An interview with filmmakers Noelle Hanrahan and Steve Vittoria
On October 6, the new documentary film entitled Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal, will be making its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival, just north of San Francisco.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is a veteran journalist, author of seven books, and a former Black Panther who was convicted of first-degree murder in the shooting death of white Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner in a 1982 trial deemed unfair by Amnesty International and many others. Abu-Jamal, who has always maintained his innocence, spent almost 30 years in solitary confinement on death row in Pennsylvania. The death sentence has now been officially overturned and since early in 2012, Abu-Jamal is out of solitary and in general population at SCI-Mahony, with such new ‘privileges’ as contact visits with family and friends (view photos).
Long Distance Revolutionary features interviews with a range of longtime Abu-Jamal supporters including Pam & Ramona Africa of the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Amy Goodman & Juan Gonzales of Democracy Now, Cornel West, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, and many others. Making his first appearance in a film about Abu-Jamal is actor Giancarlo Esposito, known recently for his role as Gustavo Fring on the AMC TV series, Breaking Bad.
Featured in Long Distance Revolutionary is a clip of Esposito reading from Abu-Jamal’s first book Live From Death Row at a mid-1990’s event supporting Abu-Jamal in Philadelphia. The rally attracted a large counter-demonstration outside of the event, that had been organized by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). In the film’s recent interview, Esposito reflects upon the intensity of that day, and fearing that his acting career would be negatively affected by the broader FOP-led campaign of public intimidation towards those supporting Abu-Jamal. These intimidation tactics surfaced again this week, as Politics PA reported on a National Republican Congressional Committee “campaign consisting of online ads reminiscent of Willie Horton and hundreds of thousands of robocalls” linking Abu-Jamal to congressional candidate Kathy Boockvar.
Philadelphia’s disturbing history of racial oppression and officially sanctioned police violence is a central focus of Long Distance Revolutionary’s interview with Linn Washington Jr., currently an Associate Professor of Journalism at Temple University and a columnist for the historic Philadelphia Tribune–the nation’s oldest African-American owned newspaper. In the film, he comments that “Philadelphia has a veneer of liberalism and this whole Quaker mystique. The reality is it has been this ruthlessly racist city—really from its inception.”
Linn Washington has been covering the Mumia Abu-Jamal/Daniel Faulkner case since the morning of December 9, 1981. While not spotlighted in Long Distance Revolutionary, Washington has continued to report on the many different reasons that Abu-Jamal deserves a new trial, including a recent test he conducted with journalist Dave Lindorff. The results are interpreted by Washington and Lindorff to have conclusively disproved the prosecution’s scenario of the shooting presented at Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial.
We interview Noelle Hanrahan and Stephen Vittoria about their new film examining Mumia Abu-Jamal’s life and work as a revolutionary journalist. Vittoria is the writer, director, editor, and co-producer of Long Distance Revolutionary. His last film, One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern won “Best Documentary Features” at the Sarasota Film Festival. He also recently was a producer on two feature documentaries by Academy Award winner Alex Gibney: Gonzo: The Life & Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson and Magic Trip.
Noelle Hanrahan co-produced the film alongside Vittoria and co-producer Katyana Farzanrad. The director of Prison Radio, Hanrahan first began to record Abu-Jamal’s radio commentaries from SCI-Huntington’s death row in 1992, which now total over 2,000 (archived here).
Mumia Abu-Jamal has now written seven books, including Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the USA, The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America (with Marc Lamont Hill), and Message to the Movement.
Angola 3 News: Unlike previous documentary films about Abu-Jamal, your film deliberately avoids the legal/factual background of Abu-Jamal’s case and instead focuses entirely on his life and work as a revolutionary journalist. Why did you choose to do this?
Steve Vittoria: First of all, John Edginton made an excellent film about Mumia’s case and it was broadcast here in the States on HBO entitled Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case for Reasonable Doubt? Even though it was made back in 1995, it’s a fairly comprehensive look at the legal narrative. Books, articles, other films, as well as a myriad of videos have been distributed worldwide that deal with the case.
