We are so pleased to announce that The Rankin File: Legacy of a Radical will have its world premiere at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival - in fact it has been selected as the festival's opening night film! The film screens May 3rd at 7pm at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre, with a second screening and panel discussion May 8th at 6pm at SFU Woodwards. Get your tickets here. Thank you to everyone who has supported the project along the way!
Originally published February 20 2016.
Making The Rankin File has truly been a communal experience. Since launching the Indiegogo campaign, I have had so many people reach out to me and share personal recollections of Harry – some funny, some sentimental, some upsetting, some just weird. Further, I’ve heard countless times just how strongly people feel this film needs to be made. I watched as friends, family, colleagues, and (excitingly!) people I’d never met dug deep into their pockets in order to contribute what they could. I was further delighted by how many people broadcast our campaign to their networks to help get the word out.
So as our Indiegogo campaign has finally closed, I’d like to extend a huge THANK YOU to everyone who personally contributed to the film, who shared our campaign, and who supported us in other ways. I think it’s immensely fitting that this documentary is partly being made through crowdfunding – community organizing and grass roots action was what Harry was all about! We hope you’ll feel proud seeing your names in the film’s credits.
We’ve already begun prepping our next Vancouver shoot this spring, and plans are underway to get the rest of Peter Smilsky’s footage digitized in LA. We will need to continue fundraising in order to start and complete postproduction (editing the full film). As such, I’m happy to let you know that we have created the Harry Rankin Film Society, a nonprofit entity that we will use to accept contributions by cash or cheque. So if you know of any person or organization that would want to support this film, please have them get in touch with me at email@example.com or donate directly to the Harry Rankin Film Society Paypal here.
Once again, THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart for all of your contributions, support, and love for the documentary.
Originally published February 18 2016.
A few days ago I wrote about Harry’s 1950 showdown with the Law Society Benchers, who demanded Harry refute any ties to Communism or the Communist Party before being called to the bar. That particular chapter of Harry’s life seemed to be from such a distant era: a world where a person’s political beliefs could jeopardize their career seemed a grossly unjust reality of 1950. Freedom of speech, and political expression, would not be protected in Canada until the Charter came into effect in 1982.
Revisiting this chapter of Harry’s life got me thinking about how much change occurred in Canada throughout Harry’s lifetime. Far more importantly, however, was realizing how, since Harry’s death, things may have actually reverted to how they once were in a bygone era.
One piece of Harry’s story that I’ve always been fascinated by was the RCMP’s thirty-year covert surveillance of him – a project that continued well after he’d become an elected official. If you’ve watched our demo video for the documentary, you’ll know that Harry’s son Phil did an access request to obtain the files to see what exactly the RCMP (and later CSIS) achieved in their pursuit. The answer: not a whole lot. Phil ended up with an enormous box overflowing with reports. While the files are still redacted in parts, they do reveal that RCMP officers had infiltrated the Rankin home, and were reporting on meetings and functions – none of which indicated any dangerous plots to overthrow government (a conclusion assumed by officers as a result of Harry’s unpopular political opinions and associations). The amount of money and resources wasted on trailing Harry is mind-boggling. Certainly not something that could occur now…
… except it could, under our last federal government’s mammoth Bill C-51- now the Anti Terrorism Act. For those unfamiliar with this legislation, the BC Civil Liberties Association has succinctly summarized C-51’s largest threats to freedom of speech and political expression, including drastically increasing government’s discretion to target individuals for further security scrutiny (see full article here). While our new government has pledged to repeal some of the most offensive portions of C-51, we have yet to see any action.
So if you find yourself tweeting an unpopular political opinion one evening, and suddenly finding an unmarked police car parked outside your door the next morning, then you’ll have more in common with Harry Rankin than you thought!
Originally published February 16 2016.
“No one who went through the campaigns of Sicily and Italy could be any stranger to fear, but as my footsteps reverberated on the marble floor and echoed from the vaulted ceiling of the long corridor leading to the Benchers’ chamber, I could feel my heartbeats pounding in my ears. The apprehension I felt was a new sensation for within that room ahead sat a handful of men who had the power to make an irrevocable decision on the whole course of my life. At least when I faced the Germans I was equally equipped with weapons and so had a fifty-fifty lever with them! The contest ahead of me was totally unequal.”
