Arts Alive - March 2021
- by Ellis Anderson
This time around, the two sides weren’t North and South, or Union and Confederate. This particular civil war took place more recently, and in the state of Mississippi. One faction fought to protect the 1894 state flag with its Confederate battle emblem, and the other was determined to replace it with one all citizens could embrace.
Decades-long skirmishes between the two groups threatened to escalate to full-blown cultural conflict in 2015. That was the year the white supremacist Dylann Roof invaded a historic Black church in Charleston and murdered nine Bible-studying members.
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All eyes turned southward. Surely, now, Mississippi would soon follow suit and change the state flag.
Although a quick outcome seemed a given, the historic shift begged for documentation. O’Connor lost no time digging in – researching, interviewing and filming.
“It was an important story in my adopted home state – in my own backyard – with drama built into it,” remembers O’Connor.
Soon after, the murder of George Floyd and the resulting national protests pulled the Mississippi flag issue back onto centerstage. O’Connor went back to work, filming until the legislature voted to retire the controversial flag and adopted a new one late last year.
The resulting documentary was completed in early 2021: Look Away, Look Away. The riveting film premiers at the Oxford Film Festival on March 27 and will be available for viewing by Mississippi residents only via livestream from April 1 through April 7 (tickets are $10, purchase here).
In the tradition of the best documentarians, O’Connor allows viewers to make their own decisions. He narrates the film, but he never tells viewers what they should believe.
“It would have been a lot easier to pick a side and just go with it, but I think the film’s strength is that you hear from multiple perspectives,” he said. “There’s a lot of value in that.”
“Something I learned along the way is that we all know the parts of history that support our perspective,” said O’Connor. “For instance, I’m from Illinois, the land of Lincoln. I grew up hearing that he was the hero who freed slaves.”
Yet O’Connor discovered that in an 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln claimed that Blacks were inferior to whites. And in 1861, the then-President Lincoln supported something called the Corwin Amendment. In an attempt to save the union, the amendment would have made slavery in Southern states constitutional. The war started before it could be ratified.
The filmmaker also learned that although many Southerners fiercely believe the Civil War was about states’ rights instead of slavery, the Mississippi Articles of Secession (the formal document in which the state withdrew from the Union) plainly states otherwise. The document calls slavery “the greatest material interest in the world” and states “there is no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition or a dissolution of the Union…”
Throughout the process, O’Connor assured participants that the film would be looking at a dual narrative. Once they understood his intention wasn’t to embarrass them, those who agreed to be interviewed wanted to be heard, to have their part of the story recognized.
But he was surprised by the fact that although both sides spoke passionately about their positions, there was no dialogue between them, at least none that he witnessed. In panel discussions O’Connor filmed, spokespeople addressed only the audience and never engaged each other. “It seemed like there were missed opportunities for them to face each other and talk.”
“The most challenging part was how to best tell the story in a single documentary,” he said. “You have to leave a lot out and pare all the research and footage and notes down to something an audience will want to see.”
Now comes another phase, since the project possesses what a colleague of O’Connor’s calls “a long tail.” There are years more involvement ahead for the filmmaker – promotional considerations, making the film festival rounds and finding a distributor who’s a good fit – all while he’s working on his next documentary. One way or another, Look Away, Look Away will eventually wind up on a streaming service.
The documentary’s title, of course, references a line in the old Southern anthem, “Dixie.” But most viewers will be doing anything but looking away. If disturbing at times, the film is spellbinding.
And while a new flag doesn’t make a new state, an unflinchingly honest look at the people of Mississippi and the issues that drive them apart is a good place to start.