Written by Barbara Legault
Harry Rasky, Journalist and Documentary Filmmaker. Born in 1928 in Toronto, he was raised in the St. Clair West area.
“…on Sunday, there was the question of what to do in Toronto… At Earlscourt Park there were tennis courts; no nets could be hung. There were sandboxes and swings; the swings were padlocked. Padlocked! Once, when I found one free and began swinging, a policeman in his bobby hat grabbed my shoulder. His words have never left me: ‘Nobody Swings on Sunday!'”
-Nobody Swings on Sunday: The Many Lives and Films of Harry Rasky, 1980, published by Collier Macmillan Canada
Harry Rasky was a journalist and a pioneer in the field of documentary filmmaking. During his lifetime Rasky made significant contributions to both print and broadcast journalism. However, his greatest legacy is surely the catalogue of moving portrayals of visual artists, writers, performers, and personalities such as Tennessee Williams, Marc Chagall, George Bernard Shaw, Leonard Cohen, and Robertson Davies. (1)
Rasky began his career in 1949 at the Northern Daily News, a radio station in Kirkland Lake, Ontario. When he was 24 he won an award for his radio documentary on the life and times of King George VI, and subsequently co-founded the news documentary department at the CBC. (2)
He played a significant role in shaping the emerging field of television in Canada. From 1952 to 1955, he worked in the CBC news department as one of only three national news staff members. Rasky broadcast the network’s first live news story on September 8, 1952. Heard here, the story describes the escape from the Don Jail and the recapture of the Boyd Gang. Rasky went on to develop CBC Newsmagazine, a weekly show that allowed him to broadcast his films. (3)
From 1957 to the early 1960s Rasky did freelance work in Europe and Toronto before heading to the United States to find more opportunities in the documentary field. Headquartered at the United Nations office in New York City, he produced documentaries and current affairs programs for major US networks. It was here that he met the love of his life, Arlene. They married and had two children in New York. (4)
After a harrowing experience in Vietnam in 1966, Rasky decided to shift the focus of his films to arts and cultural subjects. (5) In the early 1970s he returned to Toronto with his family and entered into a long-term arrangement with CBC. He would produce one documentary per year at a set rate per film. (6) It was a dream arrangement, with creative independence and a consistent crew and funding. The network support gave him the ability to control the content and production of his films, and he produced a plethora of films during that time. (7) In 1995 he and another CBC veteran, Norman Campbell, were laid off due to budget cuts. (8)
Rasky was celebrated internationally for his achievements. He won over 200 international prizes and citations, including two Emmy Awards, two Oscar nominations, the Golden Eagle, and the Venice Film Award. In 1982, he was awarded an honorary degree from his alma mater, the University of Toronto, the first that the school had ever bestowed on a filmmaker. In 2003, he was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada. (9)
By putting his film subjects at ease, Rasky encouraged them to speak at length by conducting interviews in locations where they felt comfortable. His 1981 documentary Song of Leonard Cohen (see clip here) is an example of this technique. The film captures a sensitive discussion between Cohen and Montreal poet Irving Layton about the meaning of life while Cohen was on tour. (10)
Rasky often appeared in his films as interviewer, a mode of storytelling that was much more personal. His distinctive onscreen presence became his trademark and his innovative films were dubbed “Raskymentaries” for his “unique blending of narration, music, poetry, documentary and fiction-film elements”. (11) In 2003, after telling the stories of so many others, Rasky finally put his own life to film in Nobody Swings on Sunday. Based on his 1980 autobiography, the film exposed the poverty and exclusion he faced in Toronto in the 1940s and 50s. (12)
Despite his difficult beginnings, Harry maintained an optimistic frame of mind throughout his lifetime. He made a genuine effort in his films to tell the truth about his subjects in a way that made people feel positive: “I have tried to find the positive forces in life and out of them create works of art of a lasting nature with the idea of improving the lives of others. This, plus the adventure of passing on the tradition of my father and his, is my life.” (13)
Harry Rasky passed away on April 9, 2007 at age 78, leaving behind a legacy of more than 50 feature-length non-fiction films, and an incredible archive of some of the greatest poets, thinkers, and performers of the twentieth century.
With greatest thanks to Arlene Rasky for her contributions to the text.