Moving with the Life

The Passions and Politics of Martin Duckworth

Photo by Maurie Alioff

This article originally appeared in the June 1987 issue of the now-defunct Cinema Canada. Reprinted with permission from the authors. Watch for a new profile of Martin Duckworth by Maurie Alioff in the Winter 2012 issue of Point of View.

Interview by Maurie Alioff and Susan Schouten Levine

Although he is a man who feels what amounts to a veneration for home and family, the course of Martin Duckworth’s life and work has kept him in constant motion. When he was in his teens, he moved with his family from Montreal to Halifax, which he eventually left for Yale University “because of a girl I loved, and because I wanted to work for the UN.” Unfortunately, as Martin puts it with his typically wry, deadpan humor, “I got dropped by both because they didn’t like my clothes.”

Martin survived the disappointment, as well as the temptation to give in to the crew-necked/crew-cut mentality of Yale in the early ’50s, by reading On the Road, The Holy Barbarians, and taking the train down to New York City every three months. In New York, one could, of course, fall in love with another girl, listen to music, and discover the beat poets. “They were obviously on the cutting edge of new perception,” says Martin, “the inventors of that age.” (Even today, and even though he hates cars, Martin looks as if he would be right at home beside Kerouac and Neal Cassady in the front seat of a dusty ’48 Packard.)

After finishing Yale, where he met his first wife, a Finnish girl named Satu, Martin took an M.A. in history at the University of Toronto, travelled around Europe, taught in London, and then got a job at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. By this time, he and Saltu had angelic-looking twin daughters, named Marya and Sylvia, who were appearing frequently in the photographs their father was becoming increasingly interested in taking. Martin’s interest in still photography, François Truffault, and in the film society he formed at Mount Allison, led to meetings with Fernand Dansereau, who came down to show National Film Board productions. Several years later, Martin had a job at the Film Board as a cameraman.

Since then, in his work as a cinematographer, and as a director, Martin has travelled to Sweden, Vietnam, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Chile, Japan, East Germany, Russia, and other parts of the world. He has shot dozens of films, including some of the best-known titles in the Film Board catalogue (like Derek May’s Angel, Mike Rubbo’s Sad Song of Yellow Skin and his own Accident). Outside the Board, before he began to focus more on directing, Martin was in constant demand as a cameraman with political commitments, working on high-profile films like Jim Klein’s Seeing Red, as well as innumerable labour shorts that earned him “little or no money.”

As a cinematographer Martin’s ideal is, as he puts it, being able to “move with the life in front of the camera.” He has moved with his camera through prisons, paper mills, union halls, farming cooperatives, tin mines, Buddhist temples, opera houses, and the apartments of Russian poets. Often the people he encounters through the viewfinder become friends he stays in contact with years after. Martin’s approach as a cameraman and a director (who shoots many of his own films) is like his approach to his life. He carefully observes, even contemplates, the movements of the life before him – a Vietnamese street kid, a lumberman, his own twin daughters, a woman rocking a baby. When you watch his best shots, the fluid, graceful movement of the camera seems completely synchronized to the movement of the subject.

Martin can give the impression of floating along with things, checking out; everything in sight. His camera probes, touches, searches into the distance looks for another space to move into, returns. People who have worked with, him refer to his “sixth sense,” an unerring instinct for the right angle, the right moment to move the camera, the right detail to emphasize in the frame. Not only do you sense that he’s thinking, but that the camera is part of his body, his way of seeing. You rarely say to yourself, “Oh yeah, he’s trying for a fancy shot.”

Some of the films Martin has directed. induce their audiences to focus on a sudden, unexpected, even catastrophic event. For example, at the beginning of No More Hiroshima! (1984), a man describes how the disaster happened. Without warning, as if following the pathway of a bird, an airplane flew over the City, hovered momentarily, and dropped the bomb. Like most people, Martin himself has experienced the kinds of moments when something evil, or, at other times, something good, comes for you right out of the blue. You meet someone you know you have to be with, you find the subject for the film you’ve been wanting to make, or, one afternoon in 1970, you’re almost destroyed when one of the tires on your car blows out, and you find yourself spinning across a Mexican highway.

Marianne, an artist Martin met in Sweden (and who is, at this moment, painting a lushly complicated mural in a Hindu temple), was driving. “We got thrown apart in that car accident,” Martin remembers. “I want sailing through the front window, and the rest of the accident was knocked out of my memory.” Ten days later, when Martin woke up, he was oblivious to the usual sights and smells of a hospital room. Instead, he had a strange and beautiful experience.