Rankin’s Law: Recollections of a Radical, 1972, p.70-71
I keep my copy of Harry’s autobiography on my coffee table. I think it’s a fascinating read – not just because of the subject matter, but because Harry writes so evocatively. You may read the above passage thinking he’s describing his time in the army, serving overseas during WW2. Nope. The scene he is describing is one central to Harry’s mythology: his battle against the Law Society Benchers in 1950.
At the time, Harry was in the process of completing his law studies at UBC. While at school, he joined the Communist University Club, serving briefly as its treasurer. In his book, Harry describes his interest in progressive politics following his return from the war, and how the club (independent and unaffiliated with the national party) brought in a host of compelling and accomplished speakers. Little did Harry know this decision would jeopardize his ability to practice law, and follow him throughout the rest of his career.
“I, Harry Rankin, do solemnly swear that I am not a communist or a member of any association holding communist views that if called to the Bar I can take the Barristers’ Oath without reservations of any kind and that I have no intention of following any communist association in the future. That I do not and will not advocate nor am I a member of any organization that advocates the overthrow of democratic government by force of violence or other unconstitutional means.”
When I first began my investigations into Harry’s story years ago, this anecdote about Harry renouncing any ties to communism before being called to the bar was so often repeated to me that it took on a mythic quality. David, with his progressive views, versus a panel of conservative and unyielding Goliaths. To read Harry’s own words from his book (including the prepared statement above, which he was compelled to sign) – further compounds the hyperbole.
It wasn’t until I read all of Harry’s book that I really understood this story within the context of the time. And I don’t just mean the rampant McCarthyism, and the Rosenberg trial, and everything we learned about in History 12 (thanks, Ms. Toms!). I mean Gordon Martin, a man of a similar position to Harry whose story proved to be a cautionary tale.
Harry tells Martin’s story in his book, in a chapter titled A Private Inquisition. Martin, a few years ahead of Harry at UBC law, is called before the Benchers in 1948 before being admitted to the Bar. Harry describes Martin, a married man and air force veteran, as quiet yet steadfast in his Marxist beliefs. To the Benchers, however, Martin did not pass the requirement of being a “fit and proper person” in order to belong to the legal profession. After his rejection, Martin took his case to the BC Court of Appeals, where Justice J.A. Robertson confirmed the Benchers’ decision, because “Communists’ protestations of loyalty are not to be accepted, and that they consider their first obligation to the Communist Party.” Because of Martin’s political beliefs, he could not be trusted, and would not be allowed to practice law. Harry goes on to write that after the Benchers’ rejection, Martin moved his family to Nanaimo and became a television repairman. Not a broken man, though; one of “steely resolve and integrity.”
Gordon Martin’s story helps us understand what was at stake for Harry when he signed that declaration rejecting his communist beliefs, and what the red baiting throughout his career really meant, and why the RCMP surveilled him for thirty years even once he’d become an elected official, and why I still can’t really get a clear picture of what his relationship with the national Communist Party was. Had just a few elements in his story been different, there may not have been a Harry Rankin.
Originally published February 8 2016.
“If I was going to be on Council, I was going to try to be Mayor, and if I lost Mayor, I’d go back to business, and if I won Mayor, I’d get out of business … I ended up winning.”
– Gordon Campbell – November 10, 2015
What I love most about working in documentary is that I can create a film starting from a list of questions, not answers. This has definitely been the case with The Rankin File – so much so that we titled the project a ‘documentary investigation.’ While I completed a significant amount of research before we began filming, new questions and new themes continue to emerge even after the cameras started rolling.
I was excited to interview Harry’s political opponent in the 1986 mayoral campaign – a then political newcomer named Gordon Campbell. Campbell, currently Canada’s High Commissioner to the UK, began his decades-long political career by besting Harry in that election. After serving three terms as mayor, Campbell entered the provincial arena and was elected premier in 2001. During his ten-year tenure, Campbell and the Liberal government made big changes whose impacts are still being felt years after Campbell moved on.
My interest in interviewing Campbell was to hear his perspective on Vancouver in 1986 – what was at stake in that election? How did his vision for the city differ from Harry’s and COPE’s? What was going on at the ground level during the campaigns?
