Interviews

Moving with the Life - Interview

The Passions and Politics of Martin Duckworth

Photo by Maurie Alioff.

This interview 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

Cinema Canada: You’ve just finished a film that you shot in Moscow. And your next film will also have a Russian connection. What’s the subject?

Martin Duckworth: A Soviet jazz pianist called Leonid Chizhik. I love the guy and his music. You can hear all kinds of jazz in his playing, and what impresses me is the technical skill with which he does it. He’s a real maestro, virtuoso pianist, who puts an emphasis on the poetic and romantic. I’ve arranged for him to come to Montreal, and he’ll play at the Jazz Festival the night of July 5.

Cinema Canada: What about the Russian connection?

Martin Duckworth: The Soviet Union is an even more alienated society than we are here. Nobody believes in the system at all. The most common way of dealing with the restrictions imposed on life is through black humor, or surrealism, or vodka, or art. The trick in art is to be able to say what you want to in ways subtle enough that will pass by the censorship. And this guy has found a way of doing that through his jazz. It’s sad and funny and very beautiful and neurotic.

Cinema Canada: Has the official Soviet attitude toward jazz changed at all?

Martin Duckworth: A little. Frederick Starr, who wrote Red and Hot: the Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union, argues very forcefully that jazz and rock are a universal phenomenon – there’s absolutely no way of stopping this music of the people for most of the century. Jazz has always been a music of protest, hasn’t it? The way that musicians have of being themselves against oppressed surroundings.

Cinema Canada: You’re now in the pre-production stages of our 14th film as a director. What attracted you to film in the first place?

Martin Duckworth: As an art form, it was Abbot & Costello in the gymnasium of the NDG “Y” on Saturday afternoons. And as a profession, it was Golden Gloves, by Gilles Groulx. That film changed my life.

Cinema Canada: At this time, did you watch films “by experimental filmmakers like Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage?

Martin Duckworth: On yeah. Maya Deren’s dancing films were the ones that turned me on, and Meshes of the Afternoon. But I saw them before I saw Golden Gloves, and it was only Golden Gloves that made me determine that I was in the wrong business, and I had to get into cinema, I had to do that. Maya Deren influenced me here and there, but didn’t change my life the way Gilles Groulx did. What he did was make art out of ordinary daily life. She made art out of something that was already art. He eliminated the distinction between art and daily life.

Cinema Canada: Did you try to get into the ‘right business’ immediately?

Martin Duckworth: I told Fernand Dansereau I wanted to do that kind of thing with my life, and asked how to do it. He said, “Come to see me at the Film Board in Montreal,” which I did. He introduced me to Tom Daly, and that’s how it happened. There was two years of communication between me and Daly and Dansereau before I got to the Film Board. Meanwhile, I bought myself a 16mm camera and became the Sackville, N.B., reporter for the Moncton 1V station. Whatever great events happened in Sackville, I was the camera there to cover them during those two years.

Cinema Canada: And then you went to the Film Board in 1963 to begin training as a cameraman?

Martin Duckworth: Before I joined the Board, I came up from Sackville at the invitation of Dansereau to meet people, and the way he had me meet people was to send me out on a shoot. So I ended up in the tail of an NFB station wagon riding around St-Henri with Guy Borremans. And that day with Guy Borremans was one of the most influential days of my life. I’ll never forget it. It was the first time I ever saw a 300mm lens, the first time that I became aware that there was a picture to be taken of puddles and telephone lines and balconies and that there were things of beauty all around you every minute of the day. I watched him work and he let me look through the viewfinder at what he was shooting.

Cinema Canada: And what were your early years at the Film Board like?

Martin Duckworth: Some of us found a sense of a new human liberty, a new order by experimenting with forms of beautiful images. I tended to see films and camerawork in terms of pure beauty. At the same time, I had a foot in the civil rights and anti-bomb movements, but didn’t see any connection between that and my need to make images. Then I went to Viet Nam with Michael Rubbo, and I saw the way to make the connection. Cell 16 was my first attempt at bringing those two things together.

Cinema Canada: Did Grierson’s philosophy of filmmaking influence you?

