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Published 18 November 2013

John Smith’s Lifetime Achievement Award speech

John was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Directors Guild of Canada gala at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto on October 26th.

Below is the eloquent and most moving speech that he gave on this big occasion.

Introduction by Tim Southam

We all know about the HBO Revolution, the Basic Cable Revolution and of course we’re right in the middle of the Netflix Revolution. But before HBO, AMC and Netflix, there was The Boys of St. Vincent.

The Boys of St. Vincent is John N. Smith’s audacious 1992 film starring Henry Czerny, Johnny Morina and Brian Dooley. It tells the story of the systematic abuse of boys by priests at a religious orphanage. It is a film so politically provocative, so unflinching in its portrayal of the abuse yet so sensitive in recording its emotional impact upon the boys, that the movie broke out of harness and played on screens large and small all around the world. Originating as it did in television it rewrote the Canadian filmmaking playbook and reminds us now what is possible when an exquisitely made film also has a mission.

Not only did The Boys of St. Vincent kick off the decade which saw TV emerge as a dominant creative platform, not only did the film push boundaries socially and politically, it crystallized the casting and performance strategies John had developed on his three earlier films Sitting in Limbo, Train of Dreams and Welcome to Canada, and then took with him to Hollywood to direct three films, including his hit movie Dangerous Minds starring Michelle Pfeiffer.

This brings us to the question of country. At the height of this Hollywood success, John decided that telling Canadian stories making full use of the creative freedom Canadian productions generally offered him was his true calling. He came north and gave us more provocative films like Dieppe, Random Passage, Love and Savagery, Prairie Giant and The Englishman’s Boy. And this would be a good place to acknowledge something remarkable: As I look at John’s table I see a family of filmmakers – John, his partner Cynthia Scott and his son Bruce Smith. What a powerhouse.

John’s work is enshrined in film history: An Emmy, an Oscar nomination, multiple Geminis, a DGC Award, major box office and ratings success and reams of rave reviews have mirrored John’s every move. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada. More importantly, he did jail time - for refusing to reveal his sources on a story about the FLQ.

And this brings us to the question of country and city: John is a Montrealer. John has said that in Montreal a person cannot avoid politics. The same can be said of watching his films. Watching John N. Smith’s films is exciting, it is inspiring, and it makes political consciousness seem as essential as breathing. Let’s watch some clips.

VIDEO

It is my honor to introduce the 2013 recipient of the DGC Lifetime Achievement Award, Mr. John N. Smith.

John’s speech

(first some off-the cuff thanks you’s…)

When I got that phone call from Sturla, telling in his wonderfully enthusiastic way
that the DGC had decided to give me this honor ,….I was ,….well…astonished..… I always harboured a private sense that I had had a career, but to tell you the truth I didn’t think anybody else noticed.

Then came the bad news…I was going to have to stand up in front of you all and speak…then came more bad news…I was going to have to put together a clip of my work…I was going to have to look at my own work.

But the bad news became good news…What happened next was that I started to look at my films, at least the ones I could get my hands on….This was something I had not really done, …generally when I had finished a film it would take me a couple of years before I could even look at it. When it was fresh, all I could see were the mistakes I had made, the problems we never found solutions for, then I would move on to the next project. But here I was, retired, with time to sit and absorb a lot of my films. I must say it was a rewarding experience, looking at work that was done even in the 70’s and 80’s...I found it was a great pleasure to revisit so many moments that had been so intensely lived….there were Pierre Letarte’s wonderful images…..imagine, for a couple of decades I always had the same cinematographer…merci infiniement Pierre…there on the screen was the work of all those superb actors, there were those great passages of dialogue by Des Walsh, Guy Vanderhaeghe and my own son Bruce Smith ….great editors, production designers, and those so-misnamed chieftans, the first AD’s….I learned so much from people like the great Tony Lucibello… so many wonderfully skilled and dedicated people.

So here I was, living not in the present but in the past, and it brought me back to how this all started, back in the late sixties.

I was a graduate student in Political Science and History at McGill, the Vietnam War was on, I was very engaged politically, sit ins were in the air, we took over the administration building at McGill, I was right at the center of it all.

After a memorable week of us occupying the building and being thrown out by the police, I found myself in the office of the local CBC news and current affairs producer.

I was there with my friend Ron Blumer, who was a budding filmmaker. We said we had been very poorly represented by the media and wanted to tell our side of the story. Ron was the filmmaker guy and I was the content guy. The CBC producer, a lovely man, Paul Wright, said okay,…. he gave us a half hour television program to make, paid us fifty dollars each, and we spent the next month or so cooking up a cross between a film and a tv current affairs show. Well, the experience of putting ideas onto a screen, all the details of thinking and researching and writing and taking still photos, recording interviews and sound effects, filming, and editing, re-writing, putting it all together…what was to me this magical process of creating something that comes from what you think, what you feel!!!!….. I said to myself…. this is what I want to do with my life. …..
I was 25 years old, I had developed a longer and longer list of what I didn’t want to do, and then there it was…. my eureka moment.

The program we made was controversial, got good reviews, and got me a job in the CBC current Affairs department. I was lucky enough in the next few years to make lots of tv programs, lots of documentaries for CBC, CTV, ABC, PBS in New York, and then to the NFB in Montreal. I was lucky enough to be trained for a few years by the great Doug Leiterman, I learned from Alan King, Patrick Watson, Donald Brittain.

So that start was 45 years ago, the years and then the decades have flown by, allowing me to do project after project, making films that always cause me to be swept up in this totally absorbing activity called filmmaking….the script stage, writing and re-writing, casting, prep, shooting, editing, music, sound work, mixing,,,,I loved it all…

Of course it was not always without terrible battles…my first year in the industry saw me in prison in Montreal, defending the right of confidential sources…there were bitter battles over The Boys of St. Vincent…it took a year before the Supreme Court of Canada allowed it to be shown in Ontario and Quebec…there were many battles with producers and Hollywood studios and networks….for example the CBC effectively buried the Tommy Douglas story in a craven capitulation to political pressure….these struggles are indeed part of the game….and they are not fun….

Luckily for me….I also was the kind of person who works best in a group. My youth was spent passionately playing team games, mostly hockey and football, so I was at home in what, as you all know, is essentially a team game. For me filmmaking has always been a group creative activity. The better the group the better the film.

I spent 20 years at the NFB, where there was a standard of cinema that aimed at being world class…and where the mantra was telling our own stories. Twice in my career I went to the states, first to New York and then much later to LA, but I found it unsatisfying, for me, in that I was making American stuff. Maybe it was my years at the NFB, but, for me, the rewards of telling our own stories, has been so, so special. Whether it was Dieppe or Sitting in Limbo or The Englishman’s Boy or Welcome to Canada or The Boys of St. Vincent, or Prairie Giant, the list goes on and on…there was always a special atmosphere on the set…we were telling our own stories, rooted in our own communities…this is how, I believe, we make our own identity, and from that we make our own country.

And finally, if I may be personal for a brief moment, there is one person I have to thank…Cynthia Scott, one of our greatest filmmakers…academy award winner for Flamenco at Five Fifteen, creator of the very best of our alternative dramas at the NFB…Company of Strangers…we have been together for most of the last forty years…she has been an inspiration to me, I assure you I would not be here if I had not had the good luck to have encountered her when she was available.

So thank you, from the bottom of my heart Cynthia…I love you very much…we are bonded…

I tell you I am a lucky man…

So it was a great ride and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this award….