“I woke up under this tree. There were buds on it, no leaves. It was all different shades of green, and the sky was a light green too. It was the most beautiful image I’ve ever seen. It may have lasted three or four minutes.

Remembering those moments, Martin says, “I’m sure it was the tree on West Hill Avenue that was hanging over me.” West Hill Avenue is in N.D.G. (Notre-Dame-de-Grace), a leafy, pleasant, and still mostly Anglo section of Montreal. The tree was a maple on the front lawn of the house Martin spent his childhood in. He, his brother John, and his sister Eleanor, climbed it constantly, spring, summer, and fall, until the family left for Halifax. The maple tree is still there, as is the grapevine trellis in back of the house, and the wall Martin climbed over to visit his first “serious girlfriend.”

In front of the house, there were wide open fields stretching as far as the eye could see. There was nothing, except for the railroad tracks in one direction, and far off on another childhood boundaryline, a sign that read MELDRUM, THE MOVER, “hovering,” Martin remembers, “against the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains.”

“When I was a baby,” says Martin, “my father put me to sleep by imitating the sound of a train in the Rockies. He was especially good at one moving over a bridge.” (You can’t help noticing that trains and train tracks appear often and benevolently in Martin’s films, offering promise and release. In Cell 16 (1971), for example, a prisoner paces his cage, and on the soundtrack, distant trains roll past.)

If you ask Martin what went on inside the house on West Hill Avenue, he’ll pause and then slowly reel in the memories. “Back… Paul Robeson… Eleanor Roosevelt… J.S. Woodsworth… Reinhold Neibuhr… Mahatma Gandhi… Harry Emerson Fosdick…” Who, Martin? “Harry Emerson Fosdick, an evangelist, who used to broadcast from the States. Oh, talk flowed on our meals and on my childhood. Oh boy, did it ever.”

Martin’s father Jack grew “out of the social gospel movement, which came out of the Methodist Church along the Prairies.” Jack met his wife, Muriel, “at McGill in those exciting years of Bethune, the Spanish Civil War, Frank Scott, Stanley Ryerson, and Eugene Forsey. My parents were both brought up in serious Christian households, but they were very excited about getting communists in to speak to the Social Christian Movement and form united fronts over Spain, over unemployed workers and starving farmers. McGill was a real hotbed of radicals in the late ’20s and ’30s.”

Muriel, who recently received an Order of Canada and still lives in the Maritimes, has been an activist all her life, working out of her unswerving belief that Christianity should be put into practice. Jack, who is no longer alive, was a professional fundraiser for the YMCA (the “Y” in N.D.G. used to be called the “House that Jack Built”). Martin says, “He saw the YMCA’s role as training other social gospelists, people who would leave and turn into organizers.”

The fact is that Martin is one of those rare people, who can look back at a childhood where things flowed, where affection was given freely, where you were encouraged to question rather than obey, and to live for the ideals, rather than the exigencies of life. “My parents took their children very seriously,” Martin says. “They taught us how to enjoy life and work.”

Martin’s mother is still a close friend as are his sister and brother. In a haIf-joking verbal riff, he says about Eleanor and John: “They are like rivers with many tributaries and outlets. Together, they form a great big delta flowing into the ocean of the universe. I float along behind them. She plays the violin beautifully; she’s a mountain climber, deep sea diver, child psychologist. John is a canoeist, father, fantastic mouth organ player, and great storyteller.”

It’s not surprising to discover that Martin is genuinely shocked by the extraordinary degree to which human beings are capable of causing pain to other human beings. He means it when he asks questions like, “What produces people like Pol Pot? I just cannot figure that out, so a lot of the world is absolute nonsense to me. Where do prostitution and pornography, mass murder, and genocide come from?”

Martin says he was “politicized from the day I was born, being brought up by the people who brought me up.” His first political act was writing a valedictory address at Queen Elizabeth High School in Halifax. It was, he recalls, a little self-mockingly, “a passionate appeal to the youth of the world to rise up against the adults who had created the cold war, to declare friendship between the peoples of the east and the west, and to work for peace.” The principal of the school refused to let Martin deliver the speech, and when he left Halifax for Yale University, the “censored speech was still ringing in my ears.”

