By Mike Murphy
Who is he?
Mark Nowotarski, life-long Hamtramck resident and documentary filmmaker, has been involved in the news and broadcasting profession since 1981. His most recent film, “The Sheik: Wrestling’s Greatest Villain,” premieres this weekend, May 14-16, at the Motor City Comic Con at the Rock Financial Showplace in Novi.
A gala event, featuring “The Sheik” and Nowotarski’s Telly-award-winning film, “The J.W. Wescott Story: Serving the Great Lakes – 48222,” will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 18 at the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak. There will also be live performances by legendary Detroit punk band Cinecyde and Princess of the East, Lana, of Detroit Belly Dance. The theater is located at 118 Main Street. Award-winning journalist Robert Vito will host the presentation. The Telly is a nationally-recognized award for broadcasting. The J.W. Westcott Story won for outstanding documentary after it aired on WTVS, Detroit Public TV.
What kind of story captures your interest and leads you to create a documentary?
I am interested in stories that have a historical background to them, and stories that make people curious and inquisitive. I like stories that I feel need to be told, especially if no one else has.
Please explain to us what interested you about the Sheik’s story and the J. W. Westcott story. What makes both of them important stories to you, and to us?
The Sheik story is one very near and dear to me. When growing up, my Grandfather would take me to the bouts at Cobo Arena. My Mother would drive us. Over the years, I wound up videotaping what would turn out being the Sheik’s final bout in The United States. The Sheik was professional wrestling’s ultimate villain. When he passed away (in 2003), there was, in my opinion, very little press about it. And, as time went on, there was no tribute to this tremendous character. It was then that I decided the story should be told, and told with respect.
My involvement with the Westcott goes back to 1983. I was involved in shooting the video segment on the syndicated, “You Asked for It” TV show. Viewers asked about a subject and the TV show answered with a short segment on the show. The question was something like, ‘What is the world’s most unusual post office? Of course, the world’s floating zip code, 48222, The J. W. Westcott. We shot the raw footage of the Westcott and sent it in to the producers of the show. It was then that I became fascinated with the Westcott. In 1983, as conditions would have it, ‘You Asked for It,’ was not broadcast in Detroit. So I never got to see the finished piece on the Westcott.
Years later, in 2005, I went to the Westcott location to ask owner James Hogan if he would consider carrying a video product I produced in his gift shop. We had lunch, and I discussed with him what we were looking at. He agreed to carry the product, and asked me a question. He asked if I would be interested in making a documentary about The Westcott, sort of a “Season in the Life of a J W Westcott crew member,” that showed that workers of The Westcott were more than employees, they were a part of the Westcott family. I was happy to do the story, with a few sidebars of my own, such as the history of the Westcott, and what the company is all about. The Westcott is the jewel of the Great Lakes and we should be very proud of it and the service it provides to the maritime community.
For those of us unfamiliar with the Sheik, could you capsulate his persona, and compare him to some of the villains that we now see in comics, on modern-day television, and in film?
The Sheik was professional wrestling’s ultimate villain. He was bold, arrogant, and full of confidence. When he wrestled, there was only one set of rules — his. He was a rule breaker who would stop at nothing to win his bouts. Whether he used a foreign object, a chair, or threw fire from an open hand, the Sheik would stop at nothing to be victorious.
As to comparing him to villains of today’s’ comics, television or film, that can be very difficult. The closest comparison in comics would be Doctor Doom or The Joker. In television, I can’t think of one. In film, I can only say when it came to cunning, ruthlessness with no regard for his opponent; it would have to be Flash Gordon’s arch-nemesis: Ming the Merciless.
How did you become involved in documentaries, and what was your prior experience in film and/or video?
I am a founding member of Cable News Network’s (CNN) Detroit Bureau, going back to the year 1981. I have worked in radio and video production since then and have always tried to be active in the production industry. As to getting involved in documentaries, I have always asked questions. I also like to tell a story when asked about any given subject. As time went on, it grew into telling a story on video or film.
As a historian and filmmaker, how do you go about planning and creating a documentary film?
Speaking for myself, first I try to look into a subject that has a certain amount of interest to me. If the person telling the story has no interest in the subject itself, that is a very bad thing. Look into the subject and see if the story behind it has been told before. If it has, look into it and think if something has not been told, or if I can tell a story with a different angle or point of view. Then, start to form my thoughts and look into how I can tell it. Many things I have done have been done by talking to people and listening very carefully to what they have to say. Other times, I may ask specific questions of someone. All stories need a beginning, middle and an end. I always try to follow an actual timeline of sorts. Creating a documentary can be a very grueling task, believe me.
What advice would you give to someone who desires to be a filmmaker and is just starting out?
Advice, well, that too is difficult. First of all, make sure you are a patient person and can tolerate just about anything from anyone and everything around you. Then, make sure that you can tell whatever story you have in a precise manner. Do not hesitate to read, and look at other sources of film making. It is not an easy decision to make. It takes a good amount of blood, sweat and yes, tears too.