Not that long ago(March to be exact), I spoke with Fort Wayne native, current San Diego resident, and Riot House Records owner Brian Jenkins about his move from the Midwest, his growing San Diego roots, running a record label, and his involvement in the excellent vinyl collecting doc Records Collecting Dust. I find myself in conversation with Brian once again, this time about his film directing debut. Jenkins is currently in the process of making and raising funds to help make Answering The Call, a documentary about his uncle, John Witeck, and John’s experiences fighting for the Voting Rights Act and his time in Selma, Alabama in 1965 around the same time as the Selma to Montgomery march and the tumultuous Bloody Sunday.

Jenkins will begin principal shooting in early 2016, but has started an Indiegogo page now to raise the monies needed to do this documentary right. I spoke with Brian the last couple of days, as well as with his uncle about the film and what prompted the need to tell this story.

J. Hubner: So tell me about ‘Answering The Call’. What made you decide to tell this story?

Brian Jenkins: One of the major factors for why I picked this story for my next film project was the opportunity to preserve a piece of my family’s history and have this story available to future generations. I was also excited to take the baton from my uncle and apply myself to a project that will shine light on voting rights today and how those rights are still under siege.

J. Hubner: Was your uncle’s story something you grew up hearing about, or something you learned later on?

Brian Jenkins: I grew up hearing many crazy stories about my uncle John. This week I’m diving in on filing our Freedom of Information requests with the FBI so maybe we can find some “official” reports to corroborate a few of the tall tales I grew up hearing. But as for Selma, I remember my Mom mentioning in passing that he had traveled to Selma during that time and participated in a march. It blew my mind that I had never heard this story and luckily my uncle had written a journal entry of sorts shortly after returning from Selma.  Much of our story is based off that written account and it served as a starting point for this film.

J. Hubner: Tell me a bit about your uncle John. Besides his involvement in social activism, what was your uncle like growing up? Did you grow up with him, or did he live a distance from you?

Brian Jenkins: My uncle’s lived in Hawaii since before I was born but our extended family usually got together a couple times a year. He’s incredibly silly. Growing

John Witeck in 1967
John Witeck in 1967

up, I think I looked at him and his two brothers as this singular mass of hilarity. The fun never stopped; they played with us for hours. My whole family is that way, really goofy but also some of the kindest and most generous people I know. That influence really shaped me into the person I’ve become. Most of that side of the family is very socially conscious. My uncle Bob Witeck founded a Washington based PR firm with a focus on LGBT rights and advancement. My aunt Cathy Witeck Carter devoted herself to working with immigrant families brand new to the U.S. in her community. This is just a small sampling of my family’s accomplishments but that influence really had a profound effect on me. Before I had a real understanding of complex political and social issues, I remember wanting to identify with my aunts and uncles. This has also given me empathy and understanding for those I don’t politically and socially agree with. Not everyone is so lucky to grow up with such powerful, caring, and positive influences.

J. Hubner: Where are you in the making of this doc? What’s the schedule for completion?

Brian Jenkins: In terms of production, we’re just beginning. I’m working this week to set up our first wave of expert interviews on the topic of voting rights today. We’re also working on connecting with as many people in Selma with connections to that week in 1965. But most of the focus for now is being directed at the fundraising campaign. I’ve never launched one before and was definitely a bit nervous. It’s not easy asking people for help. But I also came to the realization that this project will not happen if I don’t. As for a schedule for completion, I’m hoping for early 2017.

J. Hubner: You were a part of another documentary, Records Collecting Dust, so you’re no stranger to filmmaking at this point. Given the personal nature of this film I’m sure that had a bit to do with your decision to direct this time around. Are you liking this process? Is it something you think you’d want to do again?

Brian Jenkins: I love the process and being a part of every piece along the way. I definitely hope to continue producing and directing films after Answering the Call, but I’ve also mentally stored those thoughts away. I like to commit 100% and dive into one project head first. The landing’s tough when the end result isn’t great but I think the audience can smell the bullshit and lack of passion otherwise.

