Terence Macartney-Filgate, who recently passed away in Toronto at the age of 97, is one of the key figures in Canadian documentary filmmaking, but few even know his name. The gentleman I met in his later years would likely not have minded that a bit. For him, making the best film possible was of paramount interest: doing the job well remained the key thing.
A World War II veteran and trained aviator, Macartney-Filgate came to filmmaking in his thirties at the National Film Board. There, in the 1950s, he worked with a group of young filmmakers at Studio B—Colin Low, Wolf Koenig, Roman Kroitor, Michel Brault—who believed that documentaries could make a difference to the world. The NFB’s special group embraced the philosophy of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson of finding “the decisive moment” in an event and capturing it for people to see. Using lightweight cameras and synchronized sound, the team was able to revolutionize documentaries by applying Cartier- Bresson’s principles to film.
The Candid Eye series, produced by the NFB and the CBC in 1958, introduced the documentary form known as “direct cinema” to the world. Voice-over narration was cut back as the idea of “show, don’t tell” took precedence. Films were made in the moment, not as archival distillations. Macartney-Filgate’s entries in the series included its most successful, The Days Before Christmas (1958), a depiction of Montrealers embracing the winter through song, family, and Santa Claus, and his personal best, The Back-breaking Leaf (1959), a compassionate look at the lives of tobacco workers in the tough environment of 1950s rural Ontario.
Soon after, he joined with visionary producer Robert Drew, who had sold the American publishing company Time Life on the idea of making a doc along the lines of Candid Eye. Drew recruited Albert Maysles, Ricky Leacock, and D.A. Pennebaker to work on his film Primary (1960), an unvarnished profile of the charismatic John F. Kennedy running against establishment figure Hubert Humphrey in a key nominating election during his successful 1960 campaign. Macartney-Filgate was enlisted to join the crew. The Drew doctrine was simple: no narration, film direct action, with no interference. The NFB’s “direct cinema” was renamed as “cinema verité” in the US after Primary attracted droves of viewers.
In the ’60s, Macartney-Filgate continued as a freelancer before truly increasing his reach in a film with William Greaves. His friend Greaves was the first major Black North American documentary filmmaker, and made films with the NFB, the United Nations, and the US Information Agency before embarking on his most extraordinary project, the meta-documentary Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968). Macartney-Filgate was the shooter and co-conspirator on what is still an impressive and challenging work.
Over the decades, Macartney-Filgate remained true to his high standards. Having chosen to return to Canada, he became a distinguished freelancer at the NFB and CBC and for independent producers. In 2011, he received Hot Docs’ Outstanding Achievement Award, a worthy acknowledgment of his great career. It served as the last major accolade for a life dedicated to the best of documentary film work.