Bill MacGillivray: Telling Stories

The documentaries of William D. MacGillivray

Kent Nason (L) and Bill MacGillivray

If he is known at all, Bill MacGillivray will be remembered as the director of intricately structured dramatic features in the 1980s and 1990s. Stations (1981), Life Classes (1987), The Vacant Lot (1989), and Understanding Bliss (1991) received mostly affirmative acclaim although minimal distribution. Along with a shorter film, Aerial View (1979), these films were all specific to the Maritimes. They entailed journeys, both psychological and geographical, and frequently refused any settled sense of linear time. Part of this style was a recurring disjunction between image and sound, challenging the way we relate present to past. Evidently, these narrative strategies proved too complex for the Canadian distribution system.

Ever adaptable, MacGillivray then wrote and directed two seasons of Gullage’s for the CBC (1996-97), an off-the-wall sitcom grouped around a taxi stand in MacGillivray’s home town of St. John’s, Newfoundland—a series totally different in tone and style from the previous work. Although it needed another season to round off its narrative zaniness, the CBC had other plans.

As cultural animator, MacGillivray has been active in the Atlantic provinces since the 1970s. He was one of the founding members of the Atlantic Filmmakers’ Co-operative (AFCOOP) in 1974 and created Picture Plant in 1981. Along with the features, MacGillivray and his partner/producer Terry Greenlaw have also engaged in other projects, producing Clement Virgo’s One Heart Broken into Song (1999) and co-producing John Walker’s Men of the Deeps (2004). As funding priorities have shifted, MacGillivray and Greenlaw have turned to documentaries, achieving increasingly accomplished work.

On 14th December 2005, to mark the 70th Anniversary of the Canadian Film Institute (CFI), Tom McSorley, the director of the CFI, brought the team to Ottawa along with Alistair MacLeod for the Ottawa premiere of their latest documentary, Reading Alistair MacLeod (2005), a film as intricate in its structure as the best of the dramas. The screening was a splendid event, playing to a packed house and an enthusiastic audience. During this visit, McSorley and I talked to the filmmakers about their work, snippets of which punctuate the discussion that follows.

Picture Plant’s move to documentary has been more practical than aesthetic, as Terry Greenlaw explains: “The big difference is that with documentaries, you don’t need a distributor to trigger the financing. And that’s what gets in the way of producing dramas. In our case, because our personal dramas aren’t very commercial, documentaries are easier to finance. We can often get the television sale to put into the financing but we just can’t get the distributor. And you can’t go to Telefilm without a distributor. But we’ve never had trouble selling to television.”

MacGillivray’s career in documentary began casually, with a film about Harold Horwood, a family friend. Although little known in the rest of Canada, Horwood has been a substantial figure in Newfoundland as a political organizer, Member of the Newfoundland House of Assembly, journalist and co-founder of the Writers’ Union of Canada. In 1980, encouraged by the success of his first novel Tomorrow Will Be Sunday, which had become a best-seller, Horwood abandoned journalism and moved to Nova Scotia, the better to devote his life to writing. Subsequently, he has written more than twenty books of fiction, history and travel.

Little of this information appears in MacGillivray’s documentary, The Author of These Words (1984). MacGillivray’s approach is presentational and elliptical, inviting Horwood to talk about himself and expatiate upon his views. However, the film also honours his writing. At the opening, as the camera travels over a wooded evening landscape, we hear Horwood reading from The Foxes of Beachy Cove (1967):

As it glides through the well-known passages of the forest…the voice of the great horned owl floats far out across the night: “Whoo-whoo-whoo-o-o” a sound that seems to me unutterably sad, expressing the tragedy that is at the roots of all life on earth. To the mouse or the rabbit, it must seem like the very voice of doom. But they do not know, as I know, that the angel of death bears the gift of life in his other hand. …Blood and agony, joy and the upsurge of life and the shadow of death are all woven into the one cloth, indivisible. And this is the tragedy of which the great owl sings.