Many of Martin’s ingeniously constructed and often innovative documentaries can be seen as confrontations with the “absolute nonsense” of evil – or celebrations of any human attempt to eliminate it. In some films, he seems driven by more personal concerns; he’s after something enigmatic and intangible. In almost all of his work, the frames burst with images of vibrant life.

Passing through Sweden (1969) and Half-Half-Three-quarters-Full (1970 – a visual ode to crew racing), are films made when Martin was, as he puts it, “a new director in search of an image.” Sweden, elegantly put together by Ulla Rughe, Ingmar Bergman’s editor who was, says Martin, “looking for a way of dropping Bergman,” is a kind of anti-travelogue. It avoids visual and verbal cliches, and approximates the experience of travelling – the strange juxtapositions of sights and sounds, the seductive moments and the bewildering ones. During the same period, Martin shot Untouched and Pure (1970) for Mort Ransen, who gave his friend a co-director’s credit. This film is also a witty, unconventional tour of Sweden, and Martin acknowledges that Arthur Lipsett’s films were “very much on my mind” when he worked on the two pictures.

Many people feel a special kind of attraction to The Wish, which documents a summer that Martin’s twin daughters, Marya and Sylvia (then 8, now 28), spent with their grandparents at the Duckworth family’s countryhouse. The Wish lyrically evokes the fairy-tale world of two beautiful little girls and captures the sudden bolts of affection that occur between children and adults. But an undercurrent of pain also runs through the film. There are moments when the children turn, and Martin cuts to an old photograph of himself and their mother, Satu, whom he hadn’t been with for years. In the photo, Satu is blonde bright-eyed and smiling.

The most crucial scene in the picture occurs near the end. The grandparents and the children are enjoying a picnic – in a cemetery. They joke and laugh; the girls play. Then there’s a timeless moment when Marya, Sylvia, Jack, and Muriel stand together, fascinated by the tombstone of some long-gone relative.

The two films that follow this little ghost story both plunge into more extreme experience. To make Cell 16, an expressionistic film about the total entrapment of prison, Martin collaborated with Peter Madden, a convict he met at Collins Bay Penitentiary in Kingston. (As a result of the collaboration, Madden, who was a professional criminal at the time, got paroled and became a professional writer.) Cell 16 focuses on the endless pacing, the mind-grinding clatter, the pure white noises, the shadows and deathly patches of light that form the prisoner’s suffocating world. Madden’s voice-over prose-poetry counterpoints the images: “I’m small, afraid, like a child in a museum at midnight.”

Nothing at the beginning of Accident (1973), one of those classic short documentaries like Corral or Paul Tomkowicz, prepares the audience for the true subject of the film. “Keep on the Sunny Side,” chirps the song on the – soundtrack as a happy-go-lucky montage of shots shows us some guys getting a small airplane ready for the shooting of a film. The plane takes off; the camera on the ground is rolling. Suddenly, the cameraman in the cockpit of the plane finds himself spinning out of the blue and crashing to the ground. “It’s not the kind of thing I do,” he says later, lying in a hospital bed. “It destroys the mythology I built up.”

But Pat Crawley, the guy in Accident, not only survives the crash (the pilot was killed), the experience gives him new perceptions and a new life. Martin zooms into tight close-ups of Crawley’s face, which looks alien and outer-planetary, partly because of the pins that are holding his jaw together. And we discover through his words, the shots of frosted light and shadows moving on snow, the obsessively recurring images of the plane tumbling from the sky, that the survivor is in an altered state of consciousness, where everything is luminous, and everything can be accepted. The accident was and wasn’t meaningless.

After Accident, the films Martin directed became increasingly political. Temiscaming, Quebec (1975), 12,000 Men (1978) and A Wives’ Tale have a strong, rhythmic narrative thrust – a sense of the movement of people and events, the shifts and tremors of political struggles.

Temiscaming traces the story of the resurrection of a town and the paper mill it depends on for its existence. After Canadian International Paper closed its mill in Temiscaming, the townspeople, local 233 of the union, and a group of CIP executives dared an economic and social experiment: the creation of a company owned by workers and management. As we come to know and like the film’s central characters—unionists Charlie Carpenter and Emile Brazeau, managers George Petty and Jack Stevens—we follow the dramatic struggle to make the experiment work. In the end, the mill is a financial success, but is it really owned by the workers whose drive created it?

