Canada has lost an exceptional person with the death of Colin Low. One of that cadre of film-makers who built the National Film Board of Canada into an institution with a world-wide reputation for the quality of its films, Colin spent almost his entire working life as a member of the staff, and made himself into such an expert that I always thought of him as a veritable encyclopaedia of film-making knowledge.
He was, in addition a man of great personal generosity, as I can personally attest, and one with such a wide interest in the wonders and marvels of life as to leave many of us who tried to keep up with him, more often than not, in the words of the song, bewitched, bothered (not so much) and sometimes bewildered.
In addition to his film-making expertise he became over the years an expert in the workings of government, and knew, better than anyone I have ever met, how to enter the labyrinths of government decision-making in such as way as to turn them to his, and the NFB’s advantage.
I first came in close contact with him in 1971 after I had quit my job on The Montreal Star. At that time he was running Challenge for Change, the innovative programme that arose out of his work in Fogo Island, Newfoundland. His action in persuading the islanders, who were scheduled to be removed when their settlement was closed by the Newfoundland government, to permit him to film their reactions to this decision by assuring them that they would be the first to see anything he filmed, and if there was anything they did not like he would destroy it, virtually changed the relationship between documentary film-makers and their subjects, and aroused world-wide interest. The outcome was that, when the islanders’ opinions were transmitted to the government, the proposal to obliterate Fogo Island was reversed, and it exists to this day.
He asked me if I would do some research for his programme, and eventually suggested I might like to co-direct a film I had suggested. I had no film experience, did not know one end of a camera from another, but he put me together with Tony Ianzelo, one of the most brilliant and sensitive staff cameramen-directors, and the pair of them put up with me, warmly greeted what I could bring in the way of handling information, and generously ignored my many other deficiencies, treating them as if they did not exist. The result of this collaboration was the film Cree Hunters of Mistassini, which in 1975 won an award from the British Academy of Film and Television --- a fitting tribute to Ianzelo’s superb camerawork. But without Colin this film would never have got off the ground.
It happened that the film, supposed to be about Aboriginal Rights, was to be on a subject which was disapproved by the Prime Minister of the time, who really didn’t understand the issue, and thought he had it summed up by saying one part of society could not enter into a treaty with the other part. Consequently, when they got word of the film proposal, a notice came down from “the highest authority” in Ottawa that the film should not be made, and work on it was shut down. A couple of weeks later Colin suggested maybe we could recast the proposal as a series of four half-hours about Indians in Canadian society. One of the four could be about their relationship with the land. He circulated the 14 members of the governing board of the Challenge for Change programme, obtained their agreement, and we then went out and got to work as if on our original proposal. “You always have to remember,” Colin told me, “there is always someone in the government who agrees with you.”
I suppose I might say here --- I don’t think it will be a surprise to anyone who knew him --- that I found as an administrator of a studio, Colin did not rank among the decisive bosses; in fact I got the impression that there was seldom a decision requiring urgent attention that Colin did not believe could be made tomorrow. Nevertheless, Challenge for Change was his baby, and the world-wide interest it aroused was almost entirely due to his leadership. We made two one-hour films in that series, and he was also instrumental in forcing the second of them called Our Land is Our Life through the bureaucracy when the department most closely concerned, Indian Affairs, opposed its release on the grounds that it was full of errors. While they were scrabbling around trying to justify this complaint, Colin took a rough cut of the film to an international conference of information officers in Sweden. There, it created a sensation for its criticism of government policies over the years. Are you sure this is a government film, they asked. They were certainly not into doing anything like that. What are you into doing? Colin asked cooly. They were into the government telling people what they wanted. “But,” rejoined Colin, “who is telling the government?
Having received such accolades internationally, Indian Affairs, who in any case had found no errors in the film, had no option but to agree to the film’s release. Not only that, but eventually they paid an extra $30,000 so their name could appear in the credits as a sponsor.
I tell these stories because they illustrate the way this remarkable, quiet-spoken, mild-mannered man had of getting his way even in the notoriously reluctant corridors of power. I tell them also because they encapsulate how the qualities that the skilled cadres who earned for the NFB its reputation worked for the public good. We need far more such men.
There was almost no subject that Colin Low was not intensely interested in, and had read voluminously about. My last professional contact with him came when, after having been the brains behind so many other films, he decided to make a film expressing his personal views. I worked on helping him write a script. It was a real challenge. Every day he came to the office with another idea. Every day I would loyally re-write the script to include the new stuff. Only to have to change it, or even sometimes remove it, the next day. Eventually I realized I was not really helping him, I simply was not well enough informed, not patient enough, not brainy enough, to do what was asked. So I withdrew, and the film was completed, apparently to everyone’s satisfaction.
I suppose one might conclude on the basis of that story that Colin could occasionally be difficult to work with. In his latter years at the NFB his interests in the escalating new developments in the technologies of film-making took him far beyond anything I could comprehend, or even sympathize with. But until his retirement a few years ago he continued to be in the forefront of global thinking about film and how it was shot, edited and related to life.
That Colin Low was, in his particular field, a great man, I think cannot be doubted by anyone who knew him.