Omar & Pete
- Filmaker's Statement
Omar & Pete are determined to change their lives. Both had been in and out of prison for more than 30 years – never out longer than six months. This intimate and penetrating film follows these two long-time friends for several years after what they hope will be their final prison release. In that time, their lives take divergent paths as one wrestles with addiction and fear while the other finds success and freedom through helping others.
The film provides a rare glimpse into an intimate web of support. Case managers, many of them former addicts and ex-prisoners themselves, dedicate themselves to the mission of redemption, empowering one man at a time. They want to help each man take hold of his opportunity, resurrect misused talents and build a satisfying, productive life in society.
This honest and unflinching portrait shows how challenging life on the outside can be for men who’ve lived much of their lives behind bars. It is a story of what can happen when support is offered – and accepted. And it reveals that no matter how much support is given – pride, pain and fear are the demons that every man must face within himself.
The Child and Family Foundation
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
The Annie E. Casey Foundation
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting
I became aware of the experiences of low-income African-American men and the issues surrounding prison release while making my documentary film Legacy. For five years, I followed a family of three generations of women as they struggled to transform their lives and heal from the loss of their murdered child. What are not included in the film are the stories of the men who, more often than not, were physically not present in the family. Within the distressed Chicago neighborhood where they lived, many men were unemployed, without high school diplomas, reared in single parent households, in trouble with the law, involved with drugs, and socially isolated. Many had been incarcerated at one time or another in their lives.
Those living far from the realities of life in America’s distressed neighborhoods have few opportunities to develop an in-depth understanding of the issues and problems affecting the people who live there. In creating this project, I wanted to make a film that would explore the web of social and economic barriers that low-income African-American men face in the context of incarceration and release – factors that dramatically affect generations of low-income black men who are in trouble with the law and experiencing extremely high rates of incarceration. I also wanted to examine existing support structures, and those that are needed, to help former offenders reenter their families and neighborhoods. I set out to make a film that would present a compelling and highly personalized presentation of the issues. I hoped that it would challenge the public’s perceptions, create empathy, and reveal the individual, family, and community pathways that can lead to social change.
Baltimore provided the right setting for the film. The Maryland Division of Corrections (MDOC) offered me complete support and access to its new and unprecedented prison release and reentry program, the Maryland Re-Entry Partnership Initiative (REP). This pilot program marks the first time that a state department of corrections has partnered, to this extent, with city and community agencies. Over one hundred organizations and agencies are working hand in hand with MDOC to explore models and find solutions that will help inmates transition back into their families and communities. Whereas the purpose of MDOC was once thought of as securing public safety solely through the incarceration of offenders, MDOC now believes that it must extend its reach beyond the walls of the prison. Their approach to crime control is shifting from one that is reactive to one that is holistic and preventive.
From December 2001 to January 2002, I began pre-interviewing subjects for my film. I looked for someone who is participating in the Maryland Re-entry Partnership Initiative (REP) and who is articulate, committed to making a change, has family with whom he wants to reunite (brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, in the case of Omar), and has a long record of incarceration. I wanted to find someone whose record, taken at face value, would indicate that there isn’t a hope in the world for him, but whose actions and drive to change might prove otherwise. I also needed to find someone with whom I felt a personal connection. Asking a man to allow you to film him over three years after he’s just spent the last 10 years of his life under constant surveillance and exposure to guards and inmates, is asking a lot.
After pre-interviewing over 75 men, I chose Leon Mason, who prefers the name Omar. At the time, he had been drug-free for eight years and was a devout Muslim. When I met Omar I felt that personal connection, as did he. We felt relaxed with each other and we both sensed that in addition to coming together as filmmaker and subject, there was also the possibility of friendship. Over the years a friendship did develop, adding to the intimate quality of the film.
On February 1, 2002, I began filming Omar while he was still incarcerated. MDOC allowed me full access to his life behind bars. After filming him in prison over a period of six weeks, I then filmed his release on March 15. Omar had been in and out of prison from the time he was 17, never out longer than a year. Now, at the age of 47, he was finishing a 10-year sentence for armed robbery and was participating in REP with the hope that this program would help him break his 30-year cycle of incarceration.
