A Ride Home from Prison

NYT Op-Doc

When California voters amended the state’s harsh three-strikes law in 2012, they ensured that nonviolent third offenses would no longer lead to life sentences. Significantly, they made about 3,000 people serving those life sentences suddenly eligible for release. Since then, more than 2,000 have emerged after years in prison into worlds dramatically transformed from those they left behind.

This Op-Doc video profiles one of them. Stanley Bailey was a lifer until he was released earlier this year. Carlos Cervantes, a former prisoner himself and part of a “ride home” program founded by the Stanford Three Strikes Project and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, picks him up and guides him through his vulnerable first hours of freedom.

Having followed those at the core of three-strikes reform for three years, we’ve been struck by the encouraging results: hundreds of families reunited, millions of dollars saved, and recidivism rates remarkably low.

But re-entry is much more complicated than simply leaving prison. More than half a million people are released each year in the United States, most with a meager $200 of gate money coupled with an abundance of barriers to re-entering society. Many are banned from housing, jobs, student loans and voting. And many have been profoundly affected by institutionalization, making the transition even more difficult.

Ride-home programs like the one that employs Mr. Cervantes are a small but crucial piece of the reform puzzle our nation is tasked with solving. They are essential for helping people like Mr. Bailey deal with the emotional scars of prison and the inevitable disorientation of re-entering a changed world.

The Brutal Ramifications of the Mexican Drug War

by ANDREW SMOLSKI

Loteria Films is an award winning Bay Area film company founded by Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway. Their most recent project is the feature-length documentary, El Poeta. In this moving documentary, they utilize the story of Javier Sicilia, world acclaimed poet, to discuss the brutal ramifications of the drug war.

Sicilia’s son was murdered with six of his friends in Cuernavaca, Morelos. This grotesque act spurred him to form the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, leading to a reunion with then President Felipe Calderón, a Caravan for Peace in Mexico and the United States.

During my interview with Kelly, we discussed the general theme Loteria Films has focused on and how that relates to the El Poeta project; specifically, their focus on the police state, racial justice, politics, and power.

Andrew: What has the focus of Loteