Allan King, 1930–2009
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Allan King, 1930–2009

Photo by Tim Leyes.

Watching an Allan King film is like being uncomfortably trapped inside a series of someone else’s highly personal moments. Devoid of narration, his documentaries often feature long, uninterrupted takes of critical human events, but never with any whiff of sensationalism.
Astonishingly, King’s authority as a documentarian was cemented right from the beginning: his first films have become recognized as some of the most important in the cinéma verité style. Warrendale (1967) chronicled the fascinating reality of The Warrendale School, an institutional home for emotionally disturbed adolescents. Commissioned for television by the CBC, the broadcaster refused to air it because of its graphic and scatological language, as well as its incredibly disturbing therapy sequences. The striking A Married Couple (1969), is a distressing record of a dissolving marriage, which Time lauded in 1970 as “a perfect model of documentary film-making,” though King came to view the film as fictionalized once it had been filtered and modified by the editing process.
Capturing the profound grief that comes with death has become an Allan King hallmark, though perhaps unintentionally. Seeing the children of Warrendale react to death is intense and stirring, while anyone who has watched an elderly family member deteriorate under the grip of dementia can’t help but be deeply touched by 2005’s humane Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company.
In fact, the documentary that is closest to being unwatchable is Dying At Grace (2003). The 148-minute masterpiece follows five patients in the palliative care unit at Toronto’s Grace Hospital. What makes the piece so incredibly shocking is that the patients’ deaths are captured on camera, most memorably that of Eda Simac, who breathes her final rattles in a painfully protracted close-up. Since we are introduced to most of the subjects while they are still sprightly and personable, it’s almost hard to fathom that they will be dead by the time the film is over. Each subject gave Allan King explicit permission to document their demise, but again, his mastery was in telling their stories without seeming exploitive.
King’s most recent documentary was the moving EMPz 4 Life, showing the veteran director in top form, just as comfortable at the age of 76 interacting with the high-risk kids of Scarborough’s streets as he was with the geriatrics of Baycrest.
Though he’s internationally known as a pioneer of cinéma verité documentaries, King was accomplished in other genres as well. His hugely popular 1976 dramatic feature debut, Who Has Seen The Wind, was the highest-grossing Canadian film of that year, and won the Grand Prix at the Paris International Film Festival. The 1980s and 1990s saw King working in episodic television, helming episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Road to Avonlea, among others. Retrospectives of his impressive career have taken place in Toronto, London, Rome, New York, Prague, Liepzig, and Krakow.
Allan King died peacefully today at his Toronto home at the age of 79, in the company of his family. King’s true brilliance was in how he removed himself from the narrative to allow the stories to tell themselves, but what he ultimately left behind was a fifty-year record of the personality he was.
A memorial to Allan King will be held at the Isabel Bader Theatre (93 Charles Street West) on Monday, June 22 at 11 a.m.