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Book Review: Don Owen: Notes on a Filmmaker and His Culture

Finding a new home for older material — This book review originally appeared on Canuxploitation in 2006. Full disclosure: I have known Steve personally since about 2004.

Don Owen: Notes on a Filmmaker and His Culture
Steve Gravestock, Wilfrid Laurier University Press (2006)

Don Owen’s debut feature, 1964’s Nobody Waved Good-bye, is often credited as the first modern English-Canadian film. Although readers of this site know that a handful of films made before this landmark effort, there is no denying that the off-the-cuff juvenile delinquency tale of Nobody Waved Good-bye is in many ways a culmination of those previous low-budget movies, and one of the most important Canadian films ever made.

In his new book, a monograph of Don Owen, TIFF programmer Steve Gravestock traces the CanFilm pioneer’s lengthy career, from his early NFB shorts to his final 1987 feature, Turnabout. Focusing on the director’s iconoclastic stance towards the Canadian film industry and his exploration of the role of the artist in society, the book offers an in depth analysis of Owen’s entire oeuvre, right down to industrial shorts and TV episodes he shot for the CBC. It’s an exhaustively thorough read, but it’s also quite compelling, with special attention paid to his early masterpiece Nobody Waved Good-bye and Partners, an elusive film often considered to be his best work.

Because Owen made Canadian films for more than twenty years, his history mirrors the birth of the industry itself, and Gravestock is careful to connect Owen’s films to the overall state of the industry, providing fascinating details about the NFB’s infamous Unit B, the behind-the-scenes power plays that shaped Canadian film throughout the 1960s and the financial realities of making films in the tax shelter days. With six features and numerous shorts under his belt, Owen is one of the directors to survive the constant booms and busts of the industry to emerge as an unsung hero. As the first book-length critical assessment of Owen, Don Owen: Notes on a Filmmaker and His Culture is a well-written, long-overdue tome that finally gives the man and his films the respect they deserve. Recommended for all those interested in the birth of the current Canadian film scene.

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