These words establish Horwood as a philosophical vitalist in the manner of D.H. Lawrence. Like so many writers from the Atlantic provinces, however, Horwood’s writing also celebrates the particularities of the land on which he lives: the quiddity of landscape and the specialized vocabulary of the sea.

In his political views, he is insistently partisan. Having been active in founding a free school, he fulminates against institutionalized education, declaring that all schools and universities should be burned to the ground. But as with Farley Mowat, who appears in the film, Horwood’s true convictions are difficult to separate from conventional male blarney, as if he were always speaking for effect.

What are we to make of the author of these words? MacGillivray doesn’t say. We hear Harwood reading from his works; we see him typing away furiously, his fingers serendipitously in synch with the rhythms of a Bach partita on the soundtrack; we hear him talking about his bisexuality as a cut-away to his wife and children might suggest that they want no part of this film or of these ideas. But MacGillivray doesn’t sermonize. After spending twenty-five minutes with Harold Horwood, we have to decide for ourselves how his achievements relate to the paradoxes of the man.

From this simple beginning, attitudes emerge that will inform the subsequent work of Picture Plant documentaries, as they have informed the dramas. First of all, as with the dramas, there is the local focus—a constant concern with the Atlantic provinces and with the people who live there. Secondly, sometimes mischievously, there is a reluctance to explain. People appear in MacGillivray’s documentaries and remain unidentified, as Horwood’s wife, Corky, is unidentified in this film. MacGillivray believes that observing unknown people intensifies our relationship with them—a relationship that would be diminished were they identified by captions. “I hate captions,” he explains. “Terry won’t let me use them. The point is that you can meet someone on a bus and have a chat and you will find out all sorts of wonderful things and have a real engagement with that person and then they’ll get off the bus and you don’t know their name. You don’t know who they are, you don’t know where they come from, but you engaged with them.”

Along with this unwillingness to explain, there is often an elliptical quality, a limited interest in cause and effect. This unwillingness parallels a similar unwillingness in the dramas to clearly establish a linear narrative. Things simply are and, over time, they accumulate. By not embedding incidents in narrative, they can be valued simply for what they are.

Again like the dramas, there is a sense of both a personal and cultural journey, as if looking for a finer significance. There is Horwood’s journey from journalism to more creative modes of writing, as he also journeyed from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia. And in the documentaries that follow, we’ll see journeys across Canada and then, in his resplendent new film Silent Messengers, a mystical journey to the north.

Finally, there is in all the films from Picture Plant an ambulatory quality. There is nothing hurried about the films of Bill MacGillivray. They demand both our attention and our time. Terry Greenlaw has suggested that this was once an Atlantic characteristic, but MacGillivray fears a sense of personalized pacing has been ironed out of Canadian filmmaking. “I think our culture in the Maritimes has been usurped,” comments MacGillivray. “We don’t have it any more in the same way that the rest of Canada has lost the will to tell their own stories at their own pace, in their own way. The pressures are on us to go in that direction, and you can see it in some of our foremost filmmakers. The pressure is on them to lose their connection to themselves.” Throughout his life, Bill MacGillivray has been determined not to lose his connection to himself.

Linda Joy Busby

Linda Joy Busby was a woman whose love of life shone from her like a beacon. With radiant eyes and glistening teeth, the energy of her person animated every expression that crossed her face. While still a young woman, she developed breast cancer. She refused the recommended mastectomy in the same way that she refused the disease. As co-ordinator of AFCOOP, she wanted to make a film that would document the battles she fought with the medical profession; and at that time, it would also have documented her triumph over her disease. One day, while visiting Mike Jones in Newfoundland, he persuaded her to simply tell her story, which she did as Jones filmed her in a series of single takes. Shortly after that, she fell ill and died. When MacGillivray inherited the footage, by selectively reworking it on an optical printer, he produced an exceptional film.

By utilizing these out-takes from Linda’s life, interspersed with slow fades to black, MacGillivray devised a vital construction that tells the story of a woman’s fight with cancer. The only additions consist of black-and-white freeze frames which appear as Linda moves towards death; and then, over black leader, MacGillivray’s hushed account of his last visit to her in hospital.

