POV: Introduce us to the film.
Tod Lending: I think this is film is about many things; it’s not just about one thing. It’s about the struggle to overcome addiction, and what’s involved in that struggle. It’s about what happens to men psychologically and emotionally when they have been institutionalized for long periods of time. The power of faith to help them overcome things like addiction and to reintegrate with their families and the community. It’s about the incredible support that can be found in a community, if it’s all brought together. That’s what this [reentry] program was about: the prison system linking hands with the community. And the support really came from people who were from the community, people who had been incarcerated before, people who had been addicted. So the film is about what that support can do for some, and maybe not for others. One of the very important things that the film is about is what we do need to provide for these men. Whether one makes it, or 20 make it, it’s important as a society that we can say to ourselves, “We are giving these men the best chance to make it.”
POV: How did you come to make the film?
Lending: Omar & Pete evolved out of another film I made, called Legacy. For Legacy I followed a family for five years of their lives in the projects, in the Henry Horner Homes in Chicago. I was focused on three generations of women in that family, and I noticed that the men were not present, and discovered that many of them were incarcerated. So after completing Legacy I went to my funders and told them that I was very interested in telling the story of what’s happened to the men in these communities. The funders became interested in the subject, the stories of African-American men who’ve been incarcerated re-entering their communities and families. They agreed to provide support for me to do the film.
POV: With the topic in mind, how did you find your setting?
Lending: I went looking for what I would consider the best prison reentry program that the country had to offer. Baltimore was one of the places with a pilot program that was extremely comprehensive. They were providing case managers for two years, transitional housing, employment opportunities, health care, educational opportunities, addiction treatment. My assessment of the Baltimore reentry program was one of awe, really. The case managers were all former offenders themselves. They were also former addicts, so they really knew the territory and how to communicate with people like Omar and Pete, who were coming out after spending 30 years in prison, never having been out longer than six months. I thought they were doing a remarkable job. So I approached them and asked if they would allow me to tell their story, and they were very receptive. They opened the door wide.
POV: How did you meet Omar and Pete and decide to tell their stories?
Lending: I pre-interviewed 95 men, and I selected three to follow. Omar was one of the three. As we filmed, a couple of men just immediately went back to prison. I felt strongest about Omar to begin with. When I met him, he presented himself to me as he is in the film — he had incredible confidence, or at least he projected incredible confidence. He projected himself as a visionary — and he used that word — who wanted to not just change things for himself, he wanted to affect the whole community. He’s an incredibly bright man. He taught himself to read Arabic so that he could read the Koran in its original language. He converted to Islam when he was incarcerated and had been a practicing Muslim for eight years when I met him. He had also been clean for eight years at that point. And he just seemed to be incredibly focused. It was through Omar that I met Pete. I hadn’t originally selected him, but when Omar was brought to the transitional house, his roommate was Pete. It turns out they had been good friends for many, many years. Pete seemed to be a natural character. I thought it was interesting that Pete had been out for ten months and Omar was just coming out. Pete was in a different stage of reentry and I thought this would be really good to follow these two men.
POV: What challenges did you face?
Lending: There were a lot of obstacles in making this film. The main obstacles were getting close and developing trust and developing intimacy with two guys who have spent the majority of their lives incarcerated. There is a natural wall of protection that they’ve built around themselves. It is asking a lot of a man who’s been in prison for mostly 30 years, being watched by prison cameras, being surrounded by men 24-7, to then allow you to go out and follow him for another two and a half years. That’s asking a lot. Fortunately, Omar and Pete were open to it.
POV: How did you overcome this issue?
Lending: In order to develop the trust and intimacy, I had to spend time with my subjects without the camera. It was extremely important to not always have the camera around, to show them that I was interested in them not just as subjects but as human beings. It was important to really develop a friendship with them. This was going to be a two-and-a-half year relationship, and if we didn’t have a friendship outside of filming, it really wasn’t going to work.
Another one of the struggles in telling this kind of story and in getting close to a man like Omar is understanding their sense of time and space. Time and space are incredibly precious to them. If we had a shoot in the morning at Omar’s carwash and we had to move that shoot to the afternoon, Omar would not allow that. He did not want to make that transition. I found that very confusing in the beginning. He was going to be there, what would be the problem with just shifting it to the afternoon? But Omar explained to me that for him, keeping a schedule is his lifeline. The minute he deviates from that schedule, he’s now vulnerable to becoming addicted again or to losing his focus. So it took me a couple months to understand his rhythm, his pacing, what kind of questions to ask and when to ask those questions, when was the right time to ask very intimate questions about his past or his family or relationships with women. All of this was something that was very tricky for me.
POV: Were there any moments when Omar, particularly, considered pulling out of the film?
