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Remembering Film House and Peter Harcourt

Remembering Film House and Peter Harcourt

March 11, 2014. Driving through whiteouts on the 401, past countless cars in the ditch. I’m heading to the inaugeral event at Queen’s Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts - the presentation of the Tricolour Awards. A bare-legged piper braves winter’s last gasp, greeting guests with “Scotland The Brave.” This spanking new, lakeside structure is built on the site of a 1832 brewery. During WWI, the site became the Sydenham Military Hospital.

The Isabel houses a beautiful 566-seat performance hall, a production studio, screening room, rehearsal facilities, digital edit rooms and offices. A balcony looks across at Wolfe Island’s windfarm.

This is the new home for Queen’s Film & Media, with rehearsal and exhibition space for Queen’s Drama, Music, and Fine Arts.

Departing two rather delapitated but homey brick buildings at 154-160 Stuart Street, Queen’s “Film House” was the department’s home since it was created 45 years ago. Long-time film prof Derek Redmond takes me on a trip down memory lane to the edit rooms, where families of squirrels, mice and bats live between the walls, the dank basement where rusty old film cans are stored, and the little theatre where the faculty’s founder, Peter Harcourt, enraptured us with stories of Godard, Bergman and Allan King. Peter inspired so many Queen’s film students, who went on to produce and direct hundreds of film and TV productions in Canada and beyond.

Harcourt remembered, in 1967, being at a Duke Ellington concert in London, England when he met Queen’s prof John Meisel. “Meisel said he found me lively and intelligent,” recalled Peter. “A few months later, George Whalley invited me to teach film in the English Department. Film was considered insufficiently academic to warrent its own courses of study.”

[photo of Peter Harcourt by Gary McCallum]Peter Harcourt in 1972. Photo by Gary McCallum.

But it was the ’60s. Revolution was in the air, money was available and film had become the literature of a visual generation. In 1969, Queen’s created Canada’s first Film Studies Department. “Those houses on Stuart Street were wonderful for us.”remembered Peter, “we had a real sense of community.” This was the year of Woodstock, bare breasts and endless possibilities. “There was an open-mindedness. Anything was possible. I used money I was supposed to spend on renting more films and bought a used Miniola editing machine, Uher tape reorder, and a Beaulieu camera with a zoom lens, so we could make films ourselves. We also made $2,500 a year from public film screenings.”

Harcourt hired Joyce Nelson to be the department’s first EA, and later, to teach experimental film. He hired the very impressive Robin Wood, who’d written books on John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock. Very quickly, Queen’s Film House became a crucible of creativity. Medical student Peter Duffy made Cabbages & Kings, a documentary about Kingston panhandlers. He spent many nights sleeping on the legendary red couch. Peter Madden made Cell 16 in Kingston Pen. Bob Fresco shot a film on the Vaghy String Quartet. In 1970, Harcourt invited legendary cinematographer Terrence McCartney-Filgate (Back Breaking Leaf, Primary) to shoot a documentary about the Miles for Millions fundraising walk in Kingston. I was the lucky student who got to be Terry’s soundman. I learned so much in those few hours. What a gift.

After Queen’s, Peter moved to Toronto to teach film at York, and then to Ottawa to help set up Carleton’s Film Department. He programmed films for the Toronto Film Festival, wrote dozens of scholarly articles and kept in touch with many of his students. I sent him my rough cuts and he generously sent me notes and suggestions. I’d visit Peter once or twice a year in Ottawa, at the Palisades Retirement Home by the Queensway. We’d laugh a lot at the vicissitudes of life. He was so intellectually curious and kind, but his body was failing.

Monday, June 16. An urgent email from Ottawa filmmaker Michael Ostroff, one of Peter’s closest friends. Peter is gravely ill. He may not last the week. Clarke Mackey, former head of Queen’s Film, former student Piers Handling, now head of TIFF, and others are with him. I jump on a Porter flight and spend an hour or two in his hospital room, sipping Dewar’s, remembering those great days at Film House.

When it’s time to go, I give Peter a kiss on the forehead, tell him how much I love him and how much he means to so many filmmakers who got their start with his encouragement. Peter smiles and says he’s pleased that Queen’s Film is in good hands with the people Clarke brought on board. I slip away, fighting tears.

Two and a half weeks later, Peter is gone.

At Homecoming, many of us who loved Peter will walk together from Stuart Street along the waterfront to the Isabel Bader Centre. I hope there’ll be a photo of Peter on the wall to greet us. He’d enjoy knowing that the new home for Queen’s Film is built of limestone and pine from that old brewery.

Peter Raymont, Arts ‘72, is president of White Pine Pictures, a film and television production company based in Toronto. Best known for his Emmy-Award-winning documentary Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire and Oscar-shortlisted Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, Raymont made his first films at Queen’s.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2014-3 cover]