Harry Rankin: A Documentary Thirty Years in the Making

Originally published December 29 2015.

Slate from director Peter Smilksy's original film shoot in 1986.

Slate from director Peter Smilksy's original film shoot in 1986.

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.