By Mike Szymanski
It starts off ugly. This documentary starts off with the ugly rantings of a guy who brought a gun in with a Confederate flag and murdered nine innocent people at the Emmanuel AME Church in South Carolina.
Then, the filmmaker, writer and director Patrick O’Connor talks about the flag of his home state of Mississippi that has the Confederate flag as a central part of it.
Some people see the flag as a symbol of freedom and liberty. Some people see it as a symbol of hate, and oppression, and more recently, murder.
“Look Away, Look Away” is a documentary you can’t take your eyes off of as the filmmaker explores both sides equally well over the controversy of the Confederate flag.
The camera meanders down the streets where the filmmaker grew up, where there’s a Jeff Davis Avenue, who was the first president of the Confederacy who was fighting to be able to keep slaves.
Sharon Brown is a lifelong black activist who has fought to change the symbol in the state flag, and a white activist, Lea Campbell, became just a passionate about the cause.
The documentary is as much of a history lesson than a he said/she said. It depicts Abraham Lincoln’s early stands as being racist. It shows how Mississippi residents finally voted to change their flag to one with a Magnolia in the middle, and 20 stars showing that it was part of the first states in the U.S.
This documentary already has a lot of accolades, winning Best Documentary and Best film at the 2021 Oxford Film Festival and becoming an Official Selection at the Georgia Film Festival.
The director worked on the film for more than five years, trying to capture and understand the divergent and passionate emotional responses from activists on both sides of the flag issue.
Some people are proud of ancestors who died in the Civil War, and others have relatives who suffered under slavery.
Director O’Connor says, “I told everyone I interviewed in the film I wasn’t taking sides nor was I going to judge anyone. I simply wanted to understand their perspective, and I wanted to follow the story wherever it led.”
People on both sides are skeptical of the project and the director, and say so. He was going from a Confederate heritage rally in Tupelo or Oxford on one afternoon, to an anti-flag demonstration the next day in Jackson or Ocean Springs.
He recalls, “I was living in a split screen world, bouncing back and forth between two countries, with two very different and distinct peoples.”
He saw the wide gap between both sides that would seem to never meet.
The film can be hard to watch sometimes. It will make people angry no matter what side they are on. You won’t want to look away, however, as the Dixie song says.
One telling moment, however, is at the end when all the people involved are asked if they are Mississippians first or Americans first. For the most part, it appeared that the pro-Confederate flag folk considered themselves Mississippians first. The anti-Confederate flag activists considered themselves Americans first.
Look forward to “Look Away, Look Away.”