Through the authority of its construction—step-printing, deliberate changes of mood, and, the delicate balance it achieves between image and sound—it is transformed into a minimalist fiction film. Linda Joy is no more. Linda Joy (1986) survives as the depiction of a struggle—a struggle universalized by the way that it has been presented. In its quiet way, Linda Joy is a perfect film.

When MacGillivray attended the Nova Scotia College for Art and Design (NASCAD) in Halifax in the early 1960s, it was a small Victorian college teaching the classical skills of life drawing and landscape painting. In 1967, with the appointment of Americans Garry Neill Kennedy and Gerald Fergusson, the college was transformed into one of the most exciting art schools in North America becoming a hotbed of artistic modernism. All of a sudden, NASCAD was the place to be.

I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art (1990)

The title of MacGillivray’s film on NASCAD comes from a work of art. Scribbled in white chalk on a blackboard over and over again like a punishment exercise set by an angry teacher, the title I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art (1990) was designed by John Baldisari, preserved beyond its moment of installation by Garry Kennedy, and then kinetically recreated for MacGillivray’s film. Punctuated throughout by the discordant sounds of the Canadian Creative Music Collective (CCMC), the group that features, among others, Michael Snow on keyboard and flugelhorn, Boring Art becomes an anthology of the artistic innovations of the time.

Among the many artist/instructors at the school, Dara Birnbaum stands out not only by the quality of her work but by her recognition of the downside of the college. “The college was isolated in many ways,” she explains. There was little concern with nurturing, and the prestige of the visitors “almost blinded some of the students.”

Although the recurring appearance of NASCAD’s work lends a formal authority to its structure, Boring Art retains Picture Plant’s ambulatory quality. We see MacGillivray talking with artists such as David Askevold and Eric Fischl or chatting about living in Cape Breton with photographer Robert Frank. Boring Art begins with Joseph Beuys receiving an honorary degree and ends with Michael Snow receiving one as well. In his wry way, Snow equates artistic work with ambiguity. “It’s to the credit of the college,” he concludes, “that it seems to have taught the excitement of involvement with ambiguity.” Given his proclivity to withhold information, MacGillivray also enjoys an involvement with ambiguity.

Because 1994 was the International Year of the Family, the National Film Board initiated a film about changing patterns in family life, hiring MacGillivray to direct and Greenlaw to produce. From sea to sea to sea, the MacGillivray/Greenlaw team travelled by train about the country, to make For Generations to Come (1994), looking at seven different models of family configurations.

For Generations to Come (1994)

After we encounter an ethnically mixed marriage in Regina, we meet two sad but loving families in Newfoundland and Baffin Island, each in their different ways trapped by their economic situation. We visit a blended family in Toronto who we might feel are all living in bad faith and a communal family in Vancouver whose situation really seems to work. They live in pods, one woman explains, like whales. And these pods are mutually supportive and truly intergenerational, with seniors and infants living side by side.

The film concludes with a lesbian couple in Fredericton who have taken turns giving birth to three children. They admit their family “is not perfect but not bad. …There’s a lot of love in our house. And what more does a kid need? A little Pepsi sometimes,” one of them concludes with a grin. The final credits run over mini-portraits of all the families, and then the train moves on.

If For Generations to Come is the least satisfactory of Picture Plant productions to view as a film, it is because it is more additive than accumulative. The emotions we experience from each family occlude those we felt from the family before. Because the film has no overriding emotion, there can be no catharsis. Spectators are left with the issue of familial alternatives uneasily unresolved.

Before MacGillivray made Generations, he had made a short film for the local CBC. Memories of the Day (1992) opens with an orange frame, as if to emphasize the dimension of portraiture in filmmaking. Indeed, this film becomes a collective portrait of the horrendous effects of the harbour explosion in Halifax of 6th December 1917, “the largest man-made explosion prior to the Americans’ destruction of Hiroshima.” Memories is constructed through a series of superimpositions. Black-and-white images form the backdrop for coloured images of survivors, both whites and blacks, talking about the explosion. The background images move from single shots of devastated houses to group shots of people and finally to the morgue and to wounded children in a hospital. Meanwhile, we hear tales of unimaginable grief—a dazed woman clutching her headless baby; a woman searching for a lost shawl and then abandoning the search once she sees the morgue.

