Search the CFE
Home > Canadian Film Encyclopedia > Search the CFE


Michael Rubbo

Michael Rubbob. December 31, 1938, Melbourne, Australia


Michael Rubbo did not invent the subjective, personal documentary, which has since been popularized by Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield, but he was one of its first and bravest advocates. This was particularly unusual for a director carefully schooled by the National Film Board’s English studio, which encouraged an objective approach to reality, including the use of a voice-of-God narrator, and frowned upon any kind of self-consciousness. The NFB’s French unit, undoubtedly influenced by the French New Wave, naturally gravitated to a style that made the viewer aware that they were watching a film. This self-reflexivity was anathema to the NFB’s founding philosophies of John Grierson, and indeed even to Hollywood. Eager for his viewers to be completely aware of the directorial voice at work, Rubbo turned his back on the house style of the NFB’s English unit and appeared in virtually all his films as a social actor, providing reflective narration and reacting to the realities of his subjects. The quixotic Rubbo, who from the beginning displayed a fascination for anti-establishment viewpoints, has described his approach to documentary as a form of subjective impressionism. His films have often been compared to diaries or personal journals.

An experienced traveller, Rubbo was born in Australia and studied anthropology at Sydney University before attending Stanford University on Ford and Fulbright scholarships to study filmmaking. After graduating in 1965, he approached the NFB about an unpaid internship, but they were so impressed with his thesis film The True Source of Knowledge (1964) that they hired him on the spot. He began making films for children, including Sir! Sir! (1968), Mrs. Ryan’s Drama Class (1969) and Here’s to Harry’s Grandfather! (1970).

After completing his first two documentaries, Rubbo was put in charge of the Board’s Films for Children department. Sent to Vietnam to make a film about that country’s Foster Parent’s Plan, he quickly realized that this subject was overwhelmed by the realities of a war-torn country. Sensing that any attempt to impose order on the situation would result in a complete misrepresentation, he instead followed his instincts and allowed his curiosity and his camera to roam toward what interested him. Instead of a documentary full of conventional imagery about Vietnam and the war, Rubbo presents a less sensational and far more revealing portrait of the country. Street children, alternative American journalists, a Vietnamese soldier who has already deserted, all grab Rubbo’s attention and start his subtle inquisition into the psyche of a people at war.

The resulting film, Sad Song of Yellow Skin (1970), created a sensation when it was screened. It went on to win the prestigious BAFTA Flaherty Documentary Award and launched Rubbo on a fifteen year run of idiosyncratic, personal documentaries. Some were shot around the world. Wet Earth and Warm People (1971), The Man Who Can’t Stop (1973), Waiting for Fidel (1974), I Am an Old Tree (1975) and Solzhenistyn’s Children…Are making a Lot of Noise in Paris (1979) saw Rubbo respectively in Indonesia, Australia, Cuba (twice) and France. Waiting for Fidel may well be his masterpiece. Sent to Cuba to shoot an interview between Joey Smallwood, the iconic politician from Newfoundland, and Castro, Rubbo was forced to rely on all his inventiveness when the interview never happened. Used to working spontaneously, Rubbo instead focussed on Smallwood and his travelling companion Jeff Stirling, a millionaire broadcast entrepreneur. How they react to the myriad facets of Cuban reality is as revealing an insight as anyone will get into cultural, social and political differences.

During this fifteen year period, Rubbo also made a number of films that dealt with Canadian subjects. Persistent and Finagling (1971) concentrates on a women’s group trying to stop urban pollution while The Walls Come Tumbling Down (1976) investigates the rampant and controversial transformation of Montreal’s urban environment. Most pertinently, Rubbo was one of the few anglo filmmakers to look seriously at two key events in Canada and Quebec’s history: the 1976 Quebec provincial election that saw the Parti Quebecois come to power for the first time (I Hate to Lose, 1976), and the first 1980 Quebec referendum on sovereignty association (Yes or No, Jean-Guy Moreau, 1979). Both were insightful, relevant, detailed documentaries where Rubbo employed his “anti-conventional” diary style to illuminate two very complex events. The politicization of Quebec led him to Paris at the end of the decade for his most ambitious documentary, Solzhenitsyn’s Children. It was his most abstract film for he wanted to examine the state of the French left through some of its prominent thinkers. Admirable for its ambition, it is an elusive film that investigates ideas and is driven more by talk than Rubbo’s delicate powers of visual observation.

Two more personal portraits followed: Daisy, Story of a Facelift (1982) which followed a friend of his as she underwent plastic surgery (Rubbo addressed this subject decades before it became a fashionable procedure); and a film on the internationally renowned Canadian author, Margaret Atwood (Margaret Atwood: Once in August, 1984). The latter was unconvincing and put an end to his remarkable run of personal documentaries. There is an unmistakeable sense in the Atwood film that he had exhausted the form – or that he at least needed a break from this particular style. Atwood remained distant, and Rubbo never really made contact with her as a subject.

