ABOUT THE FILM (TERESA ALFELD - PRODUCER / WRITER / DIRECTOR)
My journey with The Rankin File: Legacy of a Radical began about seven years ago. Fresh out of film school, I met a local lawyer named Phil Rankin who was looking for help sorting through his collection of archival materials from his late father’s life. Phil’s father was none other than Vancouver political legend Harry Rankin, the man responsible for building a working-class political movement in the city I’d grown up in. As a millennial, I’d certainly heard Harry’s name before but had no appreciation of the breadth and impact of his career. That was about to change.
As I descended the stairs of Phil’s East Vancouver home down to the dusty basement, I was astonished to discover a collection of Rubbermaid containers filled with dozens of cans of 16mm film from an unfinished documentary project. Simply labelled “Rankin”, the film originated from 1986 - one year before I was born. As I strung up the film workprint on my university’s Steenbeck, images of a vibrant 1986 Vancouver filled the screen. The film followed Harry along the campaign trail as he finally ran for mayor after a twenty-year career as a city councillor. In all honesty I was quicker to recognize Harry’s opponent, a youthful former Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell. Yet as I continued watching the footage, Harry practically jumped off the screen with his quick wit, political conviction and biting sense of humour. I found myself needing to know more not only about Harry, but about the abandoned documentary.
The first step was to find the director, a lawyer-turned-filmmaker-turned-lawyer named Peter Smilsky. I found Peter working in immigration law in the Ukraine. Several emails later, Peter opened up to me about his ambitions filming Harry and the project’s untimely demise. With Peter’s ultimate blessing, I decided to pick up where he’d left off. I sought out a dozen of Harry’s contemporaries to interview, including his opponent Gordon Campbell; his allies Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Joan Phillip, Libby Davies and Jean Swanson; his city council colleagues Mike Harcourt and Darlene Marzari; his protégé Tim Louis; his comrade and campaign manager Fred Wilson; his widow Connie Fogal; his son Phil Rankin; and Peter Smilsky himself.
The Rankin File tells the story of a little guy with big dreams - to bring progressive politics to Vancouver city hall. My documentary builds upon Peter’s never before seen footage of Harry on the campaign trail as he fights the biggest battle of his career - his quest for the mayor’s seat. With Expo '86 as a colourful backdrop to the campaign, Harry and his allies work tirelessly against the heavily funded Non-Partisan Association political machine to determine the city’s destiny.
The Rankin File reveals that Rankin himself was a complicated man and not immune to personal drama. For all of his progressive politics, he held outdated views of certain groups, namely women. As a feminist filmmaker, I found it necessary to spotlight this contradiction within the otherwise enlightened politician by highlighting the hardworking women who worked alongside Harry despite his barely-cloaked sexism.
As I conducted my interviews in 2015 and 2016, I to came to realize that Peter never finishing the documentary was something of a blessing. The thirty years that had passed ultimately provided necessary perspective on the enormity of the political battle that Harry waged. The distance allowed my contemporary interviewees to offer more nuanced insights into the events of that pivotal time. As a millennial struggling to stay in the city as affordability goes out the window, I am quite saddened to think of Harry’s and his allies’ failed fight for a liveable city. What might Vancouver look like now had he been mayor?