Features

History, Interrupted

The history of a history documentary about Charles Ritchie that didn’t get made, and why history can be a pain in the neck

History is a problem. There’s too much of it. Or at least, it seems, too much to tell.

U.S. Attorney-General William Barr churlishly re-stated recently the old chestnut “history is written by the victors,” with a sneer suggesting he’s already counting on writing his own.

But in recent decades, the ‘victors’ have often been pushed aside by progressive historians, righteous communities, and the first-person testimonies of previously unheard participants in the great sweeps and small steps of history. There are so many stories to tell, and so many new platforms and storytelling tools with which to tell them.

For documentary filmmakers, history has been a problem of another sort. How best to tell personal historical stories in a form that doesn’t welcome footnotes or overly long expositions? And how do you tell a story without stock footage and archival photos, the frequent lifeblood of so many historical docs? How do you engage audiences tired of an overreliance on interviews? The allure of drama–or at least its often underfunded and under loved cousin, the dramatic re-enactment–can pose expensive and often unsatisfying solutions.

John Walker in production of Passage
Courtesy John Walker Productions


One film that I didn’t get made during my years as a producer at the NFB held the potential for an innovative exploration of the life a Canadian original. Entries, written by and to have been directed by John Walker, was a documentary project designed to capture the spirit and life of Charles Ritchie, former Canadian diplomat, raconteur, romantic and “the prince of panache,” who died 25 years ago this month. Ritchie’s entries captured, sometimes against his own better judgement, a clear-eyed front row picture of Canada on the world stage during the stirring and troubling times from the Second World War through the Cold War. His was a view that the official record couldn’t capture.

Walker, my NFB producing colleague Silva Basmajian and I had hoped to transform Ritchie’s diaries, most notably The Siren Years: A Canadian Diplomat Abroad 1937-1945 (winner of the 1974 Governor General’s Award for English-language non-fiction) into a feature documentary using drama. Ritchie’s career encompassed many of the most significant positions in mid-century diplomacy, including as High Commissioner to the U.K. and stints as ambassador to West Germany, the United Nations, and the U.S. His meeting with JFK in the Oval Office was interrupted by Kennedy exclaiming “Shoo! Shoo!”— at his young daughter Caroline, not, as Ritchie first thought, at the ambassador himself— and he was back at the White House a few years later to see LBJ lift Prime Minister Pearson by the lapels in anger at the PM’s criticism of the Vietnam war. Cinematic stuff.

That we didn’t succeed in making the film was a result of shifting institutional priorities at the NFB, shrunken budgets and a central debate that haunts us still: how much drama can you squeeze into a documentary before it stops being documentary-ish? And just how much will a publisher, hoping to licence the more lucrative drama rights to a producer with deeper pockets, let you get away with? Answer: never as much as you want.

It was an intensely personal story, spanning several decades of Canadian international relations, with a central figure, who was compared to “the best diarists in the language.” But Ritchie usually preferred to write about, say, Greta Garbo passing him the salt at a fancy Paris dinner, rather than the internal machinations of NATO. (Garbo likely would have said to any impertinent documentarian that she wanted to be left alone anyway).

As one reviewer put it, Ritchie’s diary entries deliberately avoided “official business,” brilliantly veering instead to the delights of the heart: his long, poignant extramarital affair with novelist Elizabeth Bowen, observations about the foibles of the royal and the egotistical, and self-doubt about the very literary talent his diaries revealed so entertainingly. He often wrote about his unfilled dream of being a novelist, but his writing so often belies that self-deprecation (“My heart hurts—I should like to have it removed and taken away on a silver salver”).

His wry and realistic take on Canada’s sometimes hesitant steps in global conflicts (“We are the family doctor no one would call in for consultation”) wouldn’t go over well with some in the corridors of power in Ottawa, but it’s precisely what a documentary could and should bring to a larger audience: truth, insight and a levelling of the powerful and the pretentious.

