Gary Jenkins' documentary about the Underground Railroad will be shown at the Leavenworth Public Library Feb. 16.
1. Gary can you tell us about your transition from police officer for 25 years to becoming a lawyer to becoming a documentary film maker?
I retired from the KCPD to attend the UMKC School of Law and have a second career in the law. I went into private practice as a solo practitioner upon admission to the bar. I specialized in Consumer Protection (making claims against companies that cheat consumers). I did that for five years.
I had some spare time and wanted to film my mother telling her life story.
From that experience, I learned how to do some creative things with film, old photos, illustrations, music and sound effects to make an interesting story. that stirred my creative juices and I volunteered for Northcare Hospice by filming patients telling their life story and inserting family photos, illustrations, have a volunteer do a dramatic reading of an old letter and music (or some combination of the previous components).
I have developed a small regular practice of consumer protection, estate planing and some traffic ticket work and have time to pursue my creative endeavor.
2. Your documentary about the Underground Railroad along the Missouri/Kansas border will be shown at the Leavenworth Public Library Feb. 16. How did you become interested in this subject and what does the film explore?
I became interested in the Underground Railroad in the Missouri/Kansas area after I started screening Negroes To Hire : Slave Life and Culture in antebellum Missouri.
I found a lot of interest in the subject and many questions about Missouri field hands' and house servants' desire for freedom. I found that African-Americans were particularly interested and happy that someone was helping to tell their history.
One of my experts, Jimmy Johnson, was the descendant of a Missouri slave in Platte County. Jimmy's great-grandfather, George Washington, had escaped across a frozen Missouri River and joined the Union Army. I drove over to Quindaro in Kansas City Kan., and walked down into where Jimmy's ancestor had arrived and found help from Kansas Abolitionists.
I was inspired to start on this film after that trip back into this historical location and seeing the ruins. Freedom Seekers: Stories From the Western Underground Railroad explores the legal situation at the time (Kansas being a free territory but subject to the Federal Fugitive Slave Act), the development of a safe route for Free-State Abolitionists traveling to Kansas and how that route was turned around to be the Underground Railroad route out of Missouri, and finally selected exciting stories of real life escape from primary source documents. I broke the stories down into different areas where there were groupings of Conductors and Stations.
Page 2 of 3 - The Mound City area was the southernmost terminus, then the Wakarusa River Valley, the city of Lawrence, Topeka and Quindaro. I do not have much on Leavenworth because before the Civil War it was the seat of the military and the Abolitionists were breaking federal law.
3. You have produced a documentary about Missouri slave life titled, Negroes to Hire, and also a documentary about the Kansas City Free Health Clinic which was aired on KCPT Screentime. With so many choices in subject matter what tempts you the most when choosing a story to tell on film?
I was contacted by the Free Health Clinic to do the story of their founding and then it was screened on Screentime. I enjoyed some success (not financial but kudos) for that work.
They use it today as a training film for new volunteers and employees. They want them to see the spirit of the clinic to keep that going.
From that success, I had the confidence to do another feature length documentary. I selected slave life in Missouri because I had never read or seen anything about this subject.
My own family were slave owners in Clinton County Mo.
I was always puzzled by this fact because my grandparents were these kind, gentle, hard working farmers.
It was their grandparents who were slave owners.
So, I did that film based on a combination of an untouched subject and my own conflict.
I learned that owning slaves in Missouri was different in that the slave holdings were small.
The average number on a Missouri farm was small.
That made it more personal, the slave master and the slave master's sons would all work alongside the slaves in the field. It was no less brutal in many ways, but more personal.
4. Your next project is a film called Gangland Wire. What is the film about and where did you get the idea for it?
I was a member of the KCPD Organized Crime Intelligence unit from 1976-1984.
I was assigned to work with the FBI in an investigation of Kansas City Organized Crime in connection with a series of gangland style murders in the 1970s. this was in connection with a series of bombings of clubs in an entertainment district called the River Quay.
In an effort to solve these murders and bombings,
The FBI obtained a microphone install inside the Villa Capri bar.
They did not overhear anything about these murders, but they learned that KC Mafia boss, Nick Civella was giving orders that impacted a major corporation in Las Vegas, Nev. They spun off several wiretaps on telephones in KC and Las Vegas.
Page 3 of 3 - This required a lot of surveillance help and I was assigned to this.
The end result was the arrest and conviction of the mob bosses in KC Milwaukee, Cleveland and Chicago for taking skim money from the Stardust Casino and the Tropicana.
This investigation is the basis for the well known book and film, Casino.
I obtained copies of all the conversation tapes placed in evidence and will use those in the film to illustrate how the mafia works.
5. Why do you think documentary films have become so popular in the last 20 years and which documentary film maker do you most admire? What subject would you most like to see yourself exploring in film five years down the road?
I believe the documentary film has exploded because of the digital revolution.
I am untrained and unschooled in film work, particularly the technical aspect.
With a computer, a good editing program and a digital camera, for less than $5,000 I can make a documentary film.
The subject, the experts and the old photos and documents are always there for the researcher.
In the old days of film, the equipment and the skill required was at a much higher level. I have to say that I learned a lot from watching Kevin Burns and respect him immensely.
I think my favorite is Errol Morris. His film, The Thin Blue Line, was a groundbreaking film in investigative journalism (a man was freed from an erroneous murder conviction) and he pioneered some b-roll techniques that used very subtle objects and no large budget to help tell the story.
Very simple things, like a empty paper cup laying on the ground that was pitched out by a suspect. He also used film not to just report the past, but to reveal a past that is different from what was believed at the time.
Not sure about my next film, I had a suggestion of African American troops in WWI, a little known subject. If I got a grant to do this, I would be interested. Otherwise, I will wait and see what pops up on my radar.
— Rimsie McConiga