As a documentary filmmaker, unless I’ve uncovered something so different than what’s already been created, why traverse ground already traveled? What has really interested me about Mumia Abu-Jamal since I first heard his commentaries and read his work was his extraordinary ability to transcend the Draconian hell that is Death Row and suggest alternative narratives to the myths of so-called American justice and liberty. His work over the last decade or so has evolved into a sophisticated and searing indictment of American imperialism – on a par with Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and the ever courageous Arundhati Roy.
In the film, Cornel West sums it up this way: “He forces us to come to terms with the depths of the crisis of the American Empire.” In a country run by mass murderers, economic rapists, and general run-of-the-mill sociopaths, you’re forced to look for some sanity, some compassion, maybe even some love in the bowels of this asylum. I found that sanity courageously written from a dark, dank hole in America’s prison gulag.
Here’s a man who has been fighting for the victims of a violent empire since he was fourteen years old. Here’s a man who has published seven books from death row and who has written thousands of commentaries that have been broadcast all over the world from death row, that impact real people every day. Remember, thirty years on Death Row and he hasn’t blinked. As a storyteller, that’s an incredible story to tell.
The story about his case can be summed in one line uttered by the judge in his case, the Honorable Albert F. Sabo, who boasted in chambers: “I’m going to help them fry the nigger.” That’s all you really need to know about the case.
Noelle Hanrahan: The impact of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s writing and his radio commentaries is far greater than one, albeit dramatic, incident. Yes, Mumia was shot and critically injured on December 9th 1981, yet that is clearly not the defining moment of his life. It is not who he was or who he has become. For the very first time, through this movie, people can begin to see what circumstances and forces shaped Mumia, and how he in turn has shaped the world.
A3N: The film begins with a variety of right-wing talking heads, ranging from Michelle Malkin to Michael Smerconish, who are shown calling Abu-Jamal a ‘cop-killer,’ among other things. Why do you begin the film this way? How do you respond to their ‘cop-killer’ accusation?
SV: The entire film is a response to their lunatic ravings. It’s like taking candy from a baby. I wanted to let the bed-wetters have their say right off the bat and let the audience experience how ridiculous their gibberish really is. Some may think that it’s vile, that it’s ugly, that it’s hate mongering or fear mongering, but it’s really absurdist comedy because there’s no basis in reality, and that’s the light it should be seen in. Why not begin the film with a clown parade?
Documentary audiences need some laughs. In 1932, Tod Browning directed a horror film called “Freaks” about circus sideshow performers, including a bearded lady, pinheads, a sword swallower, you know freaks. Maybe this is homage to Tod Browning.
NH: First, mainstream media claptrap led by Fox TV reaches and influences millions. They are trying to weave a fictional narrative and feed it to folks as if it is reality. News once had a veneer of professional practice, and noble goals. The last thirty years have brought a dramatic shift in what passes for mainstream journalism. Corporate capital has bought out and dumbed down what today passes itself off as broadcast news.
News today leads with pet stories and gore, and fast paced shrill video and sound bites that are emptied of content and serious analysis. Frankly, it is a perfect storm for the expansion of the police state. ‘Cop Killer’ is like some red towel before the bull, two words that they throw out to divert attention from the real issues that are at the core of the repression that dominates this culture. They obfuscate, confuse, frighten, threaten, and tell us War is Peace. These are tactics and methods of the state and their hired enforcers: the police.
A3N: Noelle, as someone that has collaborated with Abu-Jamal since the early 1990s, what do you think the mainstream media has failed to accurately report on regarding his journalistic career and struggle for freedom?
NH: In 1981 Mumia was an award-winning mainstream journalist who was extremely well known in Philadelphia. Today, if you listen to mainstream reporters they would try and sell you a lie upon lie upon lie about Mumia. I have been stunned by the ignorance and duplicity of the writers and reporters who are determined to try and rewrite history.
20/20 actually distorted Mumia’s voice (that I had recorded) because they wanted it to sound worse. Mumia was not allowed to conduct his own defense and was removed from the court room during his trial because he was having a positive impact on the jury. He was compelling and his voice is very authentic.