Martin Duckworth: It certainly did, not through Grierson himself but through Colin Low, Tom Daly, Guy Glover, and Joe and Wolf Koenig. Those men influenced all documentary filmmakers of my generation. When I say that we were influenced by the Grierson philosophy through those people what I mean is that they carried on his sense of a conscious obligation towards social needs. Maybe they weren’t as politically involved as Grierson, and I don’t know why he didn’t surround himself with more politically committed people, but they were all concerned with the world in which we live and wanted to make films that would help Canadians come to terms with it. I am quite sure of that. I also know that those first Grierson proteges were all artists and humanists, and unfortunately what has replaced many of them are filmmakers who are not only non-political, but they are also nonhumanist.

Cinema Canada: When did you quit the Film Board?

Martin Duckworth: I quit in 1970. It was half idealistic – I wanted to join the rest of the world and avoid ending up in a cocoon. The other half of the reason was I didn’t like signing time sheets.

Cinema Canada: After quitting the Board, then shooting and directing there as a freelancer, you stopped working in English Production.

Martin Duckworth: The death of Challenge for Change was also the death of me in English Production. The last thing I did for them was a terrible run that led to my falling out with them – rightfully so too. It was an attempt at reducing the history of the Canadian labour movement, and its relations to the state and the capitalist system, to a film of 55 minutes. I just couldn’t pull it off.

Cinema Canada: Did someone else finish the film?

Martin Duckworth: Yes.

Cinema Canada: Were you upset?

Martin Duckworth: Oh yeah. But it was too pedantic. That film came out as a result of my going to the other extreme of art for art’s sake. It was an expression of my belief, at that time, that beauty was an impediment to the truth. Therefore I was determined to cut out all beauty from that film. A straight, functional piece. As a result, it was a complete dud. That was a good lesson to learn too.

Cinema Canada: How did you start working in French Production?

Martin Duckworth: Even while on staff as an English assistant and then cameraman, the people who meant the most to me at the Board were in French Production. Dansereau, Groulx, Jean-Claude Labrecque were the guys I learned the most from. In fact, Dansereau had asked me to join French Production even before I knew a word of French. I said no. I was too chicken. He was a real innovator, who got a lot of things going, and there he was, willing to take the tremendous risk of hiring an English person to join French Production. I didn’t have the guts, but I always remembered that. It wasn’t until many years later, after I made On l’appelait Cambodge and Histoire de femmes with two independent French producers that Jacques Vallee, who I consider to be a kindred spirit, invited me to make rums in his studio back at the Board.

Cinema Canada: Is French Production more autonomous?

Martin Duckworth: From outside influences? Yeah. You know the Film Board has a much bigger place in Quebec cultural life than it has in English Canada. Almost anybody who’s anyone in Quebec cinema was trained at the Film Board.

Cinema Canada: What suits you about the Quebecois?

Martin Duckworth: The Quebecois are not afraid of their passions. They let their passions speak freely.

Cinema Canada: So you think a filmmaker should be a passionate person.

Martin Duckworth: It’s love and passion that help you deal with the challenges of life and move you forward. I mean a love for the subject, a deep concern, and commitment and a willingness to sacrifice. I get enraged when I look at a film where there is cynicism. It does not fulfill a creative function. It eats up your nerves. I see cynicism in The Decline of the American Empire.

Cinema Canada: What tends to start you off on a subject for a film?

Martin Duckworth: I think the best runs happen when you grab a subject that appears before you, unplanned and unexpected. My film Accident is a good example of the right thing coming along to meet the kind of thing you’re looking for, and being able to recognize it and jump at it. My friend Pat Crawley had an airplane accident. I went to visit my old chum Pat to say hello, give him my condolences, and tell him that I’d been through the same kind of thing. When we got to talking, it struck me that this was a film I had to make. The next time I went to visit him, I had a camera in my hands. That film Accident brought me back on my feet and helped me gain control of myself after my skull fracture in Mexico.

Cinema Canada: There are a lot of striking and unusual juxtapositions of images and sound in your films. Do you get a special pleasure out of creating effects like that?

Martin Duckworth: Oh yes. That’s eroticism for me. That is eroticism, pure and simple. Blatant. Outright. And I’m glad to admit it. As long as other people get the same feeling about it as I do, I guess it’s OK.

