When I watched The Return, I felt I was on the verge of tears from the very beginning. It's rare that a film, particularly a documentary, can do that to me in such an immediate way.
But then Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway aren't your ordinary filmmakers. The directors, producers and writers of this Tribeca Film Festival Audience Award winner are filmmakers with a conscience. Every project they've ever made, and probably ever will, changes lives, breaks barriers, and betters this chaotic world of ours.
This Monday, May 23rd, The Return kicks off the POV season. POV is the PBS documentary series known for its own great intentions, which will only increase once the film begins streaming on their website, for the next month, starting on the 24th of May. Sure, I often say in my writing that cinema changes the world, and I believe it wholeheartedly. But it's seldom that one watches lives being changed, for the better, throughout a film.
In The Return, which world premiered at Tribeca, the filmmakers feature the stories of Bilal Kevin Chatman and Kenneth Anderson, two men whose lives were forever changed by the "Three Strikes and You're Out" law passed in the state of California in 1994. Few may know that the law meant that if you had two prior convictions, for crimes deemed by the California Penal Code as "serious or violent", were you to be caught for a third offense, no matter how minor, the court imposed a mandatory life sentence. So California jails soon filled up with petty criminals, men and women who'd simply stepped down the wrong path, and even mentally ill and physically disabled defendants. Over 45 percent of the "Three Strikes" inmates are African American, and more than half occupy jail space for having committed a minor crime. While the law had good enough intentions, the results were humanly disastrous.
So where was the solution, and once that was found, how to repay these men and women of their missed lives and their families for their missing loved ones?
The Return gently, unapologetically and intimately deals with the weight of that question, and in the process, brings out the humanity of everyone involved. Without opinionated viewpoints, and boring explanations, Duane de la Vega and Galloway prove why women filmmakers will always get to the heart of the matter, and to my heart, with so much beauty and grace. I caught up with them via email and their answers left me in awe.
How did you come about telling the story of Kenneth Anderson?
Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway: We met Mr. Anderson well into production -- we were wringing hands at that point over not yet having connected with a Three Striker who had had an intact family and young children when they received life -- one we might be able to follow in the lead up to and aftermath of a release / reuniting. The way Mr. Anderson, by then incarcerated for 14 years, spoke about his ex-wife Monica and his four children left behind at young ages -- the pain and shame of losing them forever for something so trivial and meaningless, and his visceral description of his and his loved ones' experiences -- moved us deeply and prompted our immediate search for his family, who we finally located with the help of a private investigator. After writing multiple letters and making several calls and overtures, they agreed to an off- the-record in-person meeting. Though cordial, Monica and three of their four children who attended (now grown) had a palpable wariness about the film and idea of participating as subjects. Yet they heard us out -- why we wanted to make the film, why we were drawn to their family as subjects, and what public benefit might come from their participation. After waiting a nail-biting three weeks considering our request, they agreed, and thus began our documentation of the family's journey -- the emotional and narrative center of the film.
Was he always your first choice for The Return, or were there other stories that you considered?
Duane de la Vega and Galloway: We documented hundreds in the first year of filming The Return: Three Strikers, judges, attorneys, families, reentry providers. Our working vision was a constellation of short stories with points of intersection between them that would, taken together, form a meta-narrative of an unprecedented moment in American criminal justice reform. Our deep connection with the Anderson / Grier family, the opportunity their story provided to explore various key themes related to mass incarceration (and through the lens of not only those inside but those "doing time with them" on the outside) and the range of perceptions / vantage points present in that single family's experience ultimately led to their occupying more real estate than any other narrative thread.
At which point did you come into the story?
Duane de la Vega and Galloway: We began filming prior to the 2012 passage of Proposition 36 with a series of shorts profiling nonviolent offenders serving life under California's draconian Three Strikes law. We were laser focused on the fate of the initiative - knowing that, if it were to pass and become the first time in American history citizens shortened sentences of the currently incarcerated, we would follow the reform's implementation from the epicenter with the goal of producing both deep and unforgettable close character studies and a vantage point from which to consider the meta-macro question that drives us: After a half century of building the behemoth, how to unbuild? We had a sense that this unfolding reform had the potential to be an incredibly useful lens through which to examine that question. And indeed it has been.