The final sequence of the film is elegaic and somewhat pessimistic. Martin says, “Although my political training led my brain to the conclusion that the workers would never really take over a place like that, in the capitalist system, my heart felt that there was something to celebrate in the workers at least getting some recognition for their skills for a passing moment, and taking an initiative toward controlling their lives in the workplace.”

12,000 Men, relying heavily on archival material, tells the violent, traumatic history of the Cape Breton mines, making it abundantly clear why Cape Bretoners have, for many years, sought employment elsewhere.

A Wives’ Tale began when, one night, Martin heard “a talk by one of the women supporting the husbands out on strike against the Inco mines in Sudbury. She gave an absolutely beautiful talk. It was high-class oratory.”

Martin made an unusual decision for a male filmmaker. He would make a film about the women, the wives, rather than the men on strike. Because he “thought it was kind of ridiculous for a male to do a film about a women’s struggle,” he asked two women, Sophie Bissonnette and Joyce Rock, to co-direct. A Wives’ Tale is, as one of the characters says, the “hidden story that passes into silence.“·

It’s the story of women who, after making the choice to aid their striking husbands in the battle against the company, must also battle the husbands on several different fronts. The film finally becomes a celebration of radicalized women energized by, and caught up in, the dance of political action. A Wives’ Tale won Quebec’s Critics’ prize for best film in 1980.

The three films that followed Wives’ Tale also form a trilogy, this one dealing with the most horrendous of all human aberrations, the impulse toward mass destruction. Back to Kampuchea (1982), No More Hibakusha! (1983), and Return to Dresden (1985) all journey backward in time to the scenes of incomprehensible disasters, monstrous acts of cruelty. But Martin doesn’t merely want to confront us with Pol Pot’s genocide in Kampuchea, the devastation of Hiroshima, and the fire-bombing of Dresden. He takes us through the scenes of the crimes in the hope of finding evidence of some kind of reconciliation, perhaps even redemption.

In Back to Kampuchea (like A Wives’ Tale, made outside the Film Board and distributed by Cinema Ubre in Montreal) Chan Bun Han, a Kampuchean, who has been driving a cab in New York for 11 years, returns home in the aftermath of the bloodbath. We follow him through Phnom Pen and the countryside as he looks for relatives and friends who may have survived. In one devastating scene, shot in a museum of Khmer Rouge atrocities, Chan finds the picture of a friend on a wall plastered with the photos of victims. Throughout the film, as Chan meets and talks with survivors, the insanity of Pol Pot’s regime, and the degree of indirect American involvement in its creation, come into sharper and sharper focus.

But Martin’s camera also captures the delicate, fluttering beauty of the country and its people’s brave—and sometimes forlorn—attempts to reconstruct it. There is also some sense of hope at the end of No More Hibakusha! (No More Hiroshima! is a shorter version), which is about the survivors, and their children, of the first nuclear attack in history. The hope is generated by the actions of the survivors (Hibakusha) we meet in the film. Despite their fears, their anger, and in the case of one of them, blindness, five diseases, and a dependence on hospitals for 37 years, they travel to the U.N. Second Special Session on Disarmament.

The film cuts to New York, where Hiroko, a young woman, Mrs. Tominaga, in her ’70s, and Mr. Murata, who recently stopped hiding the fact he is hibakusha, try to express the Simplest and most significant of messages. In one scene, Mr. Murata describes how, at the age of five, he tried to save his sister’s life, and failed. A tear rolls down his proud face; he says he would like to meet Ronald Reagan face to face and say, “We are all human beings alike.”

In Retum to Dresden, a man called Gifford—a very ordinary-looking, not particularly eloquent man—returns to the city he helped destroy when he was a Royal Canadian Air Force navigator during the war. At the same time, Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischutz (The Marksman), the last opera that was performed in the Dresden Opera House before it was blown to pieces, is being staged in the reconstructed building. Theatrically colourful images of the opera, about a hunter who makes a pact with the devil (“My purpose calls me. I must obey”), dissolve again and again into black and white footage of the raid – the pilots preparing themselves, the planes swarming in the night sky, the bomb bays opening and releasing glittering streams of death.

Gifford meets with people who survived the raids. They tell him about the flames, the heat, the burning bodies, the garbage cans flying through the air. They see that he has genuinely questioned the orders he once considered to be his purpose. A moment of forgiveness and reconciliation appears on the screen. In the opera, Satan is defeated, and a woman, who was killed by one of the hunter’s magic bullets, returns to life.

