Interview with Martin Duckworth, documentary filmmaker.


Montreal-born Martin Duckworth came to filmmaking from a background in history. Duckworth was on staff at the National Film Board of Canada from 1963 – 1970 and since that time, has made films there as a free lancer. He has done camera work on 84 films and has directed or co-directed close to 30, most, but not all of them at the Film Board. 

He is active in the Canadian peace movement, and his 1994 film, Peacekeeper at War: A Personal View of the Gulf War follows in a line of work concerned with war and its effects.

Some of Duckworth’s later films are Acting Blind (2006) and The Battle of Rabaska (2008), which he co-directed with Magnus Isacsson.

Duckworth is a member of the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC) and l’Association des Réalisateurs et Réalisatrices du Quebec (ARRQ). He is the father of six daughters and a son, grandfather of ten, and lives in the shadow of Montreal’s mountain.

 He is currently working on a film about Palestine.

 To see some of his films, including No More Hiroshima, Return to Dresden and Riel Country:






Q: How do you understand or see the relationship between art and democracy?

A:  Without art, democracy would be dead. Art is the most important thing in keeping the critical awareness alive.  In art, I am including creative journalism, as well as music, painting, film-making, poetry.  I think it is essential, the most essential thing there is. I don’t think about democracy very much. I do think about art a lot. I devote my life to art in all its forms.  I do read political journals.  I read The Nation, I read Naomi Klein’s every word. I think her quality of journalism is high art because she is a master of the English language.  So I guess democracy is a political word and doesn’t imply art.  Art is a separate realm. And art would need a democratic political framework in order to thrive.  One world depends on the other, in both directions.


Q. What about all the incredible art that came out under the church, which wasn’t democratic.

A. I would have to say that was what kept critical intelligence in those times when there was no democratic framework.  You’re talking about the windows in the Gothic cathedrals.


Q. All the ceilings, Michelangelo, da Vinci.

A. Those guys, it was quite a freedom of expression, in the Renaissance, when those guys were working.


Q. Some, with De Vinci, he was backed by the Medici family.

A. Probably right up to the twentieth century, artists needed some kind of backing. When you say there were far fewer artists before than there are today, it’s because the arts have flourished more when there is a democratic political setting. Bad art and good art.  When art depended on wealthy backers, it was only the geniuses that got the backing, the Rembrandts, the Bachs, the Beethovens, but who knows what other artists might not have flourished if they had the financial backing.  Today we have a much bigger pool.  So maybe geniuses now have a better chance of arising out of poorer circumstances than they used to. I don’t think I would have been happy living in the Renaissance. I don’t think so.  You really had to be a genius to survive as an artist in those times.


Q. So you are positing somewhat that in a democracy we get more bad, but also more good stuff.

A. The arts are flourishing, but documentaries are starting to go downhill in Canada because the right wing is starting to take over. Our funding is cut. Documentaries take a lot of money, it takes a lot more money to make a documentary than to write a poem or a song.  We are dependent on state subsidies. I don’t have private backers. They do in the US. There are private backers for filmmakers in the US. I think we are more conservative, less risk-taking in this country.


Q. If your documentaries were less political, would you get more money?

A. No. Money is affecting not only political film-makers, but all documentary film-makers because a good documentary makes you think critically, not only on politics but on all other aspects of life.  We are heading towards a fascist era in this country, if we keep going the way we are going now, where there is no place for critical thinking.  I have been active in the Justice for Adil Coalition*.  I just flew with him to Halifax where he had a speaking engagement and I witnessed the terrible harassment he was subjected to by the border guards, who followed him on the airplane, followed him all the way home.  He wasn’t able to get on the plane to come back so he had to rent a car to come back and they followed him on the highway. We have fascism in the bushes now.

It’s getting worse.  It started to go that way under Paul Martin

Q. Has the way you approached documentary changed over the years? 

A. They have become more political.  I started off making films about friends and family and got more political when I met my wife, Audrey, who comes from a very politically active family.  Actually, the Hiroshima film was a suggestion of her father, who was in touch with the peace movement in Japan.  He is an active member of the Anti-Imperialistic League in Boston. He did a history of it, he’s an historian. So I have tried to make films that combined characters with political stories, messages, over the years. 


Q. Going back to the October crisis, can you tell us if artists from the Anglophone milieu, like you, feel that Quebec’s democratic rights had been usurped and if so, are you involved in such issues?

A. The October 1970 issue? Gaston Miron, Gerald Godin, Pauline Julien, Michele Lalonde led a fantastic outburst of poetry and music at that time. Certainly there was suppression of Quebec artists prior to Bourassa under Duplessis, but it was the artists that led to the Quiet Revolution, Borduas, Riopelle, Felix Leclerc, Gilles Vigneault   In 1972, that was the worst thing that Trudeau did, declaring the War Measures Act, sending the army in.  But he did not succeed in suppressing the arts. The arts exploded as a result.  In the same way, they defeated the Tories in Quebec last year.  They tried to suppress the artists in Quebec and had the opposite effect.