The police spent days in the studios of WUHY (now WHYY) where Mumia had worked, poring over his audio tapes trying to find something to play for the jury that would enflame the jurors. They listened to dozens of hours of tape, but everything that they came across that he produced would have had a positive effect on the jury. They eventually dug up something he had written in the Black Panther Party paper when he was sixteen, a quote actually from Mao Tse-tung: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” This is what the police had read to the jury to try and convince them that he was just waiting to kill a cop, to inflame them, to push the jury to vote for death. This jury had asked for reinstruction on manslaughter. Remember it was July 3, about to be the 4th of July weekend, when the jury was facing sequestration over the holiday weekend, and the judge and the DA pushed them to come back with death.
Our film counters the false mainstream narrative with facts. “He forces us to come to terms with the depths of the crisis of the American Empire and how do you create some awakening,” notes Cornel West in the film.
A3N: Stephen, while Noelle has been working with Abu-Jamal since the early 1990’s, you have approached this project as an ‘outsider’ of sorts. What was your impression of Abu-Jamal before starting the project? Did this impression change following the completion of the film?
SV: Actually, I worked with Mumia a few years before I started this project, when I was producing a documentary entitled Murder Incorporated: Empire, Genocide, and Manifest Destiny and Mumia recorded twenty-five remarkable short essays that defined the march of Empire over the last five hundred years – from Columbus setting foot on Hispaniola to George Bush’s murder spree in the Middle East. So I had some history with Mumia as a contributor to my film and that was really the genesis of Long Distance Revolutionary.
As I approached this project, my impression of Mumia was this: a brilliant writer, a courageous voice battling the forces of tyranny, a tireless warrior, a fierce researcher completely dedicated to his craft, and ultimately a long distance revolutionary. After producing this film for three years, none of that changed because my impression was spot on and solidified.
But what I did learn that pleasantly surprised me was from a personal standpoint, because after thirty years in hell the man remains gentle, he remains loving, and for me, above all, funny. Mumia loves to have fun, loves to laugh. When we visit, sure, we talk about drone attacks, poverty, torture, mass incarceration, you name the horror and we talk about it. We even talk a lot about art and music. Mumia loves music. Most of the time we laugh and talk about the craziness masquerading as culture in this country.
A3N: Specifically, what do you think is most significant about Abu-Jamal’s life and work?
SV: Clearly, it’s been the consistency of his work and the consistency of his message. Of course, he’s matured as a writer but his belief structure has remained remarkably consistent. Professor Todd Steven Burroughs from Morgan State defines this well in the film, saying: “I was astounded at the fact that at 15 years old, he was essentially the same writer. The style was a little more dogmatic as a Panther. You know, because he’s using all this Panther rhetoric, “Do Something, Nigger, Even If You Only Spit!” But, at core, it is the same black leftist analysis that he does at 56. And I was shocked at that.”
I think Todd is right on and I think the film captures this reality. How many writers, how many activists, how many revolutionaries remain that consistent? Not many. I know I’m not. But Mumia has managed to stay true to his spirit. Maybe that has something to do with being right.
NH: Mumia has been consistently focused on exploring and honoring the humanity of those people in society who often remain unheard. His dedication to his craft and his commitment to speaking truth to power, regardless of the oppression and obstacles is truly epic. As a journalist myself, I could not imagine doing more important work than amplifying prisoner’s voices and listening to their perspectives.
A3N: Along with video footage of Senator Bob Dole’s infamous tirade against Abu-Jamal on the Senate floor in the mid-1990s, you also spotlight some more recent footage from the ‘discussion’ of a Congressional Bill condemning the City of St. Denis, a suburb of Paris, France that named a street after Abu-Jamal. What do you think it was about this street-naming that so outraged US politicians? What do you think are the primary motives of the Philadelphia FOP-led campaign against Abu-Jamal? Do you think it would be accurate to describe this campaign as a modern-day lynch mob?
