Lo­cal doc revives Harry Rankin run for mayor

The Georgia Straight - - Doxa -


As­mall sec­tion in a new doc­u­men­tary, The Rankin File: Legacy of a Rad­i­cal, cap­tures the essence of Van­cou­ver civic pol­i­tics in the early 1980s. Com­mit­tee of Pro­gres­sive Elec­tors al­der­man Harry Rankin bel­lows across the coun­cil cham­ber that the woman on the other side, NPA al­der­man He­len Boyce, is stupid. Boyce replies that she would rather be stupid than be Harry Rankin. As the mayor, Mike Har­court, tries to in­still some decorum, Rankin con­tin­ues his ac­ri­mo­nious fight with Boyce and another right-wing al­der­man of that era, George Puil.

“Th­ese aren’t skilled de­baters act­ing at the best of their abil­ity,” di­rec­tor Teresa Alfeld tells the Straight by phone. “At the same time, you can see how in­vested they are. I love that scene, re­ally, for its comic po­ten­tial.”

The Rankin File is full of vivid mo­ments from Van­cou­ver’s past as it tells the nu­anced story of the supremely con­fi­dent and out­ra­geous rab­ble-rous­ing lawyer who served 25 years on coun­cil. For Alfeld, it all be­gan in 2011, when Rankin’s lawyer son, Phil, wanted help sort­ing through what he called his “base­ment archive”: stacks of doc­u­ments about his fa­ther. There, Alfeld dis­cov­ered 33 reels of film and sev­eral pizza boxes full of prints.

“I asked Phil, ‘What is this?’ He said, ‘That’s an un­fin­ished doc­u­men­tary by Peter Smil­sky about my fa­ther,’” she re­called. “That was my in­tro­duc­tion to the project.”

Rankin died of a heart at­tack at the age of 80 in 2002, and Alfeld, who grew up in East Van, never met him. But she was able to bring his story to life with Smil­sky’s bless­ing.

In the film Phil acts as a guide, de­scrib­ing his fa­ther’s ex­pe­ri­ences as a sol­dier who was court-mar­tialled for in­sub­or­di­na­tion, his dif­fi­culty get­ting ac­cepted into law school be­cause of his rad­i­cal pol­i­tics, and his fam­ily life. Ac­cord­ing to Alfeld, Rankin’s first wife, Jon­nie, “played an enor­mous role not only in politi­ciz­ing Harry but sup­port­ing him through his decades of pol­i­tics and ac­tivism”.

At the heart of the doc­u­men­tary, how­ever, is the most sig­nif­i­cant may­oral elec­tion in mod­ern Van­cou­ver his­tory—the ti­tanic fight in 1986 be­tween Rankin and his youth­ful op­po­nent, one-term coun­cil­lor Gor­don Camp­bell. The cam­paign of­ten cen­tred around how much so­cial hous­ing should be built on the for­mer Expo site, a de­bate that Alfeld punc­tu­ates with mu­sic from Doug and the Slugs and in­ter­view clips from TV talk-show host Jack Web­ster. Rankin’s left-wing al­lies—libby Davies, Jean Swan­son, Jim Green, Fred Wil­son, and Smil­sky—all of­fer their views with the hind­sight of his­tory, and this is off­set by com­ments from Har­court, for­mer coun­cil­lor Dar­lene Marzari, and Camp­bell, who won in a land­slide.

“This film has been the work of so many in­di­vid­u­als not just for the seven years that I’ve been work­ing on it, but re­ally over 30 years since Peter started it back in the early 1980s,” the di­rec­tor said. “I also want to high­light the role of my pro­ducer, John Bolton, who has been the most in­cred­i­ble col­lab­o­ra­tor, men­tor, and friend through­out the process.”

Legacy of a Rad­i­cal.

This year’s DOXA fest opener vividly re­calls the

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