Martin Duckworth: the man behind the camera

18 mins read

In Alan Ball’s American Beauty, Ricky Fitts, a teenager who videos everything in sight, shows his girlfriend Jane Burnham footage of a sacred moment in his life. The couple gazes at a parking lot on a cold autumn day as a white plastic bag turns in the air and floats to the ground. Ricky explains to Jane that the moment revealed to him an “entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force.” Constant filming keeps Ricky in touch with the world’s beauty, which he craves even when it breaks his heart.

For director and cinematographer Martin Duckworth, cameras are instruments for finding beauty, no matter how ordinary, or extraordinary, or burdened and suffering the people, places, and situations he films might be. Duckworth, I’ve been told, will leap up from shooting an interview if he needs to record something that just caught his eye. Like passing trains, for example, which have had poetic resonance for him since he was a child listening to distant freight cars in the Montreal neighbourhood of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.

When Duckworth, now approaching his 50th year as a filmmaker and still going strong, learned to shoot, he “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.” Recently, he found beauty in the lives of hip-hopping Montreal North dropout dudes as the cinematographer on Ma vie réelle (My Real Life), a just-completed film directed by his close friend, the late Magnus Isacsson. In his new directorial effort, Fouad’s Dream, Duckworth focuses affectionately on a “Palestinian friend of mine who wants to buy a hotel that once belonged to his family in Haifa. Fouad is a great character, a dynamic entrepreneur who has managed to survive in six different countries.”

A few years ago, Duckworth got equally enamoured with the brave sightless people he discovered for his doc Acting Blind (2006), which shows men and women of different ages talking about their idiosyncratic survival strategies while rehearsing their roles in a stage play about their affliction.

Acting Blind is one of many Duckworth projects that celebrate the splendours and practical purposes of artistic creation. A self-confessed “frustrated musician who was once a serious organ player,” Duckworth “gave up music for college football. I’ve always regretted that. Getting into film was my way of finally coming to terms with the loss. I never forgave myself for quitting the organ until I got accepted as an assistant cameraman at the film board in 1963. Then I began to let it go.”

Duckworth’s Shared Rhythm (1990) follows a five-day world music festival in Montreal, and Oliver Jones in Africa (1990) tours with the virtuoso pianist. His Crossroads: Three Jazz Pianists (1988) contrasts the music styles cooked up by three jazzmen, including Soviet pianist Leonid Chizhik, whose presence in the film gets across the idea that jazz is anti-authoritarian, an idea in tune with Duckworth’s political viewpoint. He deplores “the right-wing swing, both in the U.S. and Canada.” With its “suffering and increasing surveillance, it will be horrible in four years. I’m lucky I’m 78 years old,” he says segueing to his deadpan humour mode. “I can go under the radar. I don’t think I’ll be followed around.”

One of Duckworth’s most logistically ambitious film, Return to Dresden (1986), reveals the flip side of a deeply felt belief in humanity’s essential goodness Duckworth learned from his socially engaged parents. In life and in docs like No More Hibakusha! (1983) and Back to Kampuchea (1982), he expresses a WTF incomprehension of wanton destruction. In Return to Dresden, only the healing power of music offers redemption from the horrific, and possibly unjustified, World War II fire-bombing of an ancient German city. The film highlights the post-war re-birth of Dresden’s Opera House, and a performance of The Marksman, the last opera performed in the classically beautiful theatre before it was blown to pieces.

Our Last Days…in Moscow (1987), another Duckworth film with a musical motif, is his personal favourite, possibly because of the romantic yearning that saturates the doc. It conveys the story of two pianists: Taiwanese Kuo-Yen and Quebecker Pierre Jasmin, who fall for each other and then separate when she returns home. Lonely, yearning for his girlfriend, Jasmin love-bombs her with images, words, and music associated with their last days together in Moscow, where she competed in the Tchaikovsky Competition.

In 2008’s The Battle of Rabaska, like Acting Blind a doc produced by the National Film Board, Duckworth and co-director Magnus Isacsson use folk music laments and blues to celebrate the determination of activists fighting the construction of a potentially dangerous liquefied natural gas shipping port that will uglify one of Quebec’s most gorgeous and historically significant areas. Rabaska is social-issue filmmaking graced by Duckworth’s sensitivity to the emotions crossing the faces of its characters, not to mention their beloved hometown of Beauport and nearby Ile d’Orléans.

Duckworth’s short The Wish (1971), the first movie he made from his own original idea, probably comes closest to unadulterated visual lyricism. It depicts the golden-curled twin daughters he fathered with his first wife as they visit his parents at their country place. All sunlight and angelic closeups of the eight-year-old girls, The Wish is a meditation on familial love, the past, and the transience of youthful beauty. The magical girls in the film, Duckworth points out with a smile, are now 51-year-old, accomplished women he talks about with the pride he obviously feels for all his seven children, including the cinematographer in Copenhagen and the “terrific actress” who recently played Lady Macbeth.

Duckworth and photographer Audrey Schirmer, who he has “been with since 1971,” had three children together. “Danielle is a social worker in Halifax. Nicholas, 29, has a medical degree from McMaster, and Jacqueline is an autistic child who lives on an ex-farm where she gets workshops in weaving, carpetmaking, woodcarving and cooking.

“And there are a lot of things happening on the grandchildren front,” Duckworth laughs, obviously aware of his mind-boggling fecundity. “Of my 11 grandchildren, the first arrived 21 years ago, the last just three months ago.” He sees them regularly or as often as he can, depending on what city or country they live in.

