Knowledge's Rudy Buttignol reminisces about Canadian documentary great Allan King

Canada lost one of its most innovative documentary filmmakers when 79-year-old Allan King, a pioneer in the Direct Cinema genre who was born and raised in Vancouver, died on June 15.

As part of a tribute to King’s work, the Pacific Cinémathí¨que  (1131 Howe Street)  will present five of his films and a short Monday and next Thursday (September 21 and 24), including a 1956 study of Vancouver’s homeless men (Skidrow), a 1967 examination of therapy for emotionally disturbed children (Warrendale), and the 1999 documentation of a project aimed at reconciling Estonians and Russians (The Dragon’s Egg).

On Tuesday (September 22), the Vancouver International Film Centre (1181 Seymour Street) presents King’s first dramatic feature, Who Has Seen the Wind, an adaptation of the W.O. Mitchell novel; the 2003 documentary Dying at Grace screens on Wednesday (September 23). The latter work’s commissioning editor, Rudy Buttignol—now president of Knowledge (formerly known as the Knowledge Network)—will introduce the film, which is about five terminally ill patients at Toronto’s Grace Health Centre.

Buttignol spoke at length about his fond memories of working with King. The pair made four films together: The Dragon's Egg, Dying at Grace, Memory from Max, Claire, Ida, and Company, EMPz 4 Life, King's last film, about Toronto inner-city kids dealing with pressures of gang and street life.

"We had a great working relationship because we kind of avoided the broadcaster-producer circle of deceit. I never pretended to tell him how to make a film and he never pretended to listen."

Buttignol said that King had first approached Buttignol, who had been a fan of King's A Married Couple, about a film he wanted to make about a social experiment in Eastern Europe (which became The Dragon's Egg). After seeing what King did with The Dragon's Egg, Buttignol thought, "This guy is one of Canada's true masters—he's a living treasure."

Subsequently, Buttignol told him, "Whatever you want to do next, I'll commission it."

After a few months, King came back to Buttignol with an idea for what would become Dying at Grace. "He felt he was getting old, he was getting on, and the end was near and he wanted to know what that was like. Because there was so much mystery and fear around people's last minutes."

Although Buttignol thought it was a great idea and that it hadn't really been done before ("he wanted to follow people right to their very last breath"), he had reservations. Buttignol told King, "I know you want to find out what happens because you feel you're closer. I'm trying to avoid it. The idea of having to sit through this stuff just fills me with dread."

After a prolonged discussion, Buttignol relented. He told King, "Okay, if you're going to do it, then I've got one condition. And that is you have to have some humour in it. Because there's no way that you're going to go through this thing and not laugh at the absurdity of life and everything."

King promised he would include some humour in it.

"What he had to do was he had to figure out not only what hospital he would deal with—what palliative care unit in a hospital he'd deal with—but he had to figure out a protocol of how do you ask people—the person that'd dying, the family that's in a difficult position, the physicians, the support staff—how do you ask people in such vulnerable positions to be part of a film, when they'd be so emotionally torn? So he had to develop a protocol for himself so he could ethically engage people."

King worked for a year with people at Sunnybrook Hospital to research the subject. Although he learned what he needed to about the issues involved, he found that Sunnybrook wouldn't be able to give him what he wanted. "He was such a master—he was so precise in what he needed—he was willing to throw the year away because it wasn't right, and he didn't want to be compromised," Buttignol said. "But he did learn stuff. Eight months later, he was shooting at Grace Hospital."

After the premiere of Dying at Grace  at the Toronto Film Festival, where it was received with thunderous applause and endless questions during the post-screening discussion period, King happened to see Buttignol across the room in the lobby. "We looked at each other and he yelled out, 'Did you see that laugh I built in toward the end?' And I said, 'Yes', and he said, 'That was for you'." King never forgot his promise.

Buttignol felt extremely lucky to work with King. "The one thing that I had at that period was my belief as a commissioning editor, was just to trust the talent. I had a guy who was a living treasure in Canada. The fact that other broadcasters were not lining up to commission him was their misfortune, my good fortune. The idea that we would have these living treasures and they've got to scrape around for money—it seems insane."