Lending: Omar took pride in his word, and in giving his word. And there were times, especially after a couple of relapses, where Omar was very embarrassed about what had happened and where he would have liked to pull out of the filmmaking. But he agreed to stay in because he had made that verbal agreement. And I have to really respect Omar for that. He was very vulnerable after his relapses, and because he had made that agreement with me he stuck by it. When it came to relapsing, Omar would not reveal that part of himself to me or to anyone. I would always get Omar after the relapse, because whatever was occurring right at that moment he kept private. I think we had an understanding and a respect of boundaries.
POV: Do you have any regrets about the film?
Lending: I really would have liked to have gotten closer to Pete and to have gotten more scenes of Pete’s life at home. But Pete was very protective. As a filmmaker, I find that extremely frustrating. As a human being, I totally respect his boundary. And maybe that’s one of the reasons why Pete was able to make it, and Omar was not. Pete had a clear sense of his own personal boundaries and what he needed in order to take care of business.
POV: How did you think that being a white man impacted your role as a filmmaker?
Lending: It was very important in telling this story that I was male. Omar and I talked a lot about female relationships, and females were very much a trigger for his relapses. They were the key figure in his relapses. For Omar, being a Muslim, females were always a temptation for him and a difficult one at that. So after he had been in prison for eight years, his plan on his release was to not be with any women until he could find a Muslim woman who he could marry. And only when he married would he have relations with her. So yeah, if I had been a female I think it would have been very difficult for him to share his weaknesses. The same was true with Pete.
I certainly thought about being a white filmmaker, my cameraman being white, and what effect that would have on my relationships with the people in the film. All of the case managers were African-American. In fact, everyone Omar had contact with in the system was African-American. His parole officer was African-American. His addiction counselor was African-American. This was another reason why I chose Baltimore — I wanted to find a place where all of the support systems were being managed by African-Americans. I felt that this was very important in breaking stereotypes. The last thing I wanted to do was tell a story about two African-American men who go out and are helped by white case managers and white treatment counselors. If I had been African-American and telling this story, maybe I would have had more access to parts of Omar’s life that he wasn’t comfortable sharing with me. Maybe not.
POV: What are your goals for Omar & Pete? What audience do you hope will see the film?
Lending: I think our society is afraid of black men, especially black men who have been in prison. That stereotype was something I was hoping this film would break. I wanted to humanize men who fall into this stereotype and I wanted to show their complexity. I wanted to look at the interpersonal barriers that these men face, being stigmatized as someone who’s been in prison, having their skin black and being male, being stigmatized by addiction.
I think Omar & Pete can be used as a warning call within the prison system for guys who are coming out. It can be used throughout the country to raise awareness, again, of the issues that these men are facing, and what kind of support we should be providing for them when they come out. It can be used in the faith-based community, since Omar and Pete are both very faith-based people.
I would like the film to be seen by a general audience who doesn’t know much about prison life or what African-American men from these low-income communities face. The film is also for the men who do know that territory, who are incarcerated and who have the attitude that Omar has: “When I get out, I’m going to make it, I’ve kicked my addiction, I’ve been clean for so many years while incarcerated. I’m going to go out and do my thing.” That misperception is very prevalent. The film is being distributed to prisons throughout the country. So I also see the film as a wakeup call for guys who are coming out. Hopefully this will help keep them on the straight path.
POV: Do you have any advice for new filmmakers?
Lending: As a first-time filmmaker, you can’t just be aware of the film that you’re setting out to make. You also need to be responsible for those who may be following in your footsteps. One of the struggles in getting access to a place like the Maryland Department of Corrections is that in some cases, you’re following in the footsteps of journalists and filmmakers who have basically burned the bridges. They have not been respectful in the way they’ve conducted business. They’ve promised certain things and haven’t come through. You need to conduct yourself and your business in a way that develops a sense of trust, so hopefully the door will remain open for other filmmakers to get access.
In my case, the first thing I had to be aware of was the responsibility I had to the Maryland Department of Corrections. They were giving me special access to go inside prisons and I felt a responsibility to be very respectful of their rules and very careful of how I pushed the envelope. Like when there were certain things I wanted to get on film that maybe weren’t part of the agenda. I just had to be sensitive to where they were coming from, so that it wouldn’t be a bad experience and other filmmakers could come in and hopefully do the same thing.
POV: What was your greatest satisfaction in making “Omar & Pete?”
Lending: It was having the opportunity to become close to Omar and Pete, who come from a world that I didn’t know much about. It was learning about those personal barriers, struggles and issues one has to deal with when you spend that much time in prison and have been addicted for so many years. For me, Omar revealed just how incredibly difficult it is to overcome that. No matter how bright, talented and articulate you are, it’s a tremendous battle. Another thing that moved me deeply and that I found very satisfying was seeing the love within that community, the support that came from black men helping black men. It is a powerful thing and I was around that a lot. The love was expressed incredibly openly. That was a surprise for me. There was just a really authentic sense of brotherly love that I found very gratifying to be a part of and to watch and film.