The stories of O

Nov 3, 2004 at 12:00 am

Harvey Ovshinsky’s storytelling mantra is simple — as mantras must be. “Don’t stop,” it says. “Go further.”

An internationally acclaimed media fixture in Detroit for more than 30 years, Harvey O. has created and told thousands of stories throughout his expansive career. From his early days of radio to later years of television and now documentary film and video, Ovshinsky’s career is a colorful and fantastic voyage, at times brave and visionary.

Founding a famous underground radical newspaper at age 17 (The Fifth Estate, still being published, but without him), then blazing a trail for free-form radio on Detroit’s storied indie station, WABX, Ovshinsky established his liberal and tenacious personality in Detroit from the beginning.

Perhaps a bit mellowed over the years, he nonetheless still has those defining qualities. Whether now it’s a corporate video about the need for small-market insurance reform or a compelling full-length doc on a family living with AIDS, Ovshinsky’s skills and craftsmanship haven’t dulled.

That’s why Detroit Docs International Film Festival is awarding him its inaugural Career Achievement Award. “Harvey is committed to this city and this state; he is truly Michigan-based,” festival director Tod Hardin says. “His name might not be household, but he’s been doing this a lot longer than Michael Moore. We feel that he truly epitomizes the Michigan documentary filmmaking scene.”

While Ovshinsky has received many and varied awards for his work, this honor represents something special. “I am in awe of what Detroit Docs is doing,” he says. “An international documentary film festival in Detroit? I would have said not possible. But what [founder] Chris Walny and the rest of the volunteers are doing is very brave, very visionary.

“It’s one of the reasons I don’t lose hope for this city. Getting this award reminds me that I’m not crazy. There are others in this city who believe like I do in the profound importance of storytelling.”

So what keeps him in Detroit? The obvious move for a man of Ovshinsky’s professional stature would be to move to a coast, get a speakerphone in his car and start calling everyone “babe.” But his motive, like the city’s ethos, isn’t obvious. “Detroit is the Saudi Arabia of content,” he says. “This city is full of drama, and that’s what I need as a storyteller. Why didn’t I head to L.A.? Because I’m smart, that’s why.”

Yet he’s no Pollyanna about his home — and his commitment to it. “Detroit is tough and hard, and it doesn’t give a shit. It really tests your power of projection, literally and figuratively. There’s nothing superficial about this city, and you have to dig much harder to scratch the surface.”

Hollywood is a business, that’s a fact. There’s not much room for creativity and voice once those mammon-soiled hands get around a screenplay/idea/film/song. Ovshinsky could have gone out there to become one of countless people who don’t get their phone calls returned, but he chose to stay in the D, continuing to hone his voice and teaching others to do the same. He teaches writing workshops for teachers and students, as well as storytelling workshops for corporations that want to maximize the impact of their in-house video productions.

“It’s not about Detroit stories,” he says of the work. “It’s about Detroiters’ stories. There’s a lot of light in this city of darkness, but you have to kindle it, blow on it — and then you have to share it with others. I live my life personally and professionally as a storyteller by asking two questions: ‘Got a light? Need a light?’

“It’s all about sharing the inspiration. I don’t know why Detroit Docs is giving me this award, but that’s why I’m taking it.”

A retrospective of some of Ovshinsky’s films will be shown at the festival this year when it runs Nov. 11-14. He’s also offered to host a workshop after his retrospective on Sunday, Nov. 14. “I’m going to tell everyone that comes to the workshop to keep looking and don’t give up,” he says. “We have to play with the cards we’re dealt, and we’re holding Detroit cards, so toughen up.

“The enemy of the writer is the surface, so scratch it. Don’t stop. Go further. And take your ‘write-amins.’”

Kerry Burke is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]