J. Hubner: Can you give me a rundown of what you want to cover in Answering The Call? What are you hoping to convey with the film overall, besides highlighting your uncle John’s amazing experience with Dr. King?

Brian and his Uncle John, 1989
Brian and his Uncle John, 1989

Brian Jenkins: I think our biggest and shared goal is to shine a light on the state of voting rights today. It’s an issue that’s definitely in the press but I don’t think it has the imagery and digestibility that other issues have. But I do think these attacks on the Voting Rights Act have some of the most damaging and lasting consequences. Voting is how we can remove ineffective leaders and how we can change policy. The issues are complex – take the idea of requiring state issued identification cards in order to vote. It makes sense, if you want to vote you need to have an ID to prove who you are. But then you have to take into account the populations and demographics that are less likely to own a government issued ID – generally minority and disenfranchised populations. On top of this, voter fraud in America has proven to be almost non-existent.

J. Hubner: So really, your uncle’s story is the doorway into the bigger issue at heart.

Brian Jenkins: I do want to be careful and sensitive at how I frame this story in relation to my uncle’s involvement in Selma. For my uncle, his trip to Selma was the catalyst for the work he would later go on to accomplish. It’s how he lived his life after that trip that makes him a hero to me. There were many other people in Selma who sacrificed far more and I want to be respectful to that. I hope that my uncle’s story and personal accounts of Selma can aid in amplifying those sacrifices.

J. Hubner: How does your uncle feel about you wanting to make this documentary about this experience in his life?

Brian Jenkins: That’s a tough question; I’d hate to answer it for him. I can say that I’m honored he’s entrusted me to tell his story though.

J. Hubner: You currently have an Indiegogo page up to help raise funds needed to get this film off the ground. Where are you as far as reaching your goal? How long do people have yet to give? Are there any special perks at certain giving levels?

Brian Jenkins: As I type this, we are approaching the 10% mark of our goal and have about a month and a half to go. The biggest challenge for a fundraising campaign is to accurately convey the mission and reach the people that want to see it happen. Over the next 50 days or so, I’ll be releasing new video and blog content on our progress and some of the topics we plan to explore. We have a number of different perks ranging from $1 to $5,000. For just $20, you can preorder your digital copy of Answering the Call and help us get a little closer to meeting our goal.

J. Hubner: Will you try and get a screening for the film in Fort Wayne? 

Brian Jenkins: I would love to get a screening at the Cinema Center and plan to travel to Fort Wayne for that as well.

J. Hubner: Besides Answering The Call, what else do you have lined up project-wise?

Brian Jenkins: I’m working hard on lining up a great original soundtrack for Answering the Call. I’ve got some really exciting stuff in the pipeline for that. Outside of the film, I’ve got a number of Riot House artists releasing new records in the coming months; we’ve got a new EP from Porcupine recorded and produced by Steve Albini as well as a new EP from The Soaks (both in November).


 

I was also lucky enough to ask Brian’s uncle, John Witeck, about his experience firsthand and how the march from Selma to Montgomery affected him.

J. Hubner: So prior to Selma, did you feel you had a calling to be a part of something bigger than yourself? Did you feel you wanted to help make change for the better happen?

John Witeck: I had worked summers at the U.S. State Department and other agencies and been part of the 1960 John F. Kennedy presidential campaign and later helped to recruit for Peace Corps at the University of Virginia.  I saw myself as a future Peace Corps Volunteer and as a candidate for office, possibly the U.S. Senate since my father worked there as an aide on the Senate Appropriations Committee.  At the University of Virginia, I became involved in the Newman Student Movement (a Catholic organization on college campuses) and also attended Presbyterian services and was inspired by the minister there, the Rev. Bob Albritton (who recently died).  I felt that I needed to do something to create a better, more just society.  The war in Vietnam seemed wrong from what learned at school and at the State Department, and  religious leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King were beginning to oppose it.  I wanted to make a difference but didn’t quite know how I would do it–especially after the assassination of John Kennedy, who had also inspired me. Selma was that call that put me on track to try to make a difference.