What are the challenges of filming a story that begins in jail?
Duane de la Vega and Galloway: Prisons and jails are notoriously difficult to penetrate, especially with cameras. After so many years spent working on stories connected to the criminal justice and mass incarceration systems, we have the right constellation of relevant relationships, working /institutional knowledge and specific experience necessary to access the worlds behind bars where many of our stories began. A twist with this film is that so many people were being released -- in some ways freedom became more of a challenge than the institutions of incarceration. Once free, some were not eager to reflect on / remember the past, preferring to move forward. Kevin Bilal Chatman was very nearly not in the film because things were going so well for him that he was loath to go public in a way that might jeopardize his new and rather blessed life. We were constantly negotiating and weighing the interests of the film versus those of our characters -- pushing to be present while striving to respect what boundaries became clear.
Do you think cinema can change minds, and perhaps more importantly, lives?
Duane de la Vega and Galloway: No question. Cinema is responsible for some of the most profound and intimate experiences of others (with or without a capital O) -- of humanizing, of summoning empathy, of burning the experiences of others into the hearts and minds of viewers in transformative and even revolutionary ways.
How did it feel winning Audience Choice at Tribeca?
Duane de la Vega and Galloway: We were thrilled when we heard the news! It was amazing, not just as filmmakers, but because it helped bring more attention to this issue we care so deeply about. There were organizations and individuals we had been reaching out to for months working to get involved in the social-impact campaign attached to our film, THE RETURN PROJECT. Everyone we've encountered has genuinely been warm and responsive, but people have priorities other than our film and sometimes it's hard to get the attention of a major stakeholder or organization that you'd like to partner with on your campaign. After we won Tribeca's Documentary Audience Award, many of those same individuals were then reaching out to us. It's not about us, really, it's just great to see that it got people on the frontlines to respond to a film -- a tool -- that we know can help to catalyze lasting change.
Remember that old proverb, "You catch more flies with honey"? Is reintegration the solution for nearly everyone in jail?
Duane de la Vega and Galloway: The vast majority of people serving time in jail and prison are there because of issues related to race, class and addiction, often compounded by mental illness. What is needed to facilitate successful reentry on a broad scale can feel overwhelming -- but we constantly remind ourselves and our audiences that what has gone into building the monster of mass incarceration is also breathtaking in scope and investment -- and now we need the public will and political muscle to radically shift course and redirect those resources. The vast majority of people in prison either should not be incarcerated or should be locked up for nowhere near the amount of time they serve. (Our sentences are off the charts internationally and historically.) Treating addiction as a public-health rather than a law-and-order issue -- and moving away from criminalizing mental illness and certain socioeconomic groups is imperative if we're serious about claiming that we are a land of freedom and justice. For now we remain in Orwellian territory, but are hopeful that the tide may be turning in truly meaningful ways.
In your opinion, why was a state like California so severe and its jails so cruel? Even though it's this la-la-land, home of the movie industry, land of opportunity...
Duane de la Vega and Galloway: Every major media outlet in state heavily covered the kidnapping and eventual murder of 11-year-old Polly Klaas. Even celebrity Winona Ryder made a public call for her safe return. Californians felt the Klaas family's pain, and there was a collective feeling of fear. Policymakers who had originally named California's Three States law, "The Street Sweeper" rebranded and reframed it to capitalize on that fear -- selling it to the public as a law designed to deal with "the worst of the worst" -- those who repeatedly raped, murdered and abused children. It wasn't a hard sell, but it also wasn't an accurate sell. When Californians finally woke up to the reality of the law they had passed and the gross injustice that we as Californians were collectively responsible for perpetrating on thousands, we overwhelmingly voted to amend it.
Do you think it was easier for you, as two women filmmakers, to make The Return?
Duane de la Vega and Galloway: "Easy" is a description few documentary filmmakers would evoke regarding the making of a film... In terms of why we might have an advantage in telling this story relative to others -- it comes down to decades of experience spent covering this territory as filmmakers and journalists and so knowing the players and the organizational norms and expectations and how best to approach access to subjects and institutions. Equally as important is our collective capacity for empathy, compassion and authentic and engaged connection to our subjects. We don't think of any of these things as gendered, particularly.
Image and video courtesy of POV, used with permission.