On the day of Omar’s release, when he entered his transitional house, I met my second subject, his good friend and roommate, William “Pete” Duncan. Pete is from the same neighborhood as Omar and has a similar history of incarceration – 30 years in and out, never out longer than six months. On the night of Omar’s release, Pete was in his tenth month of being released and on parole. He was also participating in REP and had set a record for the amount of time that he had been free from prison. I filmed Pete welcoming Omar to the transitional house and talking to him about what he must do in order to stay clean of drugs and free from illegal activities. For both men, drug addiction was the major reason they broke the law and spent so many years behind bars. On the day of Omar’s release, I also began filming his two REP case managers, Marshall Collins (a former offender and former addict) and LaTonya Johnson.
Omar & Pete captures events as they unfold in cinema verité style; the stories of Omar & Pete are told through events and behavior. Only people who are organic to the story and environment are part of the film. All of the intricacies that comprise the fabric of their lives and experiences are captured and expressed in a way that will engage audiences and humanize the men and their stories.
The three years I spent filming Omar & Pete were some of the most difficult and rewarding of my career. As a filmmaker, it was sometimes very difficult to interpret some of Omar’s and Pete’s personal and emotional barriers. In order to tell their stories, I had to understand their sense of time and space. For men who’ve spent so much of their lives in prison, time and space on the outside is very precious; it’s also something they want to control completely. As a result, it was sometimes difficult to schedule shoots and stay in close communication with both men. At times they would disappear; at other times they’d be inflexible with their schedules. I had to be very careful and respectful of their emotional and psychological boundaries.
It also took time for me to sensitize myself to what they considered private matters. In the beginning, I often felt as though I were walking on eggshells. But, over time, I developed a better understanding of how they experience the world, and I was able to adjust both my way of thinking and my filming process. I found it difficult to watch Omar succeed and then fail numerous times. He’s a very intelligent man and an effective communicator. I found it painful to see his tremendous potential unrealized, especially when so many people were trying to help him. I felt both frustrated and angry to see him deceive others as well as himself.
Facing these challenges is also what was so rewarding about making this film. I was forced to see the world through the eyes of two men who’ve been addicted and incarcerated for most of their lives. I learned so much from them. I learned about the important role that having humility plays in helping a person overcome addiction; the effects that being institutionalized has on a person’s psyche; the fears that arise from having freedom and responsibility; and the pressures that black men face in their own families and communities. In numerous men, I saw the miracle of lives transformed in a way I never thought possible. Most importantly, I witnessed a brotherhood of love that I had never seen so close-up. I was inspired by the caring and concern between case managers and their clients, and among men living together in a transitional house after having spent so many years behind bars.
In the end, I believe the stories of Omar & Pete deepen our understanding of reentry issues, and the complex experiences that former offenders face when returning to their families and communities. I hope the film will help viewers feel compassion for these men, and understand more clearly the policies and support structures that former offenders need in order to begin new and self-sustaining lives.
“People stuck in the revolving door of prison recidivism are oft dismissed as career criminals or simply bad, but a more complex truth is bared in Tod Lending’s “Omar & Pete.” … Sharply assembled verite package packs considerable cumulative punch.”
Dennis Harvey, Variety
“A hauntingly resonant profile of two convicts re-entering society after lifelong stints in prison. The unprecedented cooperation from the Maryland Deptartment of Corrections… allows the filmmaker to obtain a degree of intimacy and raw power not often seen…”
Jimmie Briggs, New York Amsterdam News
“Not only is truth sometimes stranger than fiction, it can also be more dramatic.”
Aaron Branhart, Kansas City Star
“The PBS series POV continues its winning streak tonight with Omar & Pete… Lending magnificently captures the mundane but monumental struggle men like Omar face. The prison system’s subjects may be hidden from many citizens, but their problems are deservedly in your face.”
Cliff Vaughn, Ethics Daily