Cinema Canada: Is it also being involved in some sort of magic? You put something together and what you get is more than what you expected.

Martin Duckworth: Yeah. Well, the best parts of life are like that, eh? When you’re enjoying life to the fullest you’re always juggling contradictory things and getting a kick out of it. One of my children’s greatest pleasures is playing with words, turning words backwards and upside down, throwing them back and forth between each other. They get huge laughs out of that.

Cinema Canada: Many years ago, you reported Audrey asking whether sex is a sublimation of creativity, rather than the other way around.

Martin Duckworth: That sounds more like an idea of mine, than Audrey’s. It probably comes from the same internal drive, a very fundamental drive, to create and express commitment. The feelings I have when making love are the same feelings I have when getting a good cut, or a good frame.

Cinema Canada: When you are shooting a film, do you have a sense that it is working?

Martin Duckworth: I know that if I am looking through the viewfinder, I get a feeling in my throat. I start shaking and salivating. I can tell right away if it is going to be good. But the last two films, which I didn’t shoot myself, I haven’t been able to tell until I saw the rushes.

Cinema Canada: Why didn’t you shoot Return to Dresden and Images of Moscow yourself?

Martin Duckworth: My producer convinced me that I could do a better job as director if I didn’t have to worry about the camera at the same time. Those two films were both shot in very complicated circumstances under communist regimes and under constant surveillance. He may have been right. It certainly makes editing easier if you are editing someone else’s camerawork. So I think on my next film I will do the camera and let someone else do the editing Although I like editing almost as much as camerawork. I would say about the same amount. I love it.

Cinema Canada: What do you like about editing?

Martin Duckworth: Total control and unaccountability to anybody except myself. I love being alone because it is what is missing in all the rest of my life. But in more honourable terms, you know I was a serious student of music until I dropped it for football at the age of 18. I had no social life at all throughout high school. All through those years I practiced about three hours a day on the piano and the pipe organ. And, you know, in good music, the structure of the overall piece and the structure of the passages within it are as important to its life as its musical themes and harmonies. I guess it’s as a frustrated musician that I like being an editor.

Cinema Canada: You once said that you wanted to make a film that was equivalent to a Bach concerto.

Martin Duckworth: Our Last Days in Moscow is the most conscious attempt I have made so far to do that. Dresden was also an attempt, but Moscow goes further.

Cinema Canada: Some people object strongly to Dresden. They feel it ignores the immensity of what the Germans were doing in the war, that the film portrays them only as innocent victims. How do you deal with that?

Martin Duckworth: I assumed naively that it all had been adequately dealt with, and there was no need for it in my film. I had nothing original to say about that. I also admit that I should have dealt with it. You see, I wanted to make a film that would be of use to the peace movement of today, to remind the rest of the population today that evil is not only on the other side, that it lurks in our own backyards and that we have to be very carefully watching out for it.

Cinema Canada: You said that you’ve wanted to get back to The Wish for a long time, and with Our Last Days in Moscow, you “may be getting there.”

Martin Duckworth: I meant two things. First, making a film about something that comes out of my deeper inner self. The Wish came out of my very deep concern for my twin daughters, and Moscow came out of my long-suppressed desire to be a classical musician. There’s that similarity, and the other is the play with elements that at first glance don’t seem related. In the case of The Wish, the contradiction is between my love for the children, the lake, my parents and my alienation from my first wife. In Moscow it’s between the drive for professional development and the need to develop interpersonal relations.

Cinema Canada: Did you see something unique about the arts in Russia?

Martin Duckworth: Just that they’re so important in many people’s lives and also deeply interconnected. Boris Pasternak, for example, started off by studying music with Alexander Scriabin before he started writing. And his father, Leonid Pasternak, who did the drawings that are in the film, was a first class painter. Bella, the poetess who appears in Moscow, gave joint concerts with Stanislav Neuhaus, the pianist, and she’s married to a painter, who has pictures of the four great modern Russian poets on a wall in his painting studio. The arts are all interconnected in Moscow – more so than anywhere else I have been.