Of our wartime P.M. he wrote “Mackenzie King has been putting on the most remarkable display of panic—-[he] was invited to come [to London] to the get-together of Commonwealth Prime Ministers. He has cabled the longest apologies to Churchill. I do not know why he does not add that he cannot leave because he is having his front parlour repapered and is needed to choose the design.”

To start the work of conceiving the film, we needed to meet Ritchie, then in his late 80s, to see what he might be willing and able to do, and to gauge his willingness to let us re-interpret his interpretations. So I went up to Ottawa in February 1995 for tea.

I got a glimpse there of what a true diplomat can do so well: through genial interrogation, get you to do the talking. Walker and I recently compared reminiscences of our meetings with Ritchie and noted that in terms of extracting information, the esteemed diarist was like a skilled documentarian himself. As Walker puts it. “I was being out-documentaried!”

Upon arrival at Ritchie’s modest apartment on Metcalfe St., I found myself after 30 minutes of conversation with Ritchie realizing he hadn’t said a word about himself. He wanted to know about my family history, and whether I had been teased at school with mispronunciations of my name (of course he had pronounced it perfectly through the front door intercom).

He told me he had known NFB founder John Grierson (“he talked a lot”) and asked me if we were currently producing anything “melodramatic.” After I had run out of personal anecdotes and NFB practises, he pulled a tiny, hidden glass of sherry from behind a letter-rack on the table and told me he felt very re-assured about what we were planning.

Charles Ritchie meets with U.S. President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office. Robert Knudsen/White House Photographs/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.


But his age and fragility were apparent, and within a few months we planned a shoot with him, at the Chateau Laurier, with the wonderful writer David Macfarlane as interviewer, and Walker as cinematographer and director, capturing Ritchie reading some selections from the diaries and reminiscing. Through Macfarlane’s respectful questioning, and Walker’s intimate shooting, we gathered a portrait of a man revisiting the passions of his youth and of his extraordinary career. It was the last interview he gave. Ritchie died only weeks later.

Rights negotiations with the publisher, and other documentary work intervened for all of us over the next few years, but by 1998 Walker had created what he called a ‘screenplay adaptation’ of the Ritchie diaries. Re-reading it now, it makes me think it would have been in the vein of some of the wonderful history documentary experiments with drama elements, made before and since, from Donald Brittain’s use of Richard Burton’s voice in Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry (1976) to Errol Morris’s stylized interrogation of Robert McNamara in The Fog of War, and Paul Cowan’s 1983 film The Kid Who Couldn’t Miss (with Eric Peterson playing both the WWI pilot and his sometimes evasive mechanic). But Walker’s approach to the Ritchie story now summons up the powerful stage presence of one man sitting at a table in Spalding Gray’s Swimming To Cambodia (first on stage, then filmed by Jonathan Demme in 1987), Robert Lepage’s recent play 887, an architectural and cinematic “journey into the realm of memory”, and Sarah Polley’s remarkable tale of family narratives, real and not, Stories We Tell (2012).

Stories We Tell
Courtesy of the NFBqc


As a producer, I was always drawn to historical subjects, and felt creatively challenged working with directors and other collaborators to bring complex pasts to life. These included our sometimes-mischievous interpretation of the autobiography of New Yorker writer and illustrator Bruce McCall in 2000 in director Laurence Green’s Thin Ice, in which McCall reveals his disappointment that Hollywood isn’t making the film, and warily measures our re-construction of his childhood Simcoe, Ontario bedroom.

I co-produced Steven Silver’s The Dark Years, a scripted animation series made for prime-time in 2007, made with writer Steve Lucas and animator John Halfpenny, merely tried to depict Canada’s experience of The Great Depression through stories made invisible over time through the absence of photographic or filmed documentation. And in 2013, Katerina Cizek, director of our multi-platform documentary project Highrise, dove into the New York Times’s millions of archival photos to create the interactive project (complete with rhyming narration) A Short History of the Highrise. Histories that are awkward, difficult, or impossible to tell can generate new approaches. Indeed, they have to.

