R.I.P. Peter Harcourt (1931-2014)

Photo by Lois Siegel

By Barri Cohen

The brilliant and always generous pioneer of Canadian film scholarship, Peter Harcourt has died in Ottawa at the age of 83. Peter created the first university level film studies programme in Canada at Queen’s University in 1969. There he mentored such young talents as Peter Raymont, Laura Sky, Michael MacMillan and Seaton McLean, and many others who went on to be leaders in documentary, drama and broadcasting. He later taught at university film departments at York and Carleton in an academic career that spanned four decades. Peter was awarded the Order of Canada in 2004 for his teaching and writings.

Peter was a prolific scholar, who authored such books as Six European Directors: Speculations on the Meaning of Style (1974), and the groundbreaking Movies & Mythologies: Towards a National Cinema (1977), inspired by the privileged optic of having been a Canadian abroad in the early days of his distinguished career.

Peter was a very strong supporter of the Documentary Organization of Canada from its inception (then the CIFC—Canadian Independent Film Caucus), when he was brought in to consult by his old student, Peter Raymont. A dramatic speaker, Peter galvanized the few troops around the table in the ‘80’s to fight for a well-funded and celebrated independent documentary community. He wrote often for POV Magazine over the years (read his profiles of Bill MacGillivray and Michael Ostroff), and was a frequent panelist in the early days of Hot Docs when I chaired it.

As a Cambridge U.K. educated Canadian media scholar, Peter recognized the fundamental role played by cultural policy in Canada. An ardent Canadian nationalist, he wrote in 1980, in the film journal Jump Cut: “[O]ne of the key techniques of an imperialist power is to divide the colonized peoples against themselves to disperse their ‘revolutionary’ energies. Helped by the sell-out policies of our federal governments, this is what has happened in Canada…Less centralized in our broadcasting policies than the United States, less confident in ourselves as a nation, we are divided against ourselves. …Canada doesn’t know what it is…At the invitation of our governing elite, Americans have bought up our industries and have colonized our minds.”

My own passion for film, documentary and cultural policy was cemented by a fateful encounter with Peter Harcourt when I was a student/intern for Peter Raymont during that galvanizing moment at the CIFC in the ‘80s when independent documentary production became established in Canada. I was so grateful years later when he enthusiastically agreed to write for us at POV Magazine. His support and writing gave the magazine that much needed boost of legitimacy in its early days in the mid ‘90s. And that’s what was so generous about Peter: he could have remained in the loftier realm of academia but he didn’t. As a former film critic and journalist himself while in the UK (at the BBC), he respected the craft, wasn’t fussy about classical boundaries and was committed to the need to reach beyond the classroom to educate in the broader sense. He saw magazines and journals like POV in this way, and was a willing participant in film festivals like Hot Docs precisely because of this commitment.

Peter, I will miss your avuncular passion and brilliant appreciation for our filmmakers and documentary artists. You will be deeply missed. May your inspiration live on for many, as it will for me.

Selected POV articles by Peter Harcourt:
Introducing Michael Ostroff
Bill MacGillivray: Telling Stories