Cinema Canada: Is Images of Moscow a political film?

Martin Duckworth: Well, in the larger sense of the term, it certainly has political implications in making Russians look attractive. That’s a political thing to do these days, I guess.

Cinema Canada: Does the fact you’re one of the last people around making politically committed films give you the feeling that you’re in some kind of wilderness?

Martin Duckworth: No. First of all, there are still many people around making political films in increasingly subtle ways. And second, the film community is one of many communities that I belong to. There’s still a very lively trade union movement, peace movement, and feminist movement that I’m part of. Audrey and I are good rank and filers; we’ll tum out when numbers are needed, but we don’t take any leadership role anymore, except in the field of medical care for children.

Cinema Canada: What end of the political spectrum are you on?

Martin Duckworth: I would say the red end. Listen, I’m an idealist. I don’t like anything about this business of gaining power, so I pay my dues to something called the Mouvement socialiste, and I do that in response to appeals from a friend of mine, a fantastic Roman Catholic priest, who heads up a community centre, which is run by the left wing of the church and which is bustling with activity; the seams are bursting there all the time.

Cinema Canada: You like acting at the local level.

Martin Duckworth: More at the international local level. I get involved in whatever’s going on at the local level on international questions.

Cinema Canada: Do you consider yourself a socialist?

Martin Duckworth: I believe in communism, socialism, Christianity, Buddhism – what else…

Audrey Schirmer (Duckworth’s wife): Aestheticism?

Martin Duckworth: … preached by their founders and as preached by the people who really put into practice what the founders were preaching.

Cinema Canada: The only way to believe something is to practice it.

Martin Duckworth: What you’re getting at is whether I practice what I believe.

Audrey Schirmer: Now your idealism is coming to the crunch. We’ll have to put you on the line. Do you actually believe in all those things?

Martin Duckworth: Yes I do.

Audrey Schirmer: By practicing what you preach?

Martin Duckworth: You have to call on the witnesses.

Audrey Schirmer: He doesn’t preach those things.

Cinema Canada: He just practices them.

Audrey Schirmer: No, he just likes the sound. He preaches what’s in his high school valedictory address. It doesn’t say whether he’s a socialist, or a capitalist.

Cinema Canada: Martin, what do you think Audrey’s political position is?

Martin Duckworth: It’s not an ideological matter with her; it’s a purely down-to-earth matter. You do what is useful. Whereas in my case, I tend to start off from the other end – what will work artistically.
But that’s not what the fight is about. It’s about eternity versus…

Audrey Schirmer: Today.

Martin Duckworth: I tend to think in terms of eternity, and Audrey tends to think in terms of today. That’s what’s kept us together – the creative tension between those two extremes.

Cinema Canada: You and Audrey disagree about eternity and today. What about the running of a household?

Martin Duckworth: I think I’ve grown as a partner. In our first years together, I gave myself more time for professional activities, leaving housework up to her. In the last five or six years, Audrey, who has always been a teacher of photography, started to establish herself as a filmmaker. We’re getting closer to the proper kind of sharing of duties in the household.

Cinema Canada: Does this affect your work habits?

Martin Duckworth: Yes, I can’t concentrate exclusively on my work until the kids are off to school at 7:30. I never stop thinking about my work, even when I am making school lunches, and getting the kids dressed, and doing the laundry, but the time when I can do it exclusively has become more limited.

Cinema Canada: What do you think your children have brought to your work?

Martin Duckworth: Time and more tolerance for other people. I think I have learned to understand that even capitalists can be human through my children. All humans have certain needs and you recognize that through having children. I had a hard time forgiving people for being capitalists before the children came along.

Cinema Canada: Images of homes and families occur in several of your films.

Martin Duckworth: Maybe all evil that I don’t understand comes out of the lack of home and family. It’s scary, eh? You have such a heavy responsibility as a parent I’ve seen photographs of my infancy where I was being rowed around Lake Memphremagog by my father, or displayed to my grandparents in Vancouver. They all look as if they were quite proud to have me. So I probably was really overwhelmed by love. I think I probably was.

Also online: the accompanying feature story to this interview.

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.

View all articles by Maurie Alioff »