Memories of the Day (1992)

During the group shots toward the end, a female voice recites statistics concerning the aid that was supplied to the city, creating a strange sense of irrelevance in the face of such grief. Meanwhile, the haunting sounds of Scott MacMillan’s piano contains balladic hints of the Second World War song, “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree,” suggesting a link between the devastation of the explosion and the ravages of war. Since there can be no closure to such a calamity, the song never achieves its final cadence, as if aftershocks from suffering are still being felt.

Although MacGillivray is unhappy with the technical quality of the film, I would argue that, along with Linda Joy, Memories of the Day is one of the most moving films he has made. This film does work through accumulation and it does achieve catharsis. MacGillivray ends his film with a return to the orange frame, within which young people of today look out at us. The final shot is a freeze-frame of a beautiful young black girl, smiling into the future. Outside the frame is the rest of her life.

2005 was an annus mirabilis for Picture Plant’s production: shooting concurrently, MacGillivray and Greenlaw completed two feature-length documentaries, Silent Messengers and Reading Alistair MacLeod. Greenlaw had come across the work of the arctic ethnographer Norman Hallendy, whose book Inuksuit: Silent Messengers of the Arctic (2001) presents the mysteries of the ancient stone monuments around the areas of Cape Dorset and Igloolik.

After Hallendy expressed interest in the film, the filmmakers invited the actor/sculptor Natar Ungalaq from Atanarjuat (2001) to join the expedition. Paradoxically, neither the white man nor the Inuit knew much about these ancient monuments and, at the outset, they didn’t know one another; but from this shared exploration, a friendship developed and a wonderful film emerged.

The crew of Silent Messengers (2005)

As the opening title scrolls across the screen, the camera tracks forward over snow to the sounds of dogs panting with a hint of throat singing. These sounds continue as we witness a swarm of snowmobiles, their lights blazing, moving towards us—as in the dramas, destabilizing the relationship between image and sound. A cut to a long shot renders the snowmobilers small and sharp, virtually silhouetted within the white expanse of snow and sky. Silent Messengers is about wonder—the wonder of those enigmatic monuments but also the wonder of arctic light that enthralls the eyes. Assisted by HD technology, Kent Nason’s cinematography is exceptional as is both the music and sound design.

The slow pace of Silent Messengers is like a retrieval of time; and, as the characters wander about and visit people, evidence of technology in arctic life is everywhere.


Not only are there snowmobiles, but stone carvings are now made with electrical tools and Natar often carries a video camera, making his own film. And yet, everyone is still telling stories. The presence of the oral tradition is what links this film to Picture Plant’s Maritime productions. And everywhere in MacGillivray’s world there is a concern with continuity, with the importance of time. Although no one knows exactly what they mean, the Inuksuit are also telling stories. Mute to modernity, they speak the past and, in their inertia, signify continuity.

Silent Messengers ambles slowly towards its own form of narrative resolution. As in the dramas, what happens to the characters is far less important than what happens between them. Norman and Natar visit Inuksuk Point, a site studded with these ancient monuments. Although among his own people Natar is a storyteller, on this expedition Norman is the storyteller and Natar the listener, willing to learn about his own culture from this older white man from Ontario.

Evening falls, and after Natar sings a song he has composed, he asks Norman if he’ll read him a story before they go to sleep. “That’s one of the best things,” Natar explains, “before you go to sleep.” Then, having howled like wolves at the half moon, as if beginning his bedtime story, Norman’s voice explains that “Most earthly journeys come to an end. Yet there’s an ancient expression: I travel to places of vast horizons where journeys last a lifetime.” And then, to the sound of water against the silhouetted stonescapes, we hear Norman say again what sounds like “Time,” and the film ends.

