British-Canadian documentarian and direct cinema pioneer Terence Macartney-Filgate has died in Toronto.
The filmmaker died on July 11 from complications resulting from Parkinson’s disease. He was 97.
A long-time collaborator with the National Film Board of Canada, he wrote, directed, produced and edited more than 100 documentaries across an illustrious career that began in 1956, with a series of post-war educational films.
A key figure in the cinema vérité movement of the 1960s, Terry Filgate – as he was known to most – worked with contemporaries including Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock and Al Maysles under the umbrella of American collective Robert Drew Associates, which produced seminal documentaries of the era, including “X-Pilot” (1961) and “Primary” (1960).
Filgate served as principal photographer on the latter film, which chronicled then-senator John F. Kennedy’s primary campaign against Hubert Humphrey.
American work aside, he will be remembered for his remarkable filmography with the NFB, with which he made 31 documentaries across a 40-year period. Beginning with “Emergency Rescue – T33 Jet Aircraft” (1956) and ending with three-part epic “Canada Remembers” (1995), Filgate contributed immeasurably to documenting life in the Big Country.
Career highlights include “The Days Before Christmas” (1958), an observational doc that chronicles the run-up to the festive holiday in Montreal, and which was among the first films to capture cinema vérité using a handheld 16mm camera; and “The Back-Breaking Leaf” (1960), an eye-opening portrait of the arduous seasonal work taken on by travelling tobacco leaf-pickers in rural Ontario. (Both docs, along with a dozen of his other films, are free-to-view on the NFB website.)
The filmmaker also worked extensively with Canadian public broadcaster CBC, with credits including “Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Road to Green Gables” (1975), “Grenfell of Labrador: The Great Adventure” (1977) and “Fields of Endless Day” (1978).
“With the passing of Terence Macartney-Filgate, the NFB has lost a dear friend and passionate champion of documentary cinema,” said NFB chairperson Claude Joli-Coeur. “A key figure in the NFB’s legendary Unit B and its Candid Eye series, he helped to revolutionize non-fiction storytelling. Terry would go on to make historic contributions in the independent sector, both in Canada and the U.S., and as an educator at York University. Whatever he did, he approached with his enormous talent and dedication.”
While perhaps lesser-known than his American contemporaries, Filgate nevertheless accrued an impressive list of accolades. He was honored with a Peabody Award for “Changing World: South African Essay” (1964), a WGBH doc examining the political machinery behind Apartheid; he won the Cannes Film and Television Festival’s Eurovision Grand Prize for documentary for “The Back-Breaking Leaf”; and he earned a Canadian Gemini prize for best social/political documentary program, for “Timothy Findley: Anatomy of a Writer” (1992).
The latter was one of many trophies bestowed in his home of Canada, where he also claimed two Canadian Film Awards (for “Blood and Fire”  and “The Hottest Show on Earth” ) and an Ontario Film Institute Award. He received the Hot Docs festival’s Outstanding Achievement Award in 2011 and was named an Officer of the Order of Canada – one of the country’s highest civilian merits – the same year.
And, perhaps most remarkably, he can lay claim to having directed an Academy Award-winning documentary – albeit without receiving the statue or glory that typically accompanies such a feat.
In 1962, he was hired by producer Robert Hughes to helm “Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World,” a film on the life of the titular iconic American poet, following the departure of original director Shirley Clarke. After finishing the doc, however, Clarke exercised a contractual right to be credited as the movie’s sole director, relegating Filgate to a lesser credit. The picture went on to take the 1963 Oscar for best documentary feature.
Such under-appreciation perhaps befits a filmmaker oft-noted among friends and colleagues for his modesty. As his wife Lorna Novosel, a retired speech-language pathologist, recalled: “Terry was confident and had a healthy self-image, but he never played politics to move his career forward. He used to say, albeit facetiously, that he would become a forgotten footnote.”
When they first met, Filgate was Novosel’s gliding instructor. After marrying in 1993, they spent most summer weekends wind-borne together at the Southern Ontario Soaring Association.
Flying proved a defining feature for much of Filgate’s life. Born in the U.K. and raised in India, he joined Britain’s Royal Air Force at the age of 18, going on to fly 17 missions over Italy as a flight engineer during the Second World War. In later life, he taught in Toronto and at UCLA, where his film students included Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of The Doors.
In spite of his achievements, friend and filmmaker Mark Cook recalls a director who typified one of the quintessential Canadian characteristics: modesty. “Of the big filmmakers I’ve worked with over the years, he was by far the least pretentious and the least concerned with his own image,” he told Variety. “And, outwardly at least, unconcerned about his legacy.”
Macartney-Filgate is survived by his wife and his three children, Michèle Macartney-Filgate, Adrienne Campbell and Terry Macartney, as well as five grandchildren.