dragon's Egg, about post-perestroika Estonians' and Russians' begrudging attempts to cooperate.

Then, entering his 70s, he made an affecting pair of films about aging and dying. As he explained: "Self interest is the reason I make most of my films. I'm getting older and I'm going to die. I thought I'd better find out what it's about." Dying at Grace (2003), about palliative care, was "an exceptionally difficult film to make" but it nevertheless elicited a tremendous reaction from viewers who had encountered or were preparing themselves for the deaths of loved ones. Ironically, its on-screen deaths predate Paul Watson's Malcolm and Barbara (2007), but it avoided the firestorm of criticism. Equally compassionate is Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005), looking at dementia and its impact on its sufferers and their families.

King's aim always was to ask why things were the way they were, and to stimulate debate. For what would become his last film, he turned back to children, making Empz 4 Life (2006), about black teenagers facing racism in Toronto.

Allan Winton King, film director: born Vancouver 6 February 1930; married firstly Phyllis King, secondly Patricia Watson, thirdly Colleen Murphy (four children); died Toronto 15 June 2009.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back