With its July 27 digital release,
An Omar Broadway Film
resparks the conversation about the prisoner who snuck a camera into his cell. Always the entrepreneur, Broadway hoped to use the footage to make some money or to shorten his sentence. (The latter goal wasn't achieved, and he's currently back in prison for a parole violation.) Documentarian Douglas Tirola got hold of the footage and ended up putting together the film on Broadway, his secret camera, and the mundane-yet-terrifying world of prison life.
City Paper: How did the production come about?
We're a company called 4th Row Films, and we make documentaries. We also have a side of our company that utilizes independent filmmakers to do branding and marketing work. We get indie filmmakers to do all that other content that, 10 years ago, there was no outlet for-web stuff, stuff you'd see on a TV on the ground floor of Bloomingdale's, cabs, airplanes, everything-all the different ways that brands try to communicate with people through filmmaking or visual mediums. We were filming a party, an event at this nightclub, [and] we met a guy who was a DJ named DJ Green Lantern and his manager. A few months later, after meeting them, the manager called and said, "Hey, are you guys still interested in pursuing documentaries? I might have something of interest." We said, "Yeah, we'd love to set up a meeting." He was like, "You've got
hour to get to my office. I have somebody here with something you want to see, but they're walking out the door in an hour." So I left the editing room, went downtown, and saw three tapes that were shot by Omar in prison. It was very clear from the first moment of watching it that it was not MSNBC's
; this was shot from a prisoner's point of view. This was something we knew immediately we had never seen. And the stuff they were showing was some of the more violent things, but among a lot of the violence that they were showing were these moments of Omar and his roommate [Buddy Randolph] in their cell, showing the sort of mundane, day-to-day existence of being a prisoner: what they do, seeing what they snuck into their cell. You just knew this was a movie.
CP: Going into it, did you think that you would be making a film about brutality in the prison system?
That's a great question, because documentaries often find out what they're really about as you shoot them and then start to edit them. They don't always end up [as] what you intended. I would say this: When we started the movie, this sort of working title was-get ready for the dramatic title-The System. And obviously Omar's story was going to help tell the story of everything that's wrong with the prison system. As we went on, it became more about him and his mom and his family and his existence in prison, and all of those things we wanted to say in the version of the film that, let's say, that we referred to as The System, I think end up being better serviced by the story about Omar. And that's how we got to the title
An Omar Broadway Film
CP: How did this collaboration between you and Omar work?
Whether you're making an independent film with a guy who's in prison-we might be the only ones that have done that-or you're making one at a studio, it's kind of like a marriage of sorts. I'd say it was maybe a year and a half to two years from when I first met his mom, and then soon after got on the phone with him, to when the movie came out. When the movie premiered at Tribeca [Film Festival in 2008], we found out in advance what time it would be premiering, and he arranged to get an illegal cell phone in prison and call my cell phone right when the Q&A started, because I wanted him to be a part of what was going on. Part of being in prison is that you're just removed from everything that's going on in life and you're looking for those connections. So I put the cell phone up to the microphone and he said, "thank you." Everyone applauded and he said, "I'm going to try to make everyone in this theater proud when I get out." He'd also send us letters from prison, telling us what he thought were important things on the tapes. We certainly had a lot of dialogue about the film.
CP: At one point in the film, you show footage of Omar getting into a role. He started to perform, in a way.
He becomes the star of his own movie. He and his roommate, Buddy, start to become aware of being on film. If you think of a lot of the movies about prison, something like
Birdman of Alcatraz
, a lot of the characters who survive-at least mentally or emotionally-are people who find these projects or these causes to just keep them going.