So, I saw so many movies that I got behind in the blogging.
On Friday night, I saw "An Omar Broadway Film". This film was a collaboration between film-maker Douglas Tirola and prisoner Omar Broadway, who shot videos of whatever he could see while incarcerated in the Maximum Security Gang Unit in New Jersey's Newark state prison. The film-making began when an unidentified guard gave Broadway a video camera that he could use to document brutality in the prison. When they first got the camera, Omar and his cell-mate filmed the day-to-day routines in their cell so that audiences can understand what the experience of prison is really like. In the process we see that, and also get to know our film-makers a little as they record themselves as their first subject. They show us how they doctor their food to make it edible, and use prohibited devices like cell phones. In another scene, as one of them uses the toilet, the other peeks out from behind a dividing curtain and tries to impress upon the audience how horrible it is to share such a small space with someone and to be "this close" to someone who is "taking a shit!" "It's only because we're so innovative that we even have this!" he says, tugging on the curtain. "Otherwise, I'd just be here." What they show isn't always so humorous and it sometimes reveals rather unflattering things about the two men. In one scene, Omar videotapes a message to his seven year old daughter, who was born right before he went to prison, and tells her that he had originally told her mother to have an abortion, but that that doesn't mean that he doesn't love her now, but that he didn't want her to grow up without a father. The fact that they proudly lead the Bloods' roll calls in the prison isn't likely to endear them to most audiences either.
Probably the most important thing that they show is the routine violence in the prison. Over the next few months, Omar and his cell-mate videotaped through the tiny window in their cell door as guards in riot-gear routinely attacked prisoners who were standing outside their cells, refusing to lock in for the night because they wanted to take the one shower per day to which they were entitled. The most outrageous incident that the two caught on video involved guards dragging a prisoner down a flight of stairs by his feet and then dragging him naked across the floor.
The film had great immediacy as Omar and his cell-mate began coughing and gasping each time the guards armed in riot gear began spraying mace into the area outside their cell as part of their routine method for enforcing prisoner compliance with rules. When they had enough tape, and when it seemed that the prison was going to raid his cell and find the camera, Broadway finally got the tape out of the prison andafter being turned down by CNN, Nightline, and Oprah Winfrey, and attempt to get the rapper Fifty Cent to take on the project, he and his mother finally got the segment of the stairway brutality onto Fox Five local news. There it would have sat if Broadway's co-producer Douglas Tirola had not come along. Apparently, fifty cent maintained some interest in Broadway, because Tirola, who also works at MTV, heard about it from another hip-hop artist, and it's a good thing he did.
Broadway's tapes show the prison from the point of view of an incarcerated and (at the time of filming) unapologetic member of the Bloods gang, but the film that the Tirola created with Broadway's tapes is not a film celebrating the "gangsta" life. He uses the tapes as the center of the narrative, but surrounds them interviews from multiple points of view on crime and neighborhood politics. From her guided tour of the neighborhood drug corner where Omar used to sell drugs, to her attempts to sell copies of her son's DVD on the streetht, Omar Broadway's mother is as much a character in the movie as is her son. Tirola also includes interviews with gang-task-force police, Department of Corrections officials, former and current gang members, longtime anti-prison activist, Bonnie Kerness, and the head-writer of Oz, Tom Fontana. Through skillful editing, the resulting film goes beyond the simple "verite" style of revealing the inside of the prison or documenting brutality. It is significant that Tirola kept footage in the film that others might have taken out as too unflattering because it allows us to accept Omar and his cell-mate as complex humans in their own context, not as stereotypical or romanticized caricatures. While the film is focused on Broadway and his video project, the interviews with people who describe horrific acts by the bloods, or economic decline, or prison policies, show the life that we see from Omar's cell in a broader context. By the time the film has ended, the audience can also see that Broadway becomes increasingly concerned with this role as a witness, and he seems to grow in the process of the film-making.
I thought that this movie was really remarkable, and was especially glad that during the Q&A, not only was Omar's mother present, but that she used the speaker on her cell phone to call her son, who is currently being held in a state prison in Maryland, so that he could hear the audience cheer for him. Knowing how isolating prison is, I can only imagine how touched Omar must have felt hearing that big New York crowd clapping and cheering for him at the night of his movie's premier. It will be interesting to see what he does when he gets out of prison in 2009; I hope he keeps up the movie-making.