Review: ‘The Rankin File: Legacy of a Radical’

DOXA 2018

5 mins read

The Rankin File: Legacy of a Radical
(Canada, 90 min.)
Dir. Teresa Alfeld


Long before a certain obstreperous blowhard vowed to make America great again, Vancouverite Harry Rankin endeavoured to do the same for his beloved city. Rankin, who died in 2002, shared many of Donald Trump’s less savoury qualities, particularly his abrasiveness, rowdy temperament, and arrogant love for his own voice. Unlike the other guy, though, Rankin was a good man at heart—and his politics were 180 degrees different from Trump’s. In any case, one doesn’t need to like Rankin or agree with his views to admire his convictions.

That sentiment is at the core of director Teresa Alfeld’s objective portrait of the late politician, The Rankin File: Legacy of a Radical. The film, DOXA’s opening night selection this year, offers a timely return to Rankin’s story as it looks at a politician who used his panache for social good. Unlike Trump, Rankin served a career in politics fighting for the underrepresented, voiceless, and marginalized. There were few politicians like him then, and one could argue that there are even fewer now.

The Rankin File dispenses with rose-coloured glasses as it revisits the career of its subject, particularly during the hard fought, and ultimately unsuccessful, 1986 mayoral race against Gordon Campbell. Using a mix of archival footage and new interviews, the film charts the career of the earnest lawyer, scrappy city councillor, and small-s socialist. The archival material is valuable work shot by documentary filmmaker Peter Smilsky during Rankin’s mayoral campaign. Smilsky’s well-preserved 16mm footage features ample behind-the-scenes coverage that illustrates Rankin’s strong social consciousness and passion for a good fight. At the time, Smilsky’s mix of verité and interviews with Rankin lost its relevance when he failed to become mayor. Now, it gains new resonance since many of the issues Rankin fought against, like condofication and “gravy train” politics, are a reality for Vancouver and most major cities in Canada.

Interviews with Campbell, Rankin’s widow Connie Fogal (herself a politician), former B.C. Premier and Vancouver Mayor Mike Harcourt, and former councillor Libby Davis add perspectives to a complex character. Recollections highlight Rankin’s dedication to the left-wing party the Committee of Progressive Electors (COPE) and his effort to champion causes like social housing and the rights of tenants, providing facets of a politician who fought for what was right rather than what was popular. Particularly useful are the interviews with Grand Chief Stewart Phillip and his wife, Joan Phillip, who recall Rankin being a lone voice standing to demand an inquest into the death of Tsilhqot’in man Fred Quilt, who died after being beaten by the RCMP on his tribe’s own land.

The doc highlights Rankin’s vices just as much as his virtues. For example, Campbell and his team discuss their campaign’s pivotal observation that voters were weary of Rankin’s persistent negativity. They recall harnessing this fatigue into the slogan “Positively Gordon Campbell,” which tipped the younger politician as the likable upstart and Rankin as the cranky old man. The film finds additional relevance in the consequences of relentless negative campaigning.

Alfeld keeps the portrait of Rankin brisk and informative. Vancouver audiences will inevitably gain more from The Rankin File than viewers outside the city will glean from this 32-year-old municipal scrap, but the portrait is nevertheless objective enough to let anyone appreciate the film with no prior knowledge of Rankin. His just causes, passion for underdogs, and social consciousness are universal traits for doc fans to admire in a leader.

The Rankin File screens again on Saturday, May 12.

DOXA runs May 3 to 13. Visit DOXA Festival for more information.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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