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The Ottawa Citizen Online City Page
Friday 25 August 2000

Prolific and obscure: Filmmaker wraps No. 690

Roland Pirker has seen it all and has managed to photograph most of it, Kelly Egan writes .

Kelly Egan
The Ottawa Citizen

Julie Oliver, The Ottawa Citizen / Filmmaker Roland Pirker 'always finds a way to just forge ahead and get it done.'

When he saw the leaping dolphin, filmmaker Roland Pirker was standing in a little fishing boat, 15 kilometres out in the Arabian Sea, a $100,000 camera on his shoulder.

As he swung around to capture the frolic, his eye parked on the viewfinder, the boat suddenly lurched to avoid another vessel.

Mr. Pirker, holding a 10-kilogram camera wired to a four-kilogram battery belt, went sailing overboard. It was Dec. 7, 1991, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and Mr. Pirker was doing his own surprise sinking.

As the camera pulled him deeper, he frantically yanked at the belt, trying to free himself from this electronic anchor. Because he'd lost 40 pounds from an ongoing intestinal nightmare, the belt pulled loose, over his hips.

With the sudden loss of drag, Mr. Pirker, now 53, remembers shooting toward the surface. As he broke water, everyone in the boat was leaning over the edge, creating enough pitch to send the tripod tipping over the edge.

"I just about died," recalls Mr. Pirker, convincingly. "I used up a couple of my nine lives on that trip."

That was Pakistan, 1991. On the wall of his home/office/studio in Alta Vista, there are many other pictures and vital statistics: Spain, 1979. Ghana, 1984. Thailand, 1983. Lesotho, 1992.

Roland K. Pirker, an Austrian farm boy who came to Canada in 1967 to become a better hockey player, is the most prolific Ottawa filmmaker you've never heard of.

He is just putting the finishing touches on a film about environmental issues in Costa

Rica, which included filming 450-kilogram leatherback turtles laying eggs in the dead of night on a Pacific Ocean beach.

It is his 690th production, and he has won or shared at least 23 awards.

His credits fill a thick file. The scope of the work is ridiculously wide, including shoots in more than 30 countries. He has filmed every Canadian prime minister since 1968, as well as the Queen, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterrand, Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela.

He has filmed in the Himalayas and on Arctic ice caps, in Algonquin Park and in dusty Ethiopian villages.

Flip the file open just about anywhere. In 1977, Kung Fu as a Folk Art, producer and cameraman, 29:50 mins., English. In 1980, Intro to Plastic, cameraman, 10 hours, English, a Customs and Excise media production. In 1990, Teachers of the Karakorums, director, editor, 28 mins., English, French, Urdu, about female teachers in northern Pakistan. In 1996, Mark 6 Gasfired Switch Heater, cinematographer, for Hovey Industries, a promotional video on a heater for railroad switching systems.

Mr. Pirker grew up on an old Austrian estate -- 17 people living under one roof -- below a green mountain on a 90-hectare spread in the town of Friesach.

As a child, he was fascinated by cameras and acquired his first moving camera when he was 17. He began filming all kinds of things in his village, a moated community of 4,000. Motorcycle races, theatre, his own grandparents.

"You know, if a picture is worth a thousand words, a moving picture is worth 10,000." He remembers being mesmerized by the arrival of television and, in particular, its coverage of the 1964 Olympics. "I remember thinking 'this is the future.'"

In 1967, he and his wife, Burgi, came to Kitchener. He wanted to give himself two years to see if he could develop into an elite hockey player. He still remembers being chased into the corner of the rink by a six-foot-four, toothless giant with a murderous look on his face.

At the time, he weighed 155 pounds. "I took my skates off, shook the coach's hand and said I didn't think I'd be able to make it in Canadian hockey."

He then enrolled at Conestoga College, graduating three years later. Before opening his own company, Rollframe Productions Ltd., he worked for the CBC in Toronto and the National Museums of Canada.

Over time, he has worked with the National Film Board, television networks in Canada and the U.S., and with the legendary Budge Crawley.

Just when you think he is out of stories, he pulls out a picture of a shoot with Karsh, the legendary photographer, or Gordie Howe, the legendary hockey player, or Howie Mandel, the not-yet-legendary comedian. (Stories indeed. Longtime collaborator Bob Callaghan asked: "Did he tell you about the time the guy died during a shoot in Spain?")

Because of his vast travel experience, his house looks like Hemingway's garage. There is a three-metre-long polar bear fur mounted on his office wall (a trinket picked up while working on a film about the far north, We Don't Grow Potatoes Up Here.) From Austria, he has brought heirlooms like a Mozart-era piano and an armoire inscribed with the year 1772.

In the living room, there is a circular, Pakistani-made table inlaid with camel bone and covered with a springbok hide.

Lately, Mr. Pirker has become devoted to Third World development issues. In 1998, he completed A Match for Life for Match International, an Ottawa-based group dedicated to improving the lives of women in poor countries. It premiered at a gala event in May 1999 attended by Diana Fowler LeBlanc, wife of then- governor general Romeo LeBlanc.

A great fan of the movies of David Lean (Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia), Mr. Pirker says he likes shots with great geographic sweep and tiny details like the telling wrinkles of wise elders.

"I'm trying to do the same thing he did, but using real people."

MATCH executive director Madonna Larbi said she bumped into Mr. Pirker, then a stranger, at the airport as she was making her way to Lesotho. The two started chatting.

One thing led to another. MATCH decided to do a promotional film showing its work in five countries around the world. They had enough money for about half the project.

Mr. Pirker said he'd contribute the rest, donating about $100,000 of his labour and equipment use. "If it had just been left to us, without Roland Pirker's donation, we'd still be talking about it," Ms. Larbi said.

Mr. Pirker allowed MATCH to pay over three years.

"He loves what he does and he's very passionate about it," said Ms. Larbi. "He brings to his work a lot of sensitivity."

Adds Ron Thornbury, an independent video producer from Ottawa who has worked with Mr. Pirker on several projects: "One of the great joys of working with Roland on a shoot is that he always finds a way to just forge ahead and get it done.

"The bottom line with him is that he's very honest. Pardon the pun, but he's a straight shooter."

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Copyright 2000 Ottawa Citizen