Allan King – The Forgotten Pioneer of Documentaries

The films of Allan King as astoundingly difficult to come across, and maybe even harder to endure in some cases. The Canadian documentarian is a little known pioneer of a style now famous in documentary filmmaking – Cinema Verite – one that focuses on capturing things in a very matter of fact manner as a ‘fly on the wall’. King didn’t make many films, but the legacy left behind by his work is still most definitely felt today, not only in documentaries but across all genres because of his introduction of the verite style that inspired many social realist dramas, documentaries and approaches to filmmaking in general.

Warrendale - 1967 - Home | Facebook

Only around five of King’s films are still available today, and this is thanks to the Criterion Eclipse series releasing a boxset containing five of his works. The earliest of these five films is Warrendale, the film that says the most about King’s approach to filmmaking and the duties of a documentarian. Working in a similar style to the more well known and more lauded Frederick Wiseman (who is fantastic in his own right!), Warrendale is a film that focuses intently on the lives of twelve ‘emotionally disturbed’ children living together with carers over a five week period. Using the verite approach to allow the children to act normally, as if the cameras aren’t even there, as well as to allow the film to be as unobtrusive as possible to the volatile situations these children find themselves in. Being made in the ‘60s, the film also acts as a relic of a time passed and portrays a massively different approach to how these children would be looked after today. King’s first available film perfectly encapsulates his cinematic style, as his out of the way approach to his subjects allows the audience to see things as they usually would have occurred, allowing the emotion of the characters to become far more real than most other documentaries at the time that tended to function as talking head interview pieces. Warrendale is harsh and harrowing, and only made more upsetting because of its brief moments of beauty or joy – it is one of the greatest documentaries of the 1960s, perhaps even of all time, and marks the landing of one of the greatest documentarians to never get the credit he deserved.

A Married Couple (1969) | The Criterion Collection

King’s next film, and certainly his most popular, was A Married Couple; a film that saw King take the same approach he used in Warrendale and now apply it to the observing of the titular married couple as they struggle with the usual domestic disputes that face every other family. Again, the film is quite harsh because of its very frank approach to these disputes, which comes from King’s unique style of showing his subjects as raw and almost entirely unfiltered, and makes the film all the more difficult to watch. King’s very matter of fact slice of life direction makes his films feel just as real as they are, whilst many documentaries and their directors end up unintentionally manipulating their scenes and subjects in the process… or even do it intentionally, like Werner Herzog on Grizzly Man and his other documentaries to date. Thanks to the bravery of his subjects, A Married Couple has become a key example of the verite style of filmmaking, and remains an under-appreciated touchstone of the genre. It’s grim and tough to watch, but it holds within it so many universally understood moments that it becomes impossible not to feel empathy and/or sympathy towards the subjects and their situations.

1970s Challenge (April 2018) - Page 6 - The iCM Forum - Come ...

A few years later, in 1973, King chose to focus on the lives of children again. Come On Children sees what happens when a group of ten teenagers live together without adult intervention for ten weeks. Certainly functioning as King’s most pleasant filmic follows the carefree teens as they mostly goof around and learn how to live independently, learn how to engage socially with each other on a larger scale as rules and regulations come into play, et cetera. Again, King doesn’t really change his mode of filmmaking here, but he does slightly shift it so that it can accommodate the more freewheeling events that this one has as the teenagers are left to do anything they want – his camera speeds up to keep up with them, it whips around their meetings and it still keeps enough distance to feel like a quietly observing eye as opposed to an intrusive lens intent on capturing things too closely. Come On Children is an appropriately laid back and gentle or tender viewpoint of teenaged dreams and the want to be free of overbearing parents – it’s a film that understands and empathises with the young and allows that little bit of freedom that can often be so necessary. As was said before, it’s certainly the most beautiful of King’s films, which sets up the next one quite nicely.

Dying at Grace (2003) | The Criterion Collection

After 30 years of radio silence, King returned and made Dying At Grace in 2003. Dying at Grace makes a nice contrast point to King’s other work as it makes all of his other films feel quite small, fitting considering that it is the last available work of his. Dying at Grace is a brutal observation of five terminally ill patients in a care unit as they share their final days, and their eventual deaths, with the film crew – and King never looks away. With a hefty two and a half hour runtime to boot, it’s certainly understandable to see why not too many people have taken on the burden of watching this one through to its bitter end. King’s techniques here become more impactful than ever due to the brutality of his subject matter, and the film seems to crawl rather than hurtle toward its ending as he employs some characteristics of the slow cinema movement to add more to the impact of the ending for each person involved. 

Though very few of his films ever became available, the work in cinema/documentary filmmaking is still most definitely felt in films today as the verite style continues to increase in popularity, now being the mode of choice for most independent dramas (albeit with a more traditionally artistic edge in the cinematography most of the time). His empathy for his subjects and the way he controlled his camera have never quite been met by any other documentarian to date, and it’s not difficult to see why – King was a special talent and he brought forward some of the most forward thinking ideas expressed in films in the 1960s, an accolade to be proud of. It’s a real shame that his films never quite received the credit they deserved, and one can only hope that they may continue to grow in popularity to someday become well known examples of a crucial shift in the way that documentaries and dramas (as well as films that combine the two genres) are made even now, almost 60 years after King’s invention of the style. 

Allan King - Wikipedia

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