photo © Yves Renaud, 1999
Donald Winkler was born in Winnipeg in 1940, graduated from the University of
Manitoba in 1961. From 1967 to 1995 he was a film director and writer at the
National Film Board of Canada in Montreal, and since the 1980s, a translator of
Quebec literature. Winkler's films have dealt largely with the world of culture
and the arts. His work has included short experimental films (‘Doodle Film’
and ‘Travel Log’), films on crafts and the graphic arts (‘In Praise of
Hands’ and ‘Bannerfilm’), on the theatre (‘Breaking a Leg - Robert
Lepage and the Echo Project’) on social history (‘The Summer of ’67’),
and, most notably, a series of films on Canadian literary figures, collected
under the overall title "Poets: A Sestet", which provide a film record
of six cultural pioneers who helped lay the foundations for modern Canadian
the AFA's Geoff Alexander a fascinating story of his
road to becoming a filmmaker:
"I grew up loving the theatre, and my studies were literary. In my early
twenties took off to Europe, and ended up spending a year and a half in Paris,
where I saw many, many films at the Cinémathèque and the little Latin Quarter
art houses. Once saw 'Birth of a Nation' and the two parts of 'Ivan the
Terrible' in one day. Back in Canada, I gravitated to Montréal, the only city
in the country at that time cosmopolitan enough for my tastes. And the Film
Board was there. I'm the only filmmaker I know who got into the NFB via the
Personnel Department (they weren't yet calling it Human Resources.) I applied
for an apprentice position for which film experience was not a requirement.
Three of these, in those days, came open each year. My application was graded
number 4. When one of the first three decided not to take the job, they had to
go in search of me (I'd been interviewed a year previously, and had moved in the
interim.) And so one week-end I received a telegram(!) informing me that if I
was still interested I should show up at the Board's headquarters the following
Monday morning. Which I did, and was hired with a salary, if I remember
correctly, of $5,300 per year. (This was 1967.) I learned on the job, and within
a couple of years was working on my first film. So, as in most things, there was
as much serendipity involved as destiny."
Winkler's films capture both the richness of the art form, and the spirit and
personality of its creator; intellectually stimulating and often funny, they
thrive in a subject area vastly neglected by the film production
community. Visit Don's website at
(notation prefaced by an * denote comments by Geoff Alexander)
DOODLE FILM -- 1970 -- writer, animator, director.
(Awards: Atlanta and Chicago Film Festivals)
An experimental film, the quirky, fictional account of doodler David Watt.
Winkler writes: "I once got a letter forwarded to me from a little old lady
in New York City who found it obscene, never thought a Canadian would do
anything like that, they have such lovely mountains and Niagara Falls... But my
favorite story re that film was relayed to me by the then NFB rep in
Australia... who went to a film with a friend, they were late for the showing,
so went to another film instead, that was, well, porno. And showing with it...
was 'Doodle Film'. The rep was kinda puzzled, until his Aussie friend, laughing,
pointed to his crotch and said, 'That's your doodle, mate!' Never judge a film
by its title."
BANNERFILM -- 1972 -- director.
* An amazing film featuring banner maker Norman Laliberté, drawing,
cutting, and sewing his creations.
ONE MAN'S GARDEN -- 1974 -- writer, director.
IN PRAISE OF HANDS -- 1974 -- director.
(Awards: Moscow and New York)
* While writer Gary Evans credits Winkler with being of the few Canadian
filmmakers who embraced the idea of making educational films, but Winkler
confided to us that he did this one because the Film Board offered to fly him
around the world to make the film. This amazing non-narrated film documents
craftspeople from the world over, including the fascinating Ocumicho clay
figures of Michoacán, the beadwork of the Huichol Indians, and Indian puppet
shows from the sub-continent.
TRAVEL LOG -- 1978 -- writer, director, photographer.
(Awards: Cracow, Cork, Melbourne, Yorkton)
BOOKMAKER'S PROGRESS -- 1979 -- writer, director.
EARLE BIRNEY: PORTRAIT OF A POET -- 1981 -- writer, director.
* Born in 1904, the energetic poet reads a poem or two, performs ‘sound
poetry’, and gets on stage with the musical group ‘Nexus’. This witty,
hard-hitting film devoid of sentimentality or pathos includes a moving
recitation of a portion of Birney’s epic ‘David’.
F.R. SCOTT: RHYME AND REASON -- 1982 -- writer, narrator, director.
THE SCHOLAR IN SOCIETY: NORTHROP FRYE IN CONVERSATION -- 1984 -- writer,
POET: IRVING LAYTON OBSERVED -- 1986 -- director.
A TALL MAN EXECUTES A JIG -- 1986 -- director.
IRVING LAYTON: AN INTRODUCTION -- 1986 -- director. An edited 1/2 hour
version of 'Poet: Irving Layton Observed.
AL PURDY: “A SENSITIVE MAN” -- 1988 -- director
* Poet Al Purdy, who passed away in the Spring of 2000, was is an irreverent
Canadian original, as evidenced by his biographical poem, performed live,
describing and decrying a husky's controversial eating habits during a human
call of nature. Winkler explores Purdy’s past with old photos punctuated by
the poet’s witticisms and observations.
WINTER PROPHECIES: THE POETRY OF RALPH GUSTAFSON -- 1988 – director
* A warm portrait of poet Ralph Gustafson and his wife, a very pretty film
made in Canada's eastern townships, perhaps as much about the chronicles of an
enduring relationship as about the music and poetry that play so fundamental a
part in their lives.
STILL WATERS: THE POETRY OF P.K. PAGE -- 1990 -- director
BREAKING A LEG: ROBERT LEPAGE AND THE ECHO PROJECT --1992 -- writer, director
(Silver Apple, Educational Film and Video Festival, Oakland California.
Genie Nominee, Short Documentary Category, 1993)
THE SUMMER OF '67 -- 1994 -- co-director, writer
TOMSON HIGHWAY: THANK YOU FOR THE LOVE YOU GAVE -- 1997 -- writer, director,
(Bronze plaque, Columbus Film Festival, 1997; Gemini Nominee, 1998;
Silver Apple, 1998 Educational Film & Video Festival, Oakland)
UN VOYAGE SÉPHARADE: SOLLY LÉVY, DU MAROC À MONTRÉAL -- 1999 – writer,
MAUREEN FORRESTER: THE DIVA IN WINTER – 2000 – writer, director, narrator