Production: Ross McLean for Close-up (CBC)
Screenplay: Allan King
Narration: Frank Willis Interviewer: Bob Quintrel
Research: Tom Koch and Frank Scholes Sound: Mel Lovell
Photography: Jack V. Long Editing: Helga Faust
With the Exelby Family
A Matter of Pride is a film about unemployment and came about through an invitation from Ross McLean to come to Toronto and make any film of my choice – an extraordinary invitation that I have received but once since.
1961 was a year of record unemployment in Canada and I chose Hamilton as a useful place to film. It had a wonderfully photogenic, industrial look and I expected the working class to offer the most fertile field in which to make a useful film. However, after the poverty of Calcutta, Hamilton did not seem to be in the same league. And I was still in the league or trade of explor-ing (some would say exploiting) victim hood. The most common – or more accurately speaking, the most striking complaint I heard was that people had to eat hamburger instead of steak. After Calcutta, I wasn’t moved.
Let me not be heard as belittling people because of the wording of their complaint. It is simply that in Western industrial society – by far the richest mankind has ever experienced – the loss of a job often creates a different form of anguish than in the third world. It is acutely painful and because of this, people have difficulty addressing it directly. It is not centred in class. Because at that time it offered a fresh perspective, I chose to explore the experience of a middle class cou-ple and called it A Matter of Pride.
The emotional devastation unemployment causes has preoccupied me as a filmmaker twice, and as a personal anxiety ever since my last steady employment, which ended in 1958 when I left CBUT.
Historically, books on the subject of unemployment have always split between providing assis-tance for the unemployed and the fear that they will be morally corrupted if thereby. This schism in thought addressing the problems of the poor has existed for many hundreds of years. And this is as good a place as any to introduce my favourite wise aphorism of the day. It comes from the first Zen master and goes as follows:
When I hear the word “ethics” I’ve learned to look out for a load of bullshit coming down. It is or was a favourite stalking horse of intellectuals at seminars like those named after Flaherty and Grierson. The word ‘right’ usually turns out to be the name of actions that someone likes, and ‘wrong’ to name actions they don’t. They are often used to extort disapproval or approval of an action and short circuit an examination of its actual consequences and benefits in a particular reality. One can then set up an ‘axis of evil’ or even ‘axes of evil’ as it were, and not have to think at all. It’s a form of behavioural branding, if you will. Please do not hear me as saying that the effects of any action should not be examined with utmost care to ensure it is, over the long and short run, beneficial – that is helpful, not harmful – to the people it concerns. This is the essence of judgment. But when it is voiced in tones of righteous indignation it is prudent to hear it with scepticism.
The fraud was said to have arisen because I had paid the Exelby’s a modest sum of money. They were down to their last ten dollars and I gave them a nominal honorarium. Were we to watch them starve as we filmed? The Minister of Labour argued that, as we had paid the family, Mrs Exelby’s tears were ‘bought’ and therefore not real.
Mrs Exelby’s grief produced a huge debate of another sort in the Current Affairs department of the CBC about the propriety or impropriety (ethics, again) of showing Mrs Exelby crying on television. Was it because, in that era of extraordinary emotional constriction, the expression of feelings of any kind was viewed with alarm and concern? Mrs Exelby should be saved from her-self? Was it the premonition that tears were trouble? A dislike of ‘self-pity’? Whatever the case – and there may have been many – the intensity of debate quite startled me. I’d thought it our task as filmmakers to capture and express feelings.