Spotlight on Filmmaker Charles Officer and his “Nurse.Fighter.Boy”
Dashing into a local coffee shop on Danforth just west of Coxwell, in the heart of his old east-end Toronto stomping grounds,looks around as though worried I’ve arrived and, not having seen him, departed already. Making the most of his time in between west coast shoots for his new film, a National Film Board documentary on Vancouver sprinter Harry Jerome, missed opportunities can be costly and a smile of relief crosses his face when he realizes he’s mistaken. He shakes my hand enthusiastically and unnecessarily offers apologies before ordering a coffee. He must then accept a few apologies of mine when I’m forced to dash down the street for a pair of triple-A batteries so we can record the interview. Two of a kind when it comes to first impressions, I suppose.
Having thusly put him at ease, the first interesting nugget divulged by the director/writer ofis that although he acts and directs, he prefers directing. And when he does act, he prefers the live theatre to film because it only gives you one chance to get it right. This principle applies even when he’s directing.
“You have to get everything in the shot, the actors have to be on point … I think it’s a masterful way of working,” Officer said referencing influences on his philosophy as a filmmaker, from classic European and Indian cinema to Alfred Hitchcock. “People think that doing one take is easy, but it’s actually very difficult.” And we’re back to first impressions.
After screening short films in previous years, his first feature Nurse.Fighter.Boy was widely praised at its debut in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. But that was only the world’s first impression. Officer recalled how one day, after years of writing and re-writing the story, one of many he was and is constantly working on, he “really decided” Nurse.Fighter.Boy was going to be the first. But the decision didn’t mean the film came easy. The growing process he experienced while honing the script was arduous as were the delays, including an actor’s strike, once filming was set to begin. And it’s not an easy task, revealing your or your family’s trials and tribulations.
“My mother was a nurse, and the black men I grew up around were constantly fighting, with themselves most of the time, but also physically fighting. I initially wrote the script, and there were never any names. They were always just Nurse/Fighter/Boy,” Officer explained. “The story is very much inspired by my sister, who struggles with sickle-cell anaemia.”
The film graphs itself onto the frame of Fate by intertwining the lives of Jude, Ciel and Silence using the themes of three of humanity’s most universally recognizable bonds: love, mortality and belonging. “It all came from these archetypal characters,” Officer said. “I wanted to create a sort of painterly, heightened-realistic presentation of some of the things that I recognized from my childhood.” But although his own experiences inform the story, it isn’t a simple re-telling of his own life.
One of the profound early impressions was his sister’s sickle-cell anaemia, a blood disorder affecting 1 in 5,000 people in the population, but 1 out of every 500 in the black community. Officer has had a chance to see the impacts of the disease on a wider scale. “There are many people I’ve been able to connect with who are sickle-cell anaemic in the community who have been alone,” he recalled when talking about response to the film. “They live with this disease, but no one knows. They disappear for a month because they’ve had a crisis and people don’t know where they are. It’s tough.”
But don’t mistake Nurse.Fighter.Boy for a “” film. “I wanted it to be based on a real connection between a mother and a son,” Officer stressed. Working as an emergency-room nurse, Jude is also a single mother raising her 12-year-old son in Canada because his father died when Ciel was an infant, and at the outset of the story she has two worries.
The first is saving enough money to take Ciel to Jamaica to see where he’s from. Jude’s second worry is far more serious: that the sickle-cell anaemia is slowly but surely overcoming her body’s defences and will make an orphan of her beloved son. For his part Ciel, who is well aware of his mother’s ailment, fights insomnia and loneliness while his mother is at work by listening to music, performing tricks and casting magic spells to the delight of a neighbouring girl his own age.
Both Jude and Ciel are fighters, but Silence is the retired boxer earning money by illegal street fighting. As the name implies he’s a man of few words, as is the film in general. Officer maintains the tension throughout by relying effectively on his story, choice of music and visual cues such as facial expressions and body language. Jude just happens to be on duty when Silence meets an opponent and they scuffle, sending him to the emergency room with a gash on his head. He hardly says a word to her during this first meeting but, as Officer remarked, love at first sight exists on film as nowhere else.
The tone is established from the outset. Nurse.Fighter.Boy opens with Silence trying to make amends for an uncharacteristic and prolonged absence from his boxing club. He offers the club’s owner a bottle of rum to make amends, but is calmly rebuked. A day or two later he’s greeted with the news that the owner, his mentor, has died of a heart attack. Silence decides he must now run the club so the young boxers can continue training.
In Nurse.Fighter.Boy Officer has achieved several goals, including “giving work to black actors” and delving into the universal human “fear of losing someone close.” The camera work, the lighting and shadow play, the brilliant sets, a terrific cast and mesmerizing musical score all add up to a haunting yet supremely uplifting film.