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2018 Focus on John Walker

Honouring John Walker with a retrospective during Hot Docs’ 25th anniversary Festival is a pleasure and a joy. He’s not only a master documentary director, cinematographer, writer and producer, he’s also been instrumental to the development of independent documentary film in Canada and co-founded the Documentary Organization of Canada (then the Canadian Independent Film Caucus), which founded Hot Docs in 1993.

Walker has built a rich body of superbly crafted and formally inventive independent documentaries. They’ve been screened around the world, broadcast in Canada and internationally, written on extensively, and have been nominated for and won over 60 awards.

Walker was born in Montreal in 1952 and given his first camera—a little Brownie—at the age of five by his artist-photographer father. He graduated to a Rolleiflex at eight, and fell in love with the magic of images emerging from darkroom baths.

His Celtic grandmother was a major influence who took him to Scotland to learn about its age-old myths, landscape and history. The importance of myth became the subject of The Fairy Faith, his 2000 visual feast that tours Celtic lands to argue for the power of imagination.

As a young photographer in the late ’60s in Montreal, Walker saw fiction films in art cinemas and documentaries by the National Film Board of Canada, which would later co-produce many of his films. When he moved to Toronto, he was influenced by the visionary thinking of Harold Innes, pursued photography and studied the work of Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Paul Strand, who became his mentor. By the mid-’70s, he was back in Montreal working as a sought-after cinematographer for Budge Crawley, engaging in social and political issues and soaking up the craft of documentary.

Many of Walker’s early films, made with Britain’s BBC and Channel 4 in the 1990s, told of the devastating effects of war and authoritarian regimes. Orphans of Manchuria and Hidden Children tell tragic stories of children separated from their families in the Second World War. The Hand of Stalin episodes detail the devastation of state-caused famine in the Soviet Union, and the arrest and disappearance of thousands deemed “enemies of the people” in Leningrad. Testimony from both victims and perpetrators in these films is frighteningly relevant to today’s rhetoric.

Walker’s presence on camera or through his voice as narrator and storyteller in many of his films invites viewers to accompany him on his cinematic journeys. His approach reflects a deep humanist philosophy that he shares with many of the artists and thinkers who have inspired him, and he provides an ethical imperative to engage with both historical and contemporary (and often controversial) issues.

Innu and Inuit history and resistance to the devastating effects of the colonial project in the Canadian North is the subject of three of Walker’s films. Place of the Boss: Utshimassits details the devastating effects of the forced relocation of Innu to Davis Inlet, while Arctic Defenders tells a story of the visionary Inuit that led to the founding of Nunavut.

In the multi-award-winning tour de force Passage, Inuit statesman Curley Tagak presents Inuit knowledge that interrogates the creation of history itself, and disproves the official British version of the Franklin expedition. And Walker’s personal family history as an English-speaking Quebecer during the Quiet Revolution and separatist movements in the ’60s and ’70s inspired the passionate point-of-view storytelling in Quebec My Country Mon Pays.

Artists and musicians are also the subject of many of his films. We’re thrilled to open the retrospective with a rare 35mm screening of Strand: Under the Dark Cloth, a biography of American photographer Paul Strand that premiered in 1989 and went on to win multiple awards.

Walker’s directorial debut was Chambers: Tracks and Gestures in 1982, a biography of Ontario painter and experimental filmmaker Jack Chambers. Walker’s respect for working-class men’s lives is powered by their songs in Men of the Deeps, a vérité portrait of coal miners in a world-renowned choir in Cape Breton. And the life-affirming joy of seven master drummers who gather in northern Ontario lake country to host a drumming camp in 2010’s A Drummer’s Dream remains one of the all-time audience favourites at Hot Docs.

While it’s a challenge to select from this rich body of work, we’re delighted to present five compelling films to represent Walker’s creativity, commitment and mastery of documentary storytelling. In addition, the director is making six films available for free online screening during the Festival at johnwalkerproductions.com.

He will attend all of his screenings at the Festival, and we invite you to join us in the theatre to experience and discuss his extraordinary life’s work.

– Lynne Fernie

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