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McLean, Grant (1921–2002)

Grant McLean was an adventurer, documentary cameraman, director, producer, and film executive whose career spanned 26 years at the National Film Board of Canada. With Don Wilder, he established his own distribution company, McLean Wilder Associates (later renamed the Visual Education Centre), in Toronto in 1967. He was dedicated to the NFB’s mission of creating socially conscious and educational but artistic documentaries, and was at the centre of many award-winning works. In 2002, he was named a Member of the Order of Canada for his contributions to Canadian film culture. Born in Yorkton, McLean came from a family of devoted public servants. His father, Allan Grant McLean, was grain commissioner for Saskatchewan and chairman of the federal Liberal Party; his uncle, Ross McLean, was commissioner of the NFB. Grant McLean studied at the University of Toronto before joining the RCAF and the NFB. During World War II, he established his reputation as a man of action, making Target Berlin for the Canada Carries On series, filming the building of the first Lancaster bomber in Canada, and flying in one of its missions over Berlin to capture live footage of the war in action.

Always politically engaged, he took a United Nations commission in 1947 to document the Chinese civil war. The first Western cameraman to film Mao Ze Dong, he also interviewed renowned Canadian surgeon Dr. Norman Bethune. The film that resulted from these encounters was highly controversial: The People Between (1947) was banned by the Canadian government, largely under pressure from the United States; critics believe that the film rankled because it showed the Communists under a balanced light and portrayed the Chinese as pawns exploited by nationalist ideologies, both Eastern and Western. The film Bethune (1964), made by Donald Brittain during McLean’s ten years as director of production at the NFB, raised similar questions. In addition to producing Bethune, McLean had many notable achievements throughout the 1960s, including making groundbreaking issue-oriented documentaries in the field for the CBC TV Perspectives series, establishing the NFB’s regional offices, and participating in the emergence of the influential cinéma-vérité style and the burgeoning of Quebec cinema. Under his brief fifteen-month tenure as acting commissioner, the NFB produced the internationally celebrated Labyrinth for Montreal’s Expo ‘67. While Grant McLean was never appointed commissioner of the NFB—probably owing to his direct leadership style and his irreverent approach to bureaucracy—his vision and legacy are unchallenged and he is remembered in documentary circles as a man of great intelligence, conviction, and loyalty.

Christine Ramsay

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Further Reading

Carol Cooper. 2003. “Obituaries: Grant McLean 1921–2002.” The Globe and Mail (January 11), F8.
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