J. Hubner: What affect did Dr. King and Selma have on you? What did you take from this experience? Do you still carry that with you?

John Witeck: I consider my March 1965 Selma experience as an awakening and rebirth of sorts–and regard that as my beginning of my 50 years in the social movement for peace and justice.

In Selma, I resided overnight with and was fed by a Black family–and that was a first experience for me.  I was moved by the courage of the Black community in Selma despite the obvious hatred of a good number of white citizens, including the civic leaders and the police and sheriff’s deputies.  I saw that law and order could stand for an unjust order, and that the local police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation could be on the wrong side.  The FBI were taking photos of us as we demonstrated for voting rights while local law enforcement officers were throwing stones at us and hurling insults.  This really changed my thinking about law enforcement and made me more open to civil disobedience for a good cause.
I was impressed by Dr. Martin Luther King’s courage and charisma and that of the other Black civil rights leaders and organizations like the Student Non-Violent  Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  A friend and I were almost killed in Selma when we ventured out of the Black neighborhood into the white neighborhood and a crowd of angry white men dragged us into an auto repair garage and threatened to kill us; the arrival of state police prevented our deaths but that incident forever affected me.  It changed m y perceptions.  I realized that the problem of inequality was not the fault of Black people unable to accomplish more for themselves, but it lay in the hostility fostered in white people against Blacks–a divide and conquer tactic by the more affluent and powerful whites.  In this way, both poor and working class whites and Blacks — the vast majority of the population–could be prevented from uniting and gaining the upper hand.  That was the story all through the South.  Also, the murder of Rev. James Reeb in Selma impacted me since our delegation of 5 students and 2 ministers had met him before he and his friends were assaulted and Rev. Reeb was severely beaten and clubbed and a day or two later died from his injuries in a Birmingham hospital.
J. Hubner: If you had to summarize the Selma experience in just a sentence, what would that sentence be?
John Witeck: “We Shall Overcome!”   Meaning that if we answer the call and unite with others for justice and equal rights, we can overcome hatred and all obstacles.
J. Hubner: How do you feel about the current state of racial equality? We’ve come far from that march from Selma to Montgomery, but with recent tragedies involving young, unarmed black men being killed in cold blood by those sworn to protect us, as well as the overall bigoted atmosphere since President Obama took office, it feels like we’re sliding back. I’d like to know your thoughts.
John Witeck: I believe great progress has been made in the South and throughout the country since the 1960s on race relations in that many barriers have been broken down.  This was due to the efforts, courage and campaigns of tens of thousands of people, particularly Black people.  Whites, Blacks, Asians and Latinos and others more freely intermingle and associate, especially in the younger population.  And we have a Black President.   However, it is also clear that institutional racism persists and that police departments and other law enforcement agencies often react violently based on racial perceptions.  Too many Blacks are being killed by police.   Black Lives do matter!  This institutional racism also pervades and is reinforced by the structure of our society which breeds inequality and reproduces poverty in urban neighborhoods which are predominantly Black or Latino.  Racial prejudice is also reinforced by some unbalanced media coverage.  We also see leading Republican politicians and officials are trying to restrict the right to vote in states in which they hold power.  The restrictions often  impact mainly Black and minority voters and decrease their eligibility to vote.  This favors Republican candidates.. The message and gains of Selma and other similar struggles of the 1960s especially concerning voting rights are being eroded.  It’s time for us to renew the struggle to safeguard and regain those rights.

Head over to http://igg.me/at/answeringthecallselma/x and get more info regarding Answering The Call. Contribute what you can. For $20 you get a digital copy of the film when it’s done. For $40 you get a DVD copy. Either way, contribute what you can and be part of preserving this piece of history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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