Jackie Burroughs in John Walker’s A Winter Tan


For Entries, John Walker was wonderfully equipped with a cinematographer’s true eye and a director’s passion for history and artistry, as exemplified in, for example, his documentaries Strand: Under The Dark Cloth, and The Hand of Stalin, and his co-directed drama A Winter Tan (about which legendary film critic Jay Scott wrote ““To say that there has never been a Canadian movie quite like A Winter Tan is to say too little; there has never been a movie anywhere quite like A Winter Tan.”)

With Entries, Walker was aiming for ‘fragments’, not re-enactments, which, as he puts it, are often defined, to their detriment, by the casting of an actor who looks somewhat like the subject, having them wander around ‘historic’ settings and avoiding the use of dialogue.

Walker conceived of this film as being “constructed around a one-man ‘performance’ of Charles Ritchie’s diaries” (not adhering to chronological order) and filmed on a single set, depicting a series of rooms from the author’s life. “Through sounds, visual metaphors, enacted scenes and diary readings, the actor will shift out of a remembered past and an illusion of a present tense that is initially set in London” (Ritchie’s final foreign posting). The actor would sometimes address the audience—as would some of his domestic staff—and “his musings on art, love, poetry, literature and live in general are interrupted by the mundane reality of phone calls from prime ministers and invitations to have tea with the Queen.”

Charles Ritchie
Department of External Affairs/Library and Archives Canada.

Walker’s script then challenges his own approach to the storytelling, depicting him and the actor hired to play Ritchie (we had been thinking Robert Joy might be a perfect choice) debating whether this film truly is a documentary, and whether Ritchie’s diaries can be trusted to be telling the ‘truth.’

The script reveals that the director—Walker—looks impatient and says to the actor “Let’s just say that the diarist and the documentary filmmaker are amused with life as they see it.”

As the lights fade to black, we hear the actor say, “wouldn’t this make a better play than a film, and I’m still not clear about this documentary stuff—after all, I am an actor.” To which the director replies: “so was Ritchie.”

The film would have begun with the actor, in costume and makeup at Ritchie in 1971, ending his career at Canada House in London.

But our timing wasn’t great. The style of history documentaries was being heavily influenced by the 1995 arrival of the History Channel) in the U.S. (its launch inventory was bolstered by the purchase of dozens of older NFB history docs). And the 1990’s saw huge budget cuts for the NFB, squeezing out the possibility of drama.

As Playback Magazine put it in 1998 “In recent years, a steady flow of smaller budget, made-for-television documentaries has led to some criticism that Canada’s National Film Board, faced with tightened purse strings, had been losing sight of its original cinematic goals, opting instead for more commercial broadcast fare.”

One NFB executive, upon reading John’s treatment, questioned its relevance to contemporary audiences, and said “it’s not documentary enough.” So that was that.

John Walker with Kent Nason shooting Passage in the Arctic
Photo by Alex Salter


It wasn’t to be, but Walker drew on his work on the project Passage), a genre-bending and self-reflexive investigation of how the history of Northwest Passage exploration “airbrushed out” one of its key figures.

Ritchie’s own work will endure, and ensure he will never meet a similar fate. Entries was to end with some of our footage of him, and on-screen text about his passing: “The funeral was held on a Saturday. One could imagine his wife’s instructions to the funeral home: Mr. Ritchie would prefer not to spend another Sunday in Ottawa.”

Every doc filmmaker has their own history of docs that didn’t get made, perhaps even footage languishing on a shelf — itself, now historic.

It’s almost banal to say we are living in historic times right now. Any particular day in the past few months could count as ‘historic’. But, despite the wall-to-wall television and online coverage, both professional and amateur, can we be so sure that the more subtle, more intimate, and sometimes more telling aspects of the now are being captured on film? Or in diaries? What will the historians of the future — or the documentary filmmakers — think of us if we aren’t? That’s a problem worth tackling.