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Interview: Manfred Becker talks about “The Photograph,” conflict, family and silence

Jackie Gaudaur holds the famed photograph that meant so much to her father.

Something that's stood out in many of TSN's Engraved On A Nation series of CFL documentaries is how they've been unafraid to deal with dark subjects. From the tragic crash of Flight 810 to the rough upbringings of Anthony Calvillo and Chuck Ealey to Robert Cote's stories of sweeping Grey Cup parade floats for FLQ bombs,  there have been plenty of serious, game-transcending issues discussed. The Photograph, which first airs Friday on TSN at 7:30 p.m. Eastern (and will be shown throughout this Remembrance Day weekend, also airing Saturday at 7 p.m. Eastern on CTV Two and Sunday at noon Eastern on some CTV channels), also goes along that path, and its subject matter is fascinating. Here's a trailer for it:

The film focuses on the Toronto Royal Canadian Air Force Hurricanes, who defeated the Winnipeg RCAF Bombers 8-5 in the 1942 Grey Cup, the first-ever non-civilian Grey Cup game.  Many of the Hurricanes' players, pilots in training, completed their training and were sent overseas after the game, and a lot of them didn't come back.

"The Photograph" director Manfred Becker said the film's family-focused story intrigued him.One Hurricanes' player who stayed behind was Jake Gaudaur, who served as a flight instructor in Canada during the war and later went on to become the CFL's legendary fifth commissioner, serving in that role from 1968-1984. The film focuses on Gaudaur's daughters, Jackie and Diane, who were always curious why their father treasured a 1942 team photo so much. In an interview with 55-Yard Line earlier this week, director Manfred Becker said that titular photograph proved a way into the story, and a way to start to get a sense of what the Hurricanes' experience  meant to Gaudaur.

"As we were able to reconstruct that season, that story through the eyes of Jackie and Diane, we were also able to start understanding their father," Becker said.

Pulling together the film posed a unique challenge for Becker, as there's extremely little video and photo footage from 1942. He said that made it interesting, though; by chasing leads and interviewing players' relatives, he was able to put pieces together.

"It's like a detective story," he said. "The story had to be constructed in the cutting room."

Becker said this wouldn't have been possible without the tremendous cooperation he received from families, and Jackie and Diane Gaudaur in particular.

"They opened their hearts, their family albums, their memories," he said.

Jackie (L) and Diane Gaudaur examine an old Toronto RCAF Hurricanes jersey.

Becker's background is a long way from sports, but it made him a perfect fit for this film. Born and raised in Germany, he moved to Canada in 1983 and has been making documentaries since 2001, including The Siege (on the 1999 siege of a UN compound in East Timor), Dark Tourism (on tourists seeking out conflict), and Hitler's Children: Germany in Autumn 1977 (on the notorious Baader-Meinhof Gang). His work that's closest to this might be Fatherland, though, a personal documentary that explored the connections between Becker, his father (who served in the German army in World War II) and his son (who faced schoolyard taunts over his Germanic heritage). Becker said what stood out to him while making The Photograph was how the reticence to discuss the war he'd observed growing up was also prominent on the Canadian side.

"I grew up on the other side of this war," he said. "My parents never talked of it. "

A photo of a 1942 Hurricanes practice.He said interviews with many of the families of players from those 1942 Hurricanes brought similar experiences.

"What amazed me here was how deep that silence went," Becker said. "They never spoke about their time."

Becker said he's a soccer fan who didn't know much about Canadian football before this project, so he wasn't sure it was the right fit when he was first approached.

"They said 'We're doing a series on football," and I said, 'You called the wrong guy,'" he said.

As they got into discussions about the actual subject matter, though, it became an enticing project for him.

"I dug into the story and realized it was about much more than football," he said. "I'm interested in family stories, I'm interested in how history can carry itself on and does carry itself on."

Jackie Gaudaur takes a ride in one of the Harvard training planes her father flew.

He said there's a key role for those kinds of films.

"It's important and can be fun and enlightening to do traditional documentaries that are studies of a time, studies of an individual."

Gaudaur's obviously a legend in Canadian football circles from his time running the league, but Becker hadn't really heard of him before starting the project. He said while that gave him a lot of work to do to catch up, he was also able to bring a fresh perspective to Gaudaur's life.

"There's a kind of ignorance that prevents you from getting gobsmacked," he said.

He said Gaudaur's life and the connections to the 1942 team proved so remarkable that it made for an incredible story.

"If you were to write it as a drama, no one would believe it."

Jake Gaudaur by the propeller of one of the planes he flew.

The photograph in question in particular played a key role in the uncovering of the story.

"That photo kept coming up," Becker said. "[Gaudaur] only cried over that photo."

Jake Gaudaur served as commissioner of the CFL from 1968 to 1984.Becker said the evidence he uncovered suggested that Gaudaur's actions as CFL commissioner, and the way he kept turning down jobs before eventually taking them, suggested that he saw keeping Canadian football healthy as a way to remember his seven 1942 teammates who died in World War II.

"He wanted to keep the sport as pure and simple as it was," Becker said. "I think for Jake Gaudaur, it was a way of preserving their memories."

Becker said while Gaudaur's been extensively written about over the years, this side of his life hasn't really been explored.

"There's so much Canadians don't know about Jake Gaudaur," he said. "To be able to connect Jake Gaudaur's past with the way he had carried Canadian football for so many years...we all are motivated by our past."

He said the story he found proved revelatory for him.

"It was a real eye-opener," Becker said. "I learned a great deal."

Becker said he was highly motivated to make a remarkable film here, as he wanted to deliver something that worked and encourage Canadian networks to fund further original documentaries. He said he'd happily return to the sports field if asked, especially if something came up about the impact of sports (and perhaps soccer in particular) on Canadian neighbourhoods.

"I was inspired because I wanted to do my part for TSN to say, 'These worked, let's make more,'" he said. "I think there's so many stories that could be told about neighbourhoods."

While most of Becker's films have been about war and politics, he said sports provides an excellent subject as well. As in The Photograph, what happens on the playing field often intersects with the rest of life.

"Sports has a huge impact."

The film airs at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Friday on TSN, Saturday at 7 p.m. Eastern on CTV Two and Sunday at noon Eastern on some CTV channels. Check local listings at CTV.ca for where it airs in your region Sunday. More information on the film is available at TSN.ca/greycup.

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