The following article was written by Jennifer Cikaluk as part of a series of articles about filmmakers coming to the Salt Spring Film Festival on March 1-3, 2019. Filmmaker Rami Katz will be attending the festival and leading a discussion about the film following the screening. The Filmmaker series is sponsored by Mid island Co-op.
THE ISSUE OF MR. O’DELL: An interview with Director Rami Katz
Vancouver based filmmaker Rami Katz’s interest in the visual image first began with still photography. Then in a high school cinematography course, he found his new passion, filmmaking. He enrolled in the Simon Fraser University Film programme and later advanced his studies at UBC to receive his MFA in Film Production. His master thesis film, The Issue of Mr. O’Dell premiered in 2018 and has been very well received. To date he has directed and produced several short length documentaries and his films have been screened at film festivals around the world.
The Issue of Mr. O’Dell is a documentary short film which chronicles the life and work of a remarkable activist who has been at the forefront of many key moments in contemporary Black American history. The story of Jack O’Dell’s lifelong work as an activist and organizer is told through a series of intimate and candid interviews. Black and white still photographs and historical film footage are woven into the film to construct a picture of the time.
Mr. O’Dell’s stories are a personal account of the experiences which shaped his career and his legacy as a prominent activist. He recounts his first experience with segregation when he went to college in Louisiana, a moment of awareness that would spark the beginning of his lifelong pursuit to fight racism and advocate for racial equality and social justice.
“The institutions of racism in the United States have been around as long as the United States of America, and the struggle to change the polices that come from this are something that you have to be relentless about.’ (The Issue of Mr. O’Dell)
Serving in the Merchant Marines during WWII, Mr. O’Dell found a community in the National Maritime Union’s (NMU) and its fight for labour rights. The NMU was a left-wing union where O’Dell learned about the power of the unified labour movement. In the 1950’s, O’Dell decided to join the Communist Party because he felt they were an organization whose actions were the most effective in fighting racism at the time. This choice put him into the focus of the FBI and would ultimately hold greater consequences to his career. It was also at this time the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. O’Dell decided he wanted to be a part of it and soon found himself at the side of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“So, I don’t care what they say about the Communist Party. The Communist Party was the most active movement in the country in the fight against racism in the ranks of the working class.” (The Issue of Mr. O’Dell)
O’Dell left the Communist Party at the end of the 1950’s and became one of MLK’s right-hand men. As a good mobiliser and organizer, he became a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). His path of activism brought him to the center of the civil rights movement, and he proved himself as a very effective agent of change.
Unfortunately, his past caught up with him. Liberal leaders labeled him a ‘dangerous man’ blaming him for racial disturbances and saying he had subversive motives based on his prior involvement with the Communist Party. The Kennedy’s told MLK to ‘get rid of him’. Under pressure and with great reluctance, King was forced to let him go. O’Dell’s influential leadership position within the SCLC came to an end.
“We were almost like a family. We were all doing the same work…He understood that we were all working for the same goals and he respected that…we were all working for the elimination of the insult of segregation and for a better society in America.” (The Issue of Mr. O’Dell)
Though O’Dell’s life course shifted, he was far from finished. His calling to be at the frontline of on-the-ground activism would evolve once more and perhaps allowed him to find his most powerful voice, through his pen. He found his audience with one of the most prolific left-wing magazines of its time, the monthly journal Freedomways. O’Dell wrote from the early 60’s to the late 80’s, contributing his wisdom and insight. He became a leading voice in anti-racism and the fight for civil equity and rights for Black Americans. His writings in Freedomways continue to influence young activists today.
“I think it’s a process, but I don’t think Blacks feel comfortable that it has changed. Because, you don’t know where it’s going to break out. It’s like an epidemic. You catch it one place and it reaches out someplace else. So that’s why necessity to continue to protest is extremely important.” (The Issue of Mr. O’Dell)
The Issue of Mr. O’Dell brings to light the life of a man with an important legacy of activism. He was: a fighter for labour rights with the National Maritime Union, an impassioned member of the Communist Party in its fight against racism and a leader in the civil rights movement alongside Martin Luther King and then later an adviser to Rev. Jesse Jackson. He has been in the vanguard of activism among some of the most important mobilisers, organisers and thinkers of the Black rights movement throughout its most defining times.
Jack O’Dell is now 94 years of age, retired and living in Vancouver with his wife. He continues to give speeches, write and advocate for equal rights, while always influencing young activists and encouraging us to understand the connection of past struggles with the ongoing struggle for equality today.
“The fact that you have to call attention to the life of a Black person is a statement on the state of the union” (The Issue of Mr. O’Dell)
In Rami Katz’s film The Issue of Mr. O’Dell we meet a man who is soft spoken, articulate and resolute in his purpose in life. Mr. O’Dell challenges us to affirm activism is integral in the changing of social consciousness. He calls on us to be relentless and eternally vigilant, to not stop, because the struggle for rights, equality and recognition for basic human dignity does not have an end. The film provides a window into this man’s life and contributions and leaves you eager to learn more.
