In this interview, Charles Officer, a former professional hockey player and now the acclaimed director of films like "Nurse.Fighter.Boy," talks about what drew him to the story of black Canadian sprinter Harry Jerome. His film, "Mighty Jerome," aired on Reel NW on November 7.
Had you known much about Harry Jerome before starting to make this film?
I knew a little bit about him. I was actually someone’s date at the Harry Jerome Awards [awarded by the Black Black Business and Professional Association of Canada] in 2003. I knew he was a track and field athlete, but I didn’t know the extent of what he’d accomplished. And then I went to these awards and got to hear a lot more. I was, like, “Wow, this guy is really phenomenal!”And I was really surprised that I hadn’t known that much about him.
What was the path from learning about Harry Jerome to wanting to make a movie about him?
It wasn’t very difficult. The moment I had a meeting with Selwyn [Jacob, the producer from the National Film Board of Canada] about making the film, I really just felt completely connected. What I saw instantly was something where I knew I’d be learning throughout the process, and I’d be making some discoveries as well. That’s kind of a dream project for any filmmaker. And the subject matter of track and field, and the imagery, for me personally, of a black man who ran fast, and the metaphors that are connected with running, and pertain to freedom.
As a director of narrative films, how did you approach this, your first feature-length documentary?
I tried to approach it in a narrative way, because it was the only way that I knew how to work. I believe that all documentaries are storytelling, and cinematically it should follow that.
I did it as an investigative process, going out and finding people and shooting interviews while I was developing the treatment. And I wanted to present these people who I’d found, who were close to Harry Jerome, in a sort of portraiture, in black and white. A lot of the people in the film are older – 70 and older – and I wanted to try to immortalize these people as well, along with Harry.
What is it you hope people will learn and will carry away from the film?
Ultimately, that there’s struggle for all humans. Also, an understanding of [Jerome’s] times, and how far we’ve come and how far we can still go. And to think about how we approach our heroes in this country. We don’t celebrate certain things in the same way that Americans do, and we’re so close to America. I’m not saying that every person needs this crazy historical archive, or a film made about them, but I think we have to pay attention to some of these things. [Otherwise] there are generations that will never know about this stuff.
In America they can make five feature films about [track star Steve] Prefontaine. But in Canada we don’t even have one about someone who did a lot more than he did. The athleticism [of Jerome] is pretty remarkable, so how come? I hope the movie inspires the next generation to be looking out, and to pay attention, and to come to the funders with projects that haven’t been presented so far.