Try a documentary for a dose of reality

Harry Jerome races at an East York track meet in the early 1960s.

If you hunger for films with more substance than the usual Hollywood fantasy, try a dose of reality. The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema reopened last week as a permanent home to North America’s largest documentary festival (April 26 to May 6) as well as to programs such as Doc Soup. You can also watch fascinating non-fictional films on the CBC’s Doc Zone (, at the National Film Board of Canada ( or at your local library.

As part of Black History Month in February, the Beaches Library presented two movies by acclaimed filmmaker Charles Officer. Mighty Jerome tells the compelling story of the Canadian sprinter Harry Jerome, who made one of the greatest comebacks in track and field history. Officer was on hand to lead a lively discussion. An athlete himself, the writer/director grew up in East York boxing and playing hockey. He was drafted by the Calgary Flames, but turned his sights to filmmaking. His first feature film, Nurse. Fighter. Boy (2008) hit close to home. It was inspired by his sister’s illness and by the culturally diverse, blue-collar, East End neighbourhood of his youth. This ‘urban love story’ was filmed in the back alleys of Eastern, Woodbine and Danforth Avenues, as well as at a Cabbagetown boxing club.

Mighty Jerome was a “labour of love” for Officer. His thoughtful portrait of Harry Jerome uses archival footage, interviews and re-enactments to explore the life and career of a track legend. Contemporaries such as Malvern Collegiate’s great middle distance runner Dr. Bruce Kidd give insights into Jerome’s determined resolve to overcome obstacles. Jerome came back from devastating injuries to win a bronze medal in the 1964 Olympics. At one time he was the fastest runner on the planet, the first man to hold the world record for both the 100m and 100 yard races at the same time.

Each year in Toronto, the Harry Jerome Awards (April 28, 2012) honour excellence in the black community. We need to celebrate Canadian heroes. Officer feels that we have so many stories to be told, and documentaries help us “so we won’t forget these stories, and have a visual archive.”

Canada has a long tradition of excellence in documentary filmmaking. The very first Oscar for a documentary (and the first for any Canadian film) was awarded to our National Film Board for Churchill’s Island (1941). The world-renowned NFB has won 12 Oscars since it was founded in 1939. We’ve come a long way from the first Toronto film released, a short about the Great Fire of 1904. In 1915, the Conness-Till Film Studio on the banks of the Humber River was destroyed by fire while making an anti-smoking movie called Nicotine.

Today we are in what has been called the ‘golden age’ of documentaries. Just last month, Toronto resident Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won the Oscar for best documentary short for Saving Face, now on HBO. Beach resident Sherien Barsoum received a grant from Hot Docs Funds to make Colour Me, about identity and what it means to be black in Canada. This week in theatres you can catch the NFB’s Payback from Margaret Atwood’s book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. Jennifer Baichwal also directed the award-winning Manufactured Landscapes (2006) for the NFB. The CBC broadcasts Titanic: A Canadian Story on April 5. Also check out To the Arctic in IMAX and narrated by Meryl Streep, out April 20. IMAX was created by a Canadian company, with the first permanent IMAX in the Cinesphere at Ontario Place in 1971.

For some of the best films in town check out the Beaches Library every Wednesday at 2 p.m. and the second Tuesday evening of each month. On April 25 from 2-4 pm, the NFB’s Courage chronicles the lives of the working poor. Toronto director Geoff Bowie will be present to answer questions. Other NFB films will be shown in May as part of Asian Heritage Month: The Sweetest Embrace, Tuesday, May 8 at 6 p.m., and A Dream for Kabul, Wednesday, May 16, 2 p.m. The price is always right … free!

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