“Social action helps to bring moral progress” (The Issue of Mr. O’Dell)
I reached out to Director, Rami Katz to talk to him about the film and his experience as a filmmaker on The Issue of Mr. O’Dell.
I understand you went to Simon Fraser and to UBC to study film and that you recently completed your MFA in Film Production at UBC with The Issue with Mr. O’Dell as your master’s thesis. How did this academic experience make you a better filmmaker? Do you think you have to study film in order to make a good documentary?
It was great to make this film in an academic setting because it involved a lot of history and research. This was my first time working with archival material and my MFA supervisor, Sharon McGowan, really helped me through the process. She and one of my documentary teachers at UBC, Cari Green, were both tremendous mentors. Also, taking editing, producing and cinematography classes, as well as film theory and history helped my development as a filmmaker.
I don’t think one has to go to film school necessarily, in fact there’s a pretty good website called No Film School which has a lot of good articles and tips for indie filmmakers. But I think what film school does is gives students structure, along with mentoring and teaching, and provides film equipment and insurance. Also, one of the biggest benefits was collaborating with fellow students and working on each other’s films. I still work with cinematographer Felix Oltean, who is attending the film festival with me and who was in my film school class at SFU.
When did you first meet Jack O’Dell and how did you come to know about his story? What did Jack say when you told him you wanted to make a film about him?
I’ve known Jack O’Dell for over 20 years now – my mom met his wife, Jane Power, at SFU in the 90’s and we’ve been family friends ever since. Over the years we’ve had many great conversations and we agreed on a lot of things politically. I’ve always admired not only the work he has done in the labour and civil rights movements but also the way he frames his ideas about the world.
I can’t remember the exact moment when we agreed to make this film. We talked about it over a series of conversations. Having already known Jack as a family friend, and by establishing a trust which developed by our conversations were two essential factors that led to the making of this film.
Jack O’Dell is a man who has been present in many important moments in America’s contemporary history. Did you feel huge responsibility to get his story right? If so, why? How did you edit down and curate those interviews to create the narrative of the film in just 35 minutes?
I did feel a huge responsibility to get his story right. Not only because Jack played an integral role in the civil rights movement, but also as a friend, it was really important to me that he liked the film. When I finally had him and Jane over to watch the rough cut, and I saw that they both liked the film, that was a huge relief to me.
The editing took a long time, nearly a year. I edited about 10 hours of interview footage into a 35-minute film. There was a lot that went to figuring out the most important moments for the film. I set up feedback screenings at different stages of the editing process, which were really helpful in figuring out what was working and what was not working for the audience. Also, I changed things around a lot. At first, I structured the film thematically, and that wasn’t working so I ended up editing the film chronologically, which worked better. Many of my editing decisions were based around what kind of archival material I was able to get, and how they would fit into each scene (or not). My limited budget was always a factor in decision making. Also, a lot of editing decisions were made based on Jack’s enthusiasm for my questions. If he was really active and engaged, I knew it was something he wanted to be talking about and I tended to use that in the film.
Why are Jack O’Dell’s stories important? And how is his story relevant today?
The issues Jack O’Dell speaks about in the film, from ongoing racism and police brutality to rising inequality, are all extremely relevant today. I think it’s important to talk about how the FBI tracked and followed O’Dell, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others during the civil rights movement, and how they are still doing it today with the Black Lives Matter movement. And how wealth is being even more concentrated into the hands of a few. With a rise in far-right populism around the world, voices such as O’Dell’s are extremely important in the public discourse and provide inspiration and a path forward – and are a reminder there are alternatives to the way our societies are structured.
The Issue of Mr. Odell highlights the importance of activism and the role of the activist to evoke societal change. Do you consider yourself an activist and do you see documentary filmmaking as an effective way to change social consciousness?
I do think my film can be labelled an activist film, because it is engaging with pressing social issues. But I think of myself more as an artist than an activist, because I’m not out there organizing every day. I’m working on my craft and figuring out how to tell the best story, and how to change hearts and minds that way. I hope I can continue to make films that have some kind of impact.
Now that you have had success directing several short films are you considering making a feature length documentary film? If so, tell us about your future project.
I am developing a feature documentary idea, but it’s at very early stages. It involves taking a critical look at public spaces and how they function in our society.
Do you think film festivals are important? Tell us why attending a Film Festival to show your film is an important part of the filmmaker’s experience and how festivals have influenced your career.
I think it’s extremely important, especially for indie films and short films that would not otherwise have theatrical releases. It’s also a great way to connect with other independent filmmakers and have engaging conversations about the craft and issues presented in the films. I love attending festivals and always try to do so whenever I can. I’m very much looking forward to this one.
Watch the trailer.
By Jennifer Cikaluk