Charles Officer, left, is a restless creative spirit. As a lad he played professional hockey before going on to OCAD and a brief career as a designer and creative director for a major Toronto ad agency. Acting came next courtesy of renowned Toronto coach Jacqueline McClintock, followed by a trip to study in New York City, which is where Officer was bitten by the filmmaking bug. He’s been writing and directing movies ever since, making his professional debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2000 with When Morning Comes.
After a string of film and TV projects, including the highly personal and widely acclaimed Nurse Fighter Boy (2007), Officer dove into documentary filmmaking for the first time with Mighty Jerome, premiering Friday (April 29) at the Hot Docs Film Festival (April 28 – May 8).
Mighty Jerome originated with National Film Board producer Selwyn Jacob, who wanted to tell the story of 1960s Canadian sprinter Harry Jerome who overcame injury and a trial-by-media to bring home a bronze medal in the 100 metres from the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
Officer believes Jacob selected him to tell Jerome’s story because of his own experience in professional sports from age 17 to 20
“I found myself in Salt Lake City, cut off from my family, from my support system, and that’s similar to what Harry went through,” recalls Officer. “He was young, in a field where there weren’t many other black players. I was an introvert just as Harry was. And when he was called a quitter I was able to really look at what that meant because it mirrored my own experience. I wasn’t mentally tough enough.
“With Harry Jerome,” continues Officer, “everybody thought his injury was mental but it wasn’t, he was mentally tough. It would have been impossible for anybody but an extraordinary person to come back from the kind of injury he had. When you look at Canadian athletes like Ben Johnson and Perdita Felicien, what they experienced at the hands of the media was similar in a way to Harry Jerome. The public loves to hear certain kinds of stories but I think the media has a responsibility to be respectful and fair. When the athletes are so young, if they don’t have the mental toughness, they can be destroyed.”
Officer’s portrait of the runner — who died of a brain aneurysm in 1982 at age 42 — is an elegant tribute in black and white. The writer/director’s background as a graphic designer informs every frame, from the titles to the staging and art direction.
“I wasn’t formally trained to make films,” says Officer, “so when I constructed my first few films I called upon the way I design things. So I do my own titles in part because I couldn’t articulate exactly what I wanted. Design is a huge, huge, huge part of the way I work, the way I conceive stuff.”
Colleagues who know Officer from Nurse Fighter Boy have expressed surprise at his detour into documentary filmmaking: “I tell the story the way it needs to be told,” says the director, “whether that’s a short, a feature or a doc.”
He’s also committed to telling black stories, “stories that pertain specifically to where I’m from and what I know. It’s not my exclusive focus but I don’t think that will ever stop. I have friends who say to me, ‘Hey man, do you have any parts for skinny white guys?’ and I say, ‘Yeah, they’re coming up.’ But I’ve got a couple of things I have to get out of my system first. I’m always going to be on the lookout for actors of various ethnic backgrounds whether it’s Asian, East Indian, Korea, black, to me that’s what Canada’s about. Any work I do in this country has to reflect those inter-racial crossovers.”
Written by Christopher Jones
Photo: Nathaniel Anderson
Makeup by: Xquizit Makeup
Graphic Design: Kurupt
Learn how to do well by doing good. -Educate, Empower, Unite.-MCMLXVIII
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