How many people pass by the three-metre-tall bronze statue of Harry Jerome on the Stanley Park seawall every year? (The park board says at least eight million hit some part of the park annually.) And how many people are aware that Jerome was one of the greatest athletes this country ever produced?
“Those would be great statistics to know,” says filmmaker Charles Officer on the phone from his home in Toronto. In fact, he pondered such things while working last year on Mighty Jerome, his film about the amazing runner from North Vancouver that will screen at the Vancouver International Film Festival on October 8 and 10.
“While we were shooting the statue, people would stop and ask questions about it. But every once in a while, someone would know all about him.”
Officer’s own education on that subject started in 2007, when Selwyn Jacob, a veteran producer from the Pacific and Yukon Centre of the National Film Board, called the Torontonian. Jacob asked him to read Running Uphill, Fil Fraser’s book on Jerome, which details the unlikely rise, physical fall, and even more spectacular comeback of this soft-spoken black Canadian who raised political and personal controversy as an Olympic-level runner before dying suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 1982.
“What I didn’t know is that he [Jacob] asked four other directors to do the same thing,” Officer recalls. “I guess he liked my approach, which is good, because I had never done a documentary before.”
A former pro hockey player, Officer had his own conflicted history with sports—he also left due to injuries. And his sister’s battle with sickle cell anemia motivated him to make the feature Nurse.Fighter.Boy, which toured festivals in 2008.
Mighty Jerome is full of stylish flourishes (some of which recall Charles Burnett’s influential Killer of Sheep) underlined by Schaun Tozer’s atmospheric guitar score. Officer even created faux museum installations in Toronto, Edmonton, and Vancouver to interview contemporaries and family members in controlled environments. Unfortunately, Jerome’s sister Valerie, also an Olympian, is absent from the story.
“I wanted her to be part of the conversation. But she wasn’t comfortable with the book. And that caused a rift, I’m afraid.”
Still, the young director, who will be acting in a Toronto revival of Raisin in the Sun during VIFF, is proud of the results.
“Running is about freedom, and I may have captured a little of that essence in this movie.”