Needing a change, he left the Film Board in 1984 and returned to where he had begun, making films for children. Over the next decade he directed four feature length, fictional theatrical films for Rock Demers’s popular “Tales for All” series: The Peanut Butter Solution (1985), Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller (1988), Vincent and Me (1991) – for which he painted the Van Gogh copies himself – and The Return of Tommy Tricker (1994). All were competently directed and released commercially.

He then returned to Australia where he co-founded Film Australia, an independent organization devoted to the promotion of Australian cinema. In 2001 he made his first documentary in years. Much Ado About Something sees Rubbo return to tropes that had worked so well for him while exploring the claim that William Shakespeare may have simply been a front for another, more talented playwright, likely Christopher Marlowe. The film travelled to numerous international film festivals.

Rubbo’s documentaries often feel unfocussed and aimless, but this of course is the point. Sent as an outsider to deal with a complex situation, he is honest enough to announce his own confusions and doubts. The films become far more effective as a result, and his nose for the interesting person or moment lends his films their unique character and distinct sense of gravitas.

By Piers Handling

Film and video work includes

The Bear and the Mouse, 1966 (co-writer with F.W.Remmler, Ingmar Remmler; editor)
Labour College, 1966 (writer)
The Long Haul Men, 1966 (director)
That Mouse, 1967 (director; writer; editor)
Adventures, 1968 (director; writer; editor)
Sir! Sir!, 1968 (director)
Mrs. Ryan’s Drama Class, 1969 (director)
Here’s to Harry’s Grandfather, 1970 (director)
Sad Song of Yellow Skin, 1970 (director; writer; co-editor with Torben Schioler; narrator)
Solomon’s Housing, 1970 (director)
Persistent and Finagling, 1971 (director; writer; editor)
Summer’s Nearly Over, 1971 (director; co-editor with Edward Le Lorrain)
Wet Earth and Warm People, 1971 (director; writer; editor)
Beware, Beware, My Beauty Fair, 1972 (producer)
Cold Pizza, 1972 (producer)
OK… Camera, 1972 (director)
Jalan, Jalan: A Journey in Sundanese Java, 1973 (director; writer; editor)
The Man Who Can’t Stop, 1973 (director; writer; co-editor with Graham Chase)
The Streets of Saigon, 1973 (director; writer; editor)
Bate’s Car: Sweet as a Nut, 1974 (producer)
Waiting for Fidel, 1974 (director; editor; co-producer with Tom Daly; himself)
I Am an Old Tree, 1975 (director; writer; editor; co-producer with Tom Daily)
Temiscaming Quebec, 1975 (co-editor with Gérard Sénécal, Martin Duckworth, Virginia Stikeman)
Log House, 1976 (co-director with Andreas Poulsson)
The Walls Come Tumbling Down, 1976 (co-director with Pierre Lasry, William Weintraub; writer; co-editor with Pierre Lasry; narrator)
I Hate to Lose, 1977 (director; writer; editor; narrator)
River: Planet Earth, 1977 (writer; co-editor with Ian Rankin, Peter Raymont)
Tigers and Teddy Bears, 1978 (director; writer)
Where Have All the Maoists Gone, 1978 (director)
Solzhenistsyn’s Children… Are Making a Lot of Noise in Paris, 1979 (director; writer; editor)
Yes or No, Jean-Guy Moreau, 1979 (director; writer)
Challenger: An Industrial Romance – Short Version, 1980 (co-director with Roger Hart, Stephen Low)
Daisy: The Story of a Facelift, 1982 (director; editor; producer)
Not Far from Bolgatanga, 1982 (co-director with Barrie Howells; writer; editor; co-producer with Barrie Howells)
Margaret Atwood: Once in August, 1984 (director; co-writer with Merrily Weisbord; editor; co-producer with Barrie Howells)
Atwood and Family, 1985 (director; co-writer Merrily Weisbord; editor; co-producer with Barrie Hiwells; himself)
The Peanut Butter Solution, 1985 (director; writer)
Courage to Change, 1986 (co-producer with Tanya Tree)
Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller, 1988 (director; co-writer with Andreas Poulsson)
Vincent et moi, a.k.a. Vincent and Me, 1991 (director; writer)
The Return of Tommy Tricker, 1994 (director; writer)
Race Around the World series, 1997 (executive producer)
The Tenth Frontier – Volume 9, 2000 (director; co-producer with Tom Daly)
Much Ado About Something, 2001 (director; writer; cinematographer; producer)
Stranger Than Fiction series, 2001 (host)

Note: Updated to December 31, 2005


Contact Site map News Releases eNews Privacy