Q. In your documentary, Return to Dresden, what were the atmosphere and feelings you encountered when you were shooting the film about the allied carpet bombing of Dresden and the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union and East Germany?  What were your feelings and reactions?

A. It was under the Communist regime. East Germany was still alive and well under Hünniger. It was a very difficult film to shoot.  We were under surveillance, weren’t allowed to meet any people in the peace movement in East Germany, they made it impossible, a very repressive atmosphere.  We were allowed to film because the subject of the film was what happened in 1945.  And the people of Dresden were very moved to have among them someone who had come to apologise for his role in the destruction of their city. We were followed everywhere. I didn’t have freedom of movement at all.  But the authorities had to display a certain respect for former allies coming over to apologize for the bombing of Dresden, so they allowed us to work as long as we didn’t get in touch with members of the peace movement. The woman who greets us at the beginning of the film, recites a poem near the end, committed suicide soon after we were there. We suspect it was because life had been made difficult for her as an actress because she was too outspoken.  It was a courageous thing for her to make herself available to us, a western film crew.


Q. Are you satisfied with that film?

A. I am crazy about classical music so whenever I can do a film about classical music, I am happy, particularly if there is a political message.


Q. What recent work has struck you with its artistry or honesty or beauty?

A. Mark Achbar, The Corporation. It’s a superb work of research, on the same level of intelligent frameworking and researching as Naomi Klein’s work.  Great characters. Very strong story line.  Those are the elements of any good documentary. The same Robert Cornellier’s film about the Alaskan oil spill twenty years ago, Black Wave, The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez. It’s a film that just came out last year and it’s an extraordinary film. The visuals are kind of secondary. The visuals are there to tease you, to get you into the content, whatever the story is.


Q. What issues are presently important to you?

A. Palestine. Palestine is the worst thing happening now and we are all going to be dragged into another terrible confrontation if we don’t give the Palestines justice.


Q. You heard Robert Fisk speak about the Middle East and his position was rather pessimistic.

A. I was brought up in a socialist, pacifist, Quaker family that gave us confidence in ourselves and in human nature and through building alliances that we can change the world. And I still believe that. I have to believe that. I can’t see any point to living if I don’t believe that. Robert Fisk has other ways of enjoying life besides writing books. He listens to a lot of classical music, he reads great literature, he is very knowledgeable about Shakespeare. He doesn’t let politics get him down, because he sees a lot of hope in other arts. I have Palestinian and Jewish friends who believe it is essential to find justice for Palestinians and I share a belief with them that it has to come. We can’t allow it to go on like that.


Q. What film are you presently working on?

A. I have a Palestinian friend who is a business man, whose family owned a hotel in Haifa before they were evicted in 1948. He was three years old at the time. He’d like to get that hotel back and open up Haifa to Palestinians abroad.


Q. So the film about Palestine is close to your heart?

A. Yes. I’ve been in Palestine on three or four films and quite aware of the situation there now.


Q. Given free rein, what subject would you choose to work on?

A. I would go into my Haifa story.  I’d like to do a thorough research in the role played by Lester Pearson in splitting up Palestine into two pieces in 1947. Pearson has a major role to play in that. Initial research shows that it’s been largely covered up. It would require a person of Naomi Klein’s stature to dig into it and find out more about it.  It’s one of the worst things this country has ever done, under a good man, supposedly.  How did he allow himself to do it. I heard from one of his colleagues that he regretted it. But I would like to get more evidence of that.


Q. What else would you like to do?

A. I can’t imagine doing anything else. Although I started late in life, I didn’t get into film making until I was thirty years old, it’s become pretty much an obsession with me, I can’t imagine doing without it. I have a very manageable, high-definition camera, light-weight enough to carry in spite of my age. I love working on my Final Cut Pro editing system. What else would I like to do?  I wish I could play the piano again. I still have a piano and I do play once in a while. If I had time, I would love to play it a lot more.


 * In February 2009, the Federal Court finally lifted most of the interim conditions imposed on Adil Charkaoui. Adil was arrested under a so-called security certificate in 2003. Adil Charkaoui is one of five men in Canada who are undergoing the Kafka-esque security certificate process. All are still subject to the agonizingly irrational “security” certificate process, deeply invasive and suffocating bail conditions, and live under threat of deportation and torture. The Coalition Justice for Adil Charkaoui formed in Montreal in a matter of days after Charkaoui’s abrupt arrest.
The Coalition is an alliance of Muslim groups, refugee and immigrant rights organizations, anti-oppression groups and the Charkaoui family.

Susan Dubrofsky is a Montreal artist and graphic designer.