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Canadian Masters: William D. MacGillivray (Interview & Reception)

  • Knot Project Space (Main Level) Arts Court 2 Daly Ave Ottawa Canada (map)

Canadian Film Institute Executive Director Tom McSorley will conduct an extensive, career-spanning onstage conversation with William D. MacGillivray and his creative producer partner, Terry Greenlaw, looking at their remarkable body of work together at Picture Plant, their ideas on cinema and media, and their collaborative artistic process. In English.

Reception with MacGillivray and Greenlaw to follow (with cash bar).

In 2013, William D. MacGillivray received the Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts. Tom McSorley wrote this letter of nomination.

To the Governor General’s Visual and Media Arts Awards:

I am writing to nominate William D. MacGillivray for an artistic achievement award in the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts for 2012. The reasons for his being deserving of this honour are legion, and they reflect not only his achievements as one of Canada’s most accomplished filmmakers, but also his considerable contribution to the evolution of independent filmmaking in this country.

For almost four decades, since he was a founding member of the Atlantic Filmmakers Co-operative in Halifax in1974, MacGillivray has personified the spirit of independent, artist-driven filmmaking in Canada. His film and television work, in both fiction and documentary modes, is searching, cinematically sophisticated, consistently challenging and intelligent. Beyond his own critically acclaimed, award-winning body of work, his impact on the filmmaking community in Atlantic Canada is monumental, both in terms of his dedication to nurturing and mentoring new talents, as well as his passionate articulation of the necessity of telling the stories of Atlantic Canada from Atlantic Canada with moving images.

Born in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1946, MacGillivray studied art at Concordia University and film at the London Film School before settling in Halifax in the early 1970s, where he taught art in local schools. As mentioned, he was instrumental in establishing the Atlantic Filmmakers Co-operative in Halifax. Film co-operatives emerged in Canada in the mid- to late 1970s and were essential catalysts for aspiring independent filmmakers in various parts of Canada to gain access to the apparatus of film production and make films in their communities. Then and now, the ethos of this co-operative ‘movement’ was to enable and encourage the making of films that are artist-driven, aesthetically daring, and that speak with a non-commercial, personal and authentic voice. It is no surprise that MacGillivray would be a prime mover in establishing such an organization in Halifax, as it is very much his own credo as a film artist and his own approach to producing his own work.

Founding his independent production company, Picture Plant, in 1981, MacGillivray has written, directed, and produced some of the most important films in contemporary Canadian cinema. Starting in 1979 with Aerial View, as writer-director he has made five feature fiction films: Stations (1983), an introspective drama about a journalist traveling from Vancouver to St. John’s by train to attend the funeral of a friend; Life Classes (1987), this story of a young woman from Cape Breton who takes control of her life through art, was critically acclaimed (noted film scholar Robin Wood declared it “one of the ten best films ever made”) and was the only Canadian film invited to Official Competition at the prestigious1988 Berlin International Film Festival; The Vacant Lot (1989), a sensitively rendered story of a young woman’s coming of age, also featuring the first screen role for a young Rick Mercer; and Understanding Bliss (1991), a groundbreaking film about a love story gone awry shot entirely on the then very new format of video.

MacGillivray’s feature fiction films explore ideas of identity – personal, national, cultural – in a world increasingly dominated by mass media and technological communication systems controlled by those who live far from his characters, in distant and predominantly urban putative centres. In many senses, MacGillivray’s works are prescient in how they ponder the complex and ambiguous impact of technology on individuals and societies who consume it. In all his films, too, he depicts characters striving to locate themselves, to speak with their own voices, and to discover the quietly radical idea that the ‘centre’ is where they are and that they are in fact not at all marginal. As the cultural studies professor protagonist in Understanding Bliss exhorts to his students, “Tell your own stories. Get to know who you are.”

These ideas also animate MacGillivray’s other impressive catalogue of works in the non-fiction, or documentary, filmmaking practice. They include I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art (1988), an offbeat and revealing look at a remarkably creative and contentious period in the history of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design; For Generations To Come (1994), an examination of the contemporary Canadian family in all its various incarnations; Reading Alistair MacLeod (2005), exploring the life, personality, and art of this internationally renowned Nova Scotia author; Silent Messengers (2005), an astute cultural collisions ‘road movie’ with ethnographer Norman Hallendy roaming the vast northern landscapes accompanied by Inuit actor and star of Atanarjuat, Natar Ungalaq; and The Man of A Thousand Songs (2010), a perceptive, intimate portrait of Newfoundland singer-songwriter, Ron Hynes.

His documentary work is informed by a rigorous investigation of his various Canadian subjects, along with an incisive interrogation of how documentary cinema itself functions; that is, how it claims to construct authoritative knowledge. In MacGillivray’s hands, then, the documentary form itself is practiced as a way to explore the very processes by which such filmmaking produces, or conceals, knowledge and meaning. This philosophical critique of and inquiry into the form as it is being practiced is a consistent feature of MacGillivray’s cinema in all its manifestations. His is a cinema of reflective, subtle, utterly conscious exploration.

In addition to fiction features and documentary films, MacGillivray also wrote and directed a television series between 1996 and 1998 that aired on CBC. Set in and shot entirely on location in St John’s, and described at the time as a combination of Coronation Street and Twin Peaks, Gullage’s is an idiosyncratic, wildly witty 13-part series revolving around a very unusual taxi company and its middle-aged cabbie protagonist, Calvin Pope, experiencing an ongoing existential crisis.

In addition to this array of work, MacGillivray’s creative engagement in the Atlantic Canadian production scene has moved Picture Plant into producing a number of films by other directors, again in both fiction and documentary categories. These include Ken Pittman’s feature length drama of economic hardship in Newfoundland, No Apologies (1991) and Toronto filmmaker Clement Virgo’s screen adaptation of George Elliott Clarke’s One Heart Broken Into Song (1999). In documentary, Picture Plant produced John Walker’s Men of the Deeps (2003), a portrait of the famous Springhill Miners Choir.

William D. MacGillivray: exemplary Canadian film artist,creative producer, mentor to generations of young Canadian filmmakers, and original catalyst in evolution of independent filmmaking in Atlantic Canada. The range and quality of his work is astonishing. His prodigious and protean contributions to the media arts in Canada make him a superb and richly deserving candidate for this award.

Tom McSorley
Executive Director
Canadian Film Institute