Donald Brittain

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Film Review by Dean Duncan May 26, 2015

This film isn’t all that groundbreaking or anything. It’s just so good! These classic Film Board documentaries suggest, to me at least, that innovative artistry is really exciting and important, but that professionalism and craftsmanship are probably, ultimately of higher value.

Norman Bethune is a great character, not only for his own estimable self, but for the way that he represents, contradicts, illuminates his time. He’s also a great Board subject, being a complex, emblematic, unusually influential Canadian. He contains contradictions, being both brilliant and self-effacing, posh and common, sensual and ethical, intractable and charitable. He’s an internationalist, a social democrat—well, make that a communist—a peacekeeper. There’s a little propagandizing going on here, though it’s quite responsibe and edifying. These also just happen to be the values of the organization that produced this film, and we’d like to say, of the nation too.

Mind you, as with those Stuart Legg productions made just before and during the Second World War, proper journalistic values have to be firmly in place before any propaganda is allowed. Kemeny’s formidable research and editing, Brittain’s magisterial narration—here he comes!—make for a tremendously rich assemblage, a terrific compilation film. As with Brittain’s Volcano… (q.v.), they use their interviewees, their photos, their stock footage with just that much extra grace and imagination. A filmmaker can reinvent the wheel, or just drive everyone else into the dust by his inspired use of already existing conventions and technology. And in the end all of this is because the subject is such a good one. He came up with the idea of socialized medicine! He invented the blood bank. He prefigured Canadian peacekeeping by putting his skills and his fragile health completely in the service of his convictions. With regard to both film and subject, and producing entity as well, I am taking off my hat. Gratitude and humility.

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