When son Nicholas hooks up with the right girl and fulfils his intention of having three children, Martin says, “I will have 14 grandchildren. I don’t think I’m decreasing global over-population, but I think I am increasing the creative talents that are helping to make a better world.”

Clearly, Duckworth, who according to an acquaintance of his remains attractive to women as he approaches his 80th birthday, needs plenty of family in his orbit. But of course he also “wouldn’t know how to live without a camera because it has been my pencil and brush for the last 45 years.”

Duckworth Loves To Shoot. Filmmakers tell me that when they need a camera for one reason or another, he generously tries to fit them into his schedule. Recently, I asked him at the last moment to film some interviews, and he handled every detail of the shoots with good nature and smooth precision.

“I’m still improving my skills,” Duckworth says. “Things in documentary film happen unplanned and unannounced. You have to be ready to roll. You have to be aware of what’s going on in your subject’s mind and eyes. If I let anything go for a few months, I would worry about it coming back.”

For friends and colleagues who call on Duckworth’s services, that will never happen. “Martin is the one you call at midnight when you’ve just learned that there is something that must be filmed the next day, you have no crew and no money, and you’re desperate,” says director Anne Henderson.

Veteran producer and director Abbey Neidik adds, “Working with Martin, you always feel real support from someone who’s been through it all for many years. You hope there’s a film there, and the fact that he’s been through the journey so often, you say, ‘Okay, he’s got my back.’ When he says, ‘This is good stuff,’ you know it is.”

Neidik’s wife and professional partner Irene Angelico says, “I used to think there must be two Martin Duckworths. Now I realize there must be 20. How else could he direct and shoot so many documentaries, film every important event in everyone’s personal life, be there to initiate or support worthwhile efforts, greet every visiting filmmaker, see every new doc, and still be such a wonderful dedicated husband, father and grandfather to his evergrowing family? Martin is a formidable force, but in his own laid-back and gentle way.”

Like many of Duckworth’s pals and collaborators, filmmaker and translator Margaux Ouimet is amazed by the bicycle-riding 78-year-old’s unstoppable stamina. “A few years ago,” she remembers, “we shot an interview with Pete Seeger for my project on José Marti, the Cuban poet who wrote the words to ‘Guantanamera.’ Martin drove the whole way from Montreal to the little Hudson River town near New York City. He filmed the interview with Pete Seeger, did the transfer of the material onto a hard drive, and handled the 7½-hour drive back home on the same day.”

You can’t help thinking of Jack Kerouac and peripatetic Neal Cassady, especially when you consider that when Duckworth was a student at Yale, he immersed himself in the beat poets and looked like a restless hipster who could have been one of the dudes Sal and Dean run into on the road.

As a cinematographer, Duckworth has worked with filmmakers like Gilles Groulx, Don Owen, Don Shebib, Laszlo Barna and Peter Watkins. “In the spring of 1969, Martin and I made Sad Song of Yellow Skin together in Vietnam,” recalls Australian moviemaker Mike Rubbo. “The wonderful and also the difficult thing about the tall, slow-talking fellow with the infectious laugh was that he was fully engaged intellectually in the film. When I latched onto the Island of Peace in the Mekong Delta as a place full of ironic meaning that I must film, Martin did not agree, thinking it was somehow a cop-out. We had furious arguments. Later, Martin said he’d been bloody-minded about the island, and did film on it with me for a day or two. Of course, I’ve always enjoyed him as a best friend and soul mate, a man of the purest integrity as well as being marvellous company.”

Duckworth recalls the creative difference about whether or not to shoot on the island, agreeing that it was good material for Sad Song. But with his typical self-deprecating, irreverent humour, he says, “The real reason I didn’t want to shoot it is that I wanted to go home.” An understandable impulse given the severe dysentery attack that floored him the night he arrived in Saigon to shoot Rubbo’s intimate depiction of war-blasted, Saigon street kids.

Ironically, the lover of the world’s beauty, the aspiring cinematographic poet and antiwar idealist, found himself in an American military hospital, the only facility offering the treatment he needed. At night, trapped in bed, Duckworth’s senses were assailed by the transformation of the ward into a strip club. It was like some lost sequence from Apocalypse Now. Even if Duckworth could have bypassed his disgust with the exploitation of the pretty young Vietnamese women and enjoyed the spectacle, the agony of a catheter in his penis eliminated any possible titillation. “How could I feel anything with that thing sticking out of me?” he laughs.

Duckworth, who appreciates the way laughter can emerge from darkness, has development money and a broadcast licence for a film that “mixes humour and tragedy.” The project is called Mother House, the nickname of an arms manufacturing plant that employed many Montreal working-class women during World War I and II. The new film would track the creative process leading to the launch of a play about the factory written, directed and produced by David Fennario (Balconville), who in 2002 was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a neurological disease that robbed him of almost all movement.

“David is an old pal of mine,” Duckworth explains, “and I want to do a portrait of him as he creates this play. Here is a man who is severely handicapped, and yet has not lost any of his creative powers, and he’s just as much fun to be with as he ever was: irreverent, funny, and devastating when it comes to political and economic critiques of the ruling class.

“He’s a great film character,” continues Duckworth, who sees tragic beauty in Fennario’s struggle. He knows he will have the kind of “intimate relationship” with his subject that motivates his documentaries.

This isn’t the first time Maurie Alioff has profiled Martin Duckworth. Read the interview and profile from the June 1987 issue of Cinema Canada.

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