Out of Omaha

KEARNEY — As a documentary filmmaker, Clay Tweel uses the same techniques and tools as Hollywood directors.

“I think that every day, the lines between fictional filmmaking and documentary filmmaking are blurring,” Tweel said in an interview from Los Angeles where he lives. “And I think that more and more, documentary filmmakers are employing cinematic and fictional storytelling techniques. As much as possible, I try to structure almost every story I’m telling around a character and around a Joseph Campbell-like hero’s journey.”

That gives the director a platform and a plot to work from — and to deviate from, as necessary.

“It’s real life and you can’t put boxes around people’s stories,” he said about the outcomes of his projects. “But I think the storytelling of fictional films and documentaries, at the end of the day, we’re all just telling stories and doing the same thing; we’re trying to connect with an audience.”

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Central Nebraska film fans can see the work of Tweel when The World Theatre screens his latest project, “Out of Omaha,” at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5.

While documentary directors look for techniques from mainstream directors, Hollywood artists often seek to emulate the do-it-yourself quality of documentaries.

“They sometimes use hand-held cameras or cast actors who are not very experienced and don’t have a ton of training,” Tweel said. “They’re just more raw that way. I think ‘Beast of the Southern Wild’ was made with non-actors. It’s a cross-pollinated universe.”

“Out of Omaha” follows Darcell and Darrell Trotter, two young black men coming of age in Omaha. Tweel began filming the twin brothers when they were 17, recording the twists and turns of growing up black in the Midwest.

Hip-hop recording artist J. Cole served as executive producer. In a press release he said of the project, “‘Omaha’ is the story that never gets told. These are the forgotten ones that the world so often overlooks. The story of these two boys-turned-to-men resonated with me. Their stories parallel too many of the boys I grew up with, caught between a rock and hard place and bound for pain.”

Tweel, 38, looks for compelling stories when he considers a project.

“Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, that’s a good story, that could be a good documentary,’” he said. “And I don’t think that’s necessarily true, that you can make a documentary about anyone or anything of note. If you’re putting someone in front of a camera, you need someone who is a good storyteller and in a circumstance that is unique. When I meet someone and say that I’m a documentary filmmaker, they sometimes say, ‘I just read this article and you should make a documentary about it.’

“Well, we’ll see.”

Telling true stories with images takes a lot of research and a lot of interaction with people.

“I need to make people feel comfortable so the camera can get as true a representation as possible,” Tweel said.

As for location, the filmmaker understands the importance of Nebraska in “Out of Omaha.”

“Omaha is a character in the story,” he said. “A portion of the story takes place in Grand Island, as well. To me, Omaha is representative of a lot of other cities in America that are small cities with big city problems. They are big enough to have a lot of the structural flaws of bigger cities like Chicago, Los Angeles or New York, but there are only a few hundred thousand people in them. We tried to make a story that was representative of a lot of that part of America, whether it was Omaha or Buffalo or Fayetteville. These cities are everywhere.”

Tweel shot about 400 to 500 hours of film during the multi-year process of making “Out of Omaha.”

“I lost track over the eight years,” he said. “The length of time to watch these kids and Darcell, to watch them grow and mature was really what was at the forefront of our process.”

Tweel’s 2016 film, “Gleason,” amassed 1,400 hours of film, something the filmmaker called more of a family album that he narrowed down to about two hours of screen time.

As a white filmmaker examining the lives of black teens/men, Tweel worked hard to stay out of the way of the story.

“In the storytelling, I tried to editorialize as little as possible,” he said. “I tried to craft the story in a way that it was Darcell and his family telling their own stories, and not having to put in a lot of didactic, sit-down interviews in order to contextualize the story, but really just let these people who don’t often have a voice, just give them a voice as much as I could — and removed myself from the story.”

After eight years, Tweel said he still feels inspired by the story.

“It was inspirational to see the amount of hope and perseverance that Darcell had, to keep fighting and keep his dreams alive when everything else around him was trying to bring him down. It was an inspiring project for me personally and very fulfilling to get that story out.”


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