I was rather shocked to hear Campbell state the above quote – it runs counter to my base assumptions of what motivates most people to enter politics (or perhaps, more than anything, it reveals my own naïveté). But what most intrigues me about Campbell’s statement is how lightly he took his entry into politics, and yet how significant his decision came to be. It further puts Harry’s story into the greater perspective of provincial and federal politics, and it raises the question – what would British Columbia – not just Vancouver – have looked like had Harry won?
Originally published January 25 2016.
Produced by John Bolton of Opus 59 Films, The Rankin File: Legacy Of A Radical is a feature documentary investigation into the colourful and sometimes controversial life of Vancouver lawyer, city councillor and socialist icon Harry Rankin. After receiving a generous grant from the BC Arts Council, we are now fundraising to complete the film. Please take a look at our Indiegogo page where you can learn more about the project and how you can help!
Originally published December 29 2015.
Thirty years. Most filmmakers will tell you that completing a film can certainly take a number of years, even a decade or more in some cases. Thirty is not the average.
It was thirty years ago that lawyer-turned-director Peter Smilsky decided to make a documentary film about a local politician named Harry Rankin. Rankin, a successful criminal lawyer and co-founder of the leftist civic party COPE, was celebrating nearly twenty years of serving on Vancouver city council. He thought he’d top it off by running for the mayor’s seat against a young newcomer named Gordon Campbell – after all these years, it was Rankin’s turn. Smilsky filmed Rankin along the campaign trail, interviewing him both in the studio and on the fly. When Rankin lost his bid for mayor, the film lost steam. Several reels of 16 mm film and 1/4 inch audio tape were loaded into Rubbermaids and packed away.
About twenty-five years later, Rankin’s son Phil decided to find out what remained inside the Rubbermaids he’d inherited after his dad had passed. My colleague Julius Fisher and I were brought on to archive the contents. Fresh out of film school, I descended into Phil’s dusty basement to retrieve the Rubbermaids, just one part of his extensive collection of material relating to his dad’s impressive career. A kind friend allowed me access to their Steenbeck, whereupon I strung up the rigid workprints. And that is how I first met the late Harry Rankin.
Fast forward five years, and I am now picking up where Smilsky left off. Along with my producers John Bolton and Julius Fisher, we have restored Smilsky’s footage and used it to ground our contemporary documentary about Harry called The Rankin File: Legacy of a Radical. Our film offers a portrait of Vancouver’s legendary city councillor, political activist, and crypto-communist – the glorious highs and devastating lows of his long career, centred on his 1986 mayoral bid against Campbell.
2015 saw us finally begin production by interviewing six key characters for the film: Harry’s son Phil Rankin, his widow Connie Fogal, his ally Libby Davies, his student Tim Louis, his comrade Fred Wilson, and his opponent Gordon Campbell. Each took time to reflect upon Harry’s life and legacy – a continued source of controversy for those closest to him. I also interviewed Peter Smilsky, and talked at length about the original production. We look forward to completing production and postproduction by the end of the new year.
This film is about a principled, complex, and enigmatic man – one whom the RCMP deemed so radical that he warranted thirty years of covert surveillance. But this film isn’t just about Harry, or his complicated legacy. It’s about the people around him, and the politics, ideals, and ideologies that ran through their blood. It’s a social history of the left in Vancouver, and how 20th century world politics played out not only in countries and cities, but also amongst circles of family and friends.
Originally published June 19 2013.
Nancy and I are very excited to announce that Charlie Gauvin will be screening at the Female Eye Film Festival on Thursday, June 20 at the Carlton in Toronto. This follows our 2013 screenings at the Canadian Film Fest and Women in Film Toronto Short Film Showcase. While Nancy is in Vancouver, I’m very excited to attend the festival, see some awesome films and meet the talented filmmakers.
Female Eye is a phenomenal festival that has been very supportive of my work in the past – my film Bunky the Vampire Killer screened there in 2011 and lead Orin Mcrey was nominated for best actress in a short film!
For more info on the Female Eye Film Festival, visit www.femaleeyefilmfestival.com.
Hope to see you there!