SV: The street-naming publicly outraged US politicians because the US Congress is so weak and ineffectual when it comes to representing the true needs of their constituency and actually affecting change that might actually move the society forward. Things like real health care, real education, and real financial reform are truly important, but instead they latch onto things that they can yell and scream about–pretending that they’re actually doing something. And Mumia was the perfect patsy.
They create a demon, stir up the racism that runs through the US psyche like a main circuit cable, and then start lying. This formula has worked in the US since the founding fathers were counting their slaves. It’s an old and insidious game, but it works because the sheep buy it every time.
Regarding the FOP and their ongoing campaign, is it accurate to call it a modern-day lynch mob? Of course, it is. Lynching never stopped in this country. The props just changed: trees and rope were replaced by mass incarceration. Law professor and author of the bestselling book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, framed it this way in the film: “There are more African American adults under correctional control today, in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850 – a decade before the Civil War began.”
NH: Anyone who questions the hegemony of the right wing is subject to their ire. They certainly protest a lot more than it seems appropriate. It makes one wonder, are these truths and their revelation, so damaging to the state that they have to use every conceivable tactic of intimidation to try and suppress it?
A3N: Can you each please tell us about one notable interview featured in the film that viewers should be sure to watch for?
SV: Two interviews stand above all the rest. First is Lydia Barashango, Mumia’s sister who passed away just before we finished the film. Her memories of growing up with Mumia were warm and wonderful and honest to the bone. When we interviewed Lydia she was already in the horrific throws of cancer and yet she represented her family’s history with dignity, respect, and great honor. She was also, like her brother, very funny. Her memories captured Mumia’s life with great love.
The second interview was filmed in 1995 by John Edginton for his film Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case for Reasonable Doubt? I love this interview for two reasons: one, it captured Mumia’s intellect and rebellious nature, and two, Mumia looks great because the interview was shot on film and Mumia is extremely confident–it’s like this moment of his life was captured forever. It’s very iconic imagery.
NH: Wow that is hard. Everyone has something to say that is very poignant, interesting and in many cases, profound. We will be releasing longer versions of many of these interviews, so folks should tune in as we post them here. We will be editing and posting more from Dick Gregory, Cornel West, and Michelle Alexander. We also have a DVD of extras that is available now from Prison Radio.
A3N: How do we get to see your movie? Are there upcoming film screenings besides the Mill Valley Film Festival? When will the DVD will be released?
SV: Visit here to see the updated screening list. After the Mill Valley Festival, the film enjoys a great fall festival run. We begin at the Starz/Denver Film Festival on November 3 and 4, CPH:DOX Copenhagen on November 7, and then the great New York City doc festival DOC NYC on November 10. The film will then open theatrically in New York and Los Angeles early in 2013 followed by other cities, special engagements, and an extensive college tour.
Video on Demand and Home Video will be released shortly after the theatrical opening. In fact, the DVD will have some amazing extras including extended interviews with our historic cast.
A3N: Anything else to add?
SV: Earlier, I mentioned a project entitled Murder Incorporated: Empire, Genocide, and Manifest Destiny. I decided to shelve the film but not the project. Mumia and I have decided to write this story as a non-fiction book and we are now well into the process. In the long shadow of Howard Zinn, we hope this 500-year story will shed some needed light on the myth and reality of American history.
NH: Just to take a bit of a risk and be a bit vulnerable, as it has been twenty years that I have been on this journey, let me share with you a note I wrote to Mumia:
Someone asked me why I connect with you. Well, actually they said ‘why do I love’ you? I hesitated then answered:
I, with every molecule of my soul, want the world to be more beautiful, more generous, and more caring. I dream about that. Helping the world hear your voice is like participating in a wonderful and deeply moving jazz quartet, or with all the folks that make this possible, even a symphony. It is that beauty, when your voice joins with ours, and the voices of all people of color are honored with our listening. And we inspire and move together to a deeper understanding of the present and our history. Now that, I believe is transformative. That spirit of possibility will change the world.
I believe you will be free. This work–radio from prison–is truly your work. You continue, you struggle, no matter what the hurdles. Amazing. And we are there with you with every breath and every step you take toward freedom.