Hearing that MacGillivray was planning a film on Alistair MacLeod, I wondered how the filmmakers would animate their subject. MacGillivray solves the problem with an abundance of stories—stories by MacLeod, of course, but also stories about him. The film gains enormously from the fact that an opera by Christopher Donison based on a MacLeod story is being rehearsed at Banff. This rehearsal opens the film and informs the tone throughout.

Although MacLeod was born in Saskatchewan in 1936, by the age of ten he returned with his family to their farm in Cape Breton. Later, MacLeod worked in mines out West to finance his education, finally securing a job at the University of Windsor. But every summer he returns to Cape Breton, where he does his writing.

Reading Alistair MacLeod (2005)

Until the meteoric success of his novel No Great Mischief in 1999, MacLeod was know as a writer of exquisitely wrought short stories published in two slim anthologies: The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun (1986). Recurringly concerned with birth and death, the stories are epic in reach and yet possess the simplicity of fable. For instance, the opening paragraph of As Birds Bring Forth the Sun:

Once there was a family with a highland name who lived beside the sea. And the man had a dog of which he was very fond. She was large and grey, a sort of staghound from another time. And if she jumped up to lick his face, which she loved to do, her paws would jolt against his shoulders with such force that she would come close to knocking him down and he would be forced to take two or three backward steps before he could regain his balance. And he himself was not a small man, being slightly over six feet and perhaps one hundred and eighty pounds.

This was the sort of writing that, prior to his novel, gave MacLeod his specialized reputation.

MacGillivray’s film provides little of this information. It alternates between scenes of MacLeod in his home in Cape Breton with scenes in his office at the University of Windsor. Along with moments from the opera, there are incidents involving other authors, either reading from MacLeod’s work or commenting upon it. There are also interviews with his children.

Among the storytellers are Lisa Moore, the Irish writer, Colm Toibin, and David Adams Richards who relates an incident involving MacLeod when they were both at Banff. When Richards’ wife saw MacLeod walking around their house, they invited him in. MacLeod had a story to tell, he explains, which would last forty-five minutes. He came in, sat down and told his story, which lasted exactly forty-five minutes! This anecdote confirms MacLeod’s closeness to the oral tradition which is so strong in the Atlantic provinces and which permeates MacLeod’s work.

This tradition is mentioned again in an extended sequence involving the American author Russell Banks who describes how their writing habits are completely different. While he gathers a bunch of rocks and throws them in a pile from which he constructs his fence, MacLeod knows in advance where every rock will go. He composes each sentence in his head before he writes it down, “like one rock at a time and placed exactly where it belongs.” Then Banks reads from a story and comments on the biblical cadence of its prose.

Another scene occurs at a literary gathering on Pelle Island that Margaret Atwood has persuaded MacLeod to attend. As we see him reading from As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, we notice that he is as much reciting from memory as reading from his text. Afterwards, Atwood explains that writing is like musical notation. “A page is simply a sheet of notation and its notation is for voices.”

The film ends with an outdoor family gathering at the MacLeod home in Cape Breton for which MacLeod is dressed in full Scottish regalia, kilt and all. As he pulls his extended family into the frame—his wife Anita, his children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews—someone asks, “Is there anyone missing?” This question serves to end the film.

For a viewer like New Brunswicker Tom McSorley, who knows both Maritime culture and MacLeod’s writing more intimately than I, there is an added poignancy in that final question. Although this information is not in the film, the MacLeods lost an infant son many years ago, which may or may not have affected the sense of loss in so much of his writing. As McSorley explains, “It’s the perfect ending. Because in his work, there’s always somebody missing. And of course in their life, there is also somebody missing. That’s what so powerful about his stories: they’re all about absence. And longing.”

Reading Alistair MacLeod is an extraordinary film. Along with Silent Messengers, it is the culmination so far of the leisurely paced and often strikingly beautiful work of Picture Plant productions. Let us hope that, along with more fine documentaries, we can soon see another dramatic feature by William D. MacGillivray.