Martin has just finished his newest film, Images of Moscow – for Kuo Yen. After the three war films, he has made a lush, romantic story in which he deliberately set out to “lose a sense of the distance between fiction and reality.” The film follows two classical pianists, Pierre Jasmin and his wife Kuo-Yen Lee, to the Tchaikovsky piano competition in Moscow. In this Moscow, the military processions recede into the background, while Pierre and Kuo-Yen walk through the musky light of Red Square toward a huge yellow moon. In this Moscow, despite the rigidity of the system, highly cultivated musicians, poets, and painters flourish like exotic plants.

Martin had been “looking for years for a subject that would be manageable to make in the Soviet Union and that would get on a documentary screen Russian characters.” When he met Pierre, who had studied music in Russia, and in Vienna with Kuo-Yen, Martin knew he had found “the kicking-off point. I set up their meetings with their former friends, and with Bella, the Russian poet. But the thing to point out is that these are people whose lives are such that it’s difficult sometimes to define the line between fiction and reality. They live in and help to create a continual world of music, which is the world of imagination. They know that film is in the same world and that they’re on the stage in front of the camera.”

Moscow has a magical, dreamy feeling to it. Martin juggles time, images, and sound all the way through. The sounds of a soccer game between friends overlap with shots of Kuo-Yen playing at the competition, and when we cut to the game, the rhythms of her music are synched to her graceful moves on the playing field. It is also a melancholy film that contrasts the artist’s shared, communal joy in creation with the compulsion to win competitions so that hon· ours and jobs will rain down. Pierre and Kuo-Yen are splitting up by the end of the film dilemma.

Photo by Maurie Alioff

If you ask Martin how he’s doing at this point in his life, he’ll answer, “I’m just trying to raise a family and make decent films.” The family he’s referring to is the one he has produced with Audrey Shirmer, a Boston-born photographer and filmmaker he met 16 years ago at a conference his mother organized on Vietnam. “Audrey was there covering the conference with her camera, and she needed a darkroom, and I was there covering it with my camera, and I needed a woman.” Martin found Audrey a darkroom, and they’ve been together just about ever since.

Audrey and Martin have three children – Nicholas, 5, Jacqueline, 10, and Danielle, 13. (In addition to the 28-year old twins from his first marriage, Martin is the father of a 15-year old girl, Anana, who lives in Copenhagen). Since he met Audrey, Martin has felt that she is the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with. “Audrey is both sensitive and stable at the same time. They don’t often go together, eh?”

In recent years, Martin and Audrey, whose parents are also political activists, have begun to collaborate on projects. She was the one who pushed for the film on the hibakusha, and she worked on it as assistant director. Martin acted as consultant and cameraman for her film, La Bombe en bonus, and they recently did a TV documentary on the Quartier St-Louis, the part of town they live in.

One night, at the end of March, we sat talking to Martin in his dining room, consuming white wine, coffee, tea, and a basket of home baked muffins. Periodically, Audrey would join us, playfully shoot out some verbal sparks, and then return to the whispering banter of a conversation she was having with Danielle.

The next day, in the back garden, a bottle of Russian vodka lubricated the discussion. Kids appeared, disappeared, and reappeared. Pigeons cooed, and church bells tolled, accompanied by the many other sounds of a typical Montreal alley unlocking itself from a particularly long, cold winter. Sometimes, the soundtrack in the background would counterpoint our conversation in moments of intoxicating synchronicity. Martin mentions a beach, and a seagull screeches somewhere overhead. The subject of warplanes comes up, and-the roar of what sounds like a B-52 about to drop its payload annihilates what Martin is saying.

When Martin talks about a particular film, which contains, as he puts it, “elements that at first glance don’t seem related,” a neighbor starts relentlessly scraping his shovel on a patch of asphalt. Painstakingly, Martin continues piecing together certain thoughts, as if there were no intrusive, unrelated scraping sounds that threatens to destroy all our central nervous systems. Finally, we almost simultaneously blurt out, “Maybe you better talk a bit louder for a few minutes.” Martin pauses, considers the observation, and agrees. “Oh all right.” He pauses again. “Because of the shovel in the background?” he asks, bursting—as he often does—into a wave of delighted laughter.

Also online: the accompanying interview from this feature story.

Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

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