Production: Allan King for CBC Vancouver
Screenplay: Ben Maartman
Narration: Art Hives
Photography: Jack V. Long
Editing: Arla Saare
Music: John Avison
The name comes from skid road, the track where logs were skidded down from the forest to the water, to be towed to saw mills, hewn into lumber and shipped round the world. The word evolved over time from Skid Road to Skidroad to Skid Row to Skidrow, which was what those who lived there called it. In deference, I used the same name they did.
The ruination resulting from alcoholism and allied deprivations had a potent image in Skid Road when I was a child. It remains as vivid as ever – the least changed part of town – though other drugs have replaced alcohol as the ultimate iniquity. Thus Skid Road has, if anything sunk even lower than before. It remains the bottom, the bin into which the wrecks of society in Van-couver sink. In the mind of my childhood, that’s where you ended up if you did worse than badly. It had always fascinated me. I wanted to look at Skid Road, as the place where the eco-nomically most depressed and deprived ended up, and mobilize public feeling to address the problem.
I wrote a proposal for Skidrow for the program director, Marce Munro. He said ok and I hired Ben Maartman to research and write the story. Ben was not only a fine short story writer and graduate of the poet Earle Birney’s remarkable creative writing class at the University of British Columbia; he was a sociologist and gifted social worker. He had worked the territory and knew its character well. He had great respect for his clients but no illusions about the difficulty of being useful to them (as I still did). And he never patronised them. We spent a lot time talking with people – or, more usefully, listening to them. I was not yet aware how critical to success was the matter of giving people time to assess you and your goals, but this was a good first lesson.
As we got into filming, our schedule moved into eighteen-hour days because three of our key characters were on thirty-day provisional sentences for vagrancy – that is, ‘Get out of town or you get thirty days in the slammer.’ If they got picked up, they’d leave a very big hole in our emerging story. And, too, if we didn’t see them to bed or at least their rooms every night and arrive back there before they hit the street looking for their first ‘steamer’ – rubbing alcohol cut with water – they’d be lost for a day – or the film.
Because this was the era before the invention of self-blimped, lightweight cameras, filming spontaneous action – except silently – was out of the question. The Auricon of the day weighed about forty pounds, as I recall, and while its baby brother, the hundred-foot Cinevoice was much lighter, its four-minute run was too short and, in any case, there were no lightweight synchronous sound recorders. So we shot many scenes silently, some hand-held and here I’d like to pay tribute to Jack Long, a brilliant, sensitive cameraman with the great eye of a skilled stills man. He trained under Gjon Mili and Ansel Adams and had worked for the Film Board. He was the only cameraman in town who would take a camera off the tripod and was proud of his nerve.
Knowing little about actually making films, I wisely let him lead the blocking and watched carefully how he worked – his silence, tact and observation were exemplary. When I asked the brilliant and formidable editor, Arla Saare, to edit the footage she looked at me sternly, her eyes narrowed and she said, “let me look at it.” After the screening she said, “If you stay out of the editing room until I’ve finished the assembly, I’ll do it.” It was then that I learned always to give the people you work with a free hand to contribute – that is how they give the most.
This, too, was the beginning of the era of the interview as a central device of documentaries for television – we had not yet discovered how pervasive and dominant it would become. It created, as it were, a third documentary genre – the public affairs show – which, for a long time, I would not dignify with the honoured name ‘documentary.’ Because the appetite of television for filling time between commercials and because interviews, next to games, are the cheapest way of doing this, they became a dominant element of the new genre.
But the interview with Jimmy made, at least for me, the most powerful point: feeling is the es-sence of what we value in work. It was Jimmy’s hard swallow, his struggle with tears, which moved an audience then and still does. It is also worth noting that the direct expression of real and spontaneous feeling was seen to be ground breaking at this time in television.
The rawness of image and the life it captured had a strong impact. In fact it was so strong that that it was not even suggested that the film be cut from 38 to 28 minutes to fit the television clock. The admi-rable Marce Munro worked out an arrangement with Eric Koch, a memorably distinguished CBC executive producer, to include Skidrow in a series called Explorations and to couple it with a program Patrick Watson had made on the then newly constructed Regents Park development. It was the first of many collaborations of great value to me.
Skidrow also drew the attention of the great John Grierson, who ran it a number of times on his Scottish TV program and his assistant, Lawrence Henson, told me many years latter, that a-long with City of Gold, it was his favourite Canadian film.