A film that was never finished. A mayor that Vancouver almost had.
Vancouver, 1986. The Expo World’s Fair has just ended and the future of the city is at stake. Harry Rankin – World War II veteran, criminal lawyer, city councillor and outspoken socialist – is running for mayor against a young, right-wing upstart named Gordon Campbell.
Decades later, director Teresa Alfeld unearths reels of 16mm footage of Harry’s campaign, filmed for a documentary by lawyer-turned-filmmaker-turned-lawyer Peter Smilsky. Peter’s documentary was never completed and the abandoned footage sat in Harry’s son’s basement for decades. Teresa decides to pick up where Peter left off and attempts to complete the film about the Vancouver legend.
The Rankin File: Legacy of a Radical chronicles Harry’s nearly fifty-year career beginning with his World War II military service as a soldier, twice wounded in combat. His worldview altered by his wartime experience, Harry sets out to build a working-class political movement in Vancouver that puts power in the hands of the people. Finally elected to city council in 1966 after eleven tries, Harry’s career as both a civic politician and a talented criminal lawyer takes off. Not even years of surveillance by the RCMP for alleged ties to the Communist Party – which he denies – can slow him down.
By 1986, Harry is on top of the world and seems poised to become mayor of the city he fought so hard to make the liveable and affordable place it had become. The surprise candidacy of an energetic conservative politician – and future premiere of BC - Gordon Campbell catches Harry’s team off-guard. Developments in Harry’s personal life cause further problems, not only with Harry’s campaign but also with the completion of Peter’s documentary.
With nearly three decades having passed since Peter began filming, The Rankin File provides context and commentary only possible with hindsight. The Rankin File explores Harry’s character and his political legacy as understood by five key figures in his life: his son Phil Rankin, his widow Connie Fogal, his ally Libby Davies, his comrade Fred Wilson and his opponent Gordon Campbell. Rankin himself is a constant presence in the debate, however, through a unique and intimate interview filmed the night before the 1986 election. In death, as in life, Harry gets the last word.
The past few years have seen the rise of populism on both the hard left and the hard right. As politicians from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump in the United States, and from Jeremy Corbyn to Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, attempt to harness the power of both the best and the worst of people looking for real change – and as Justin Trudeau attempts to split the differences here in Canada – what can we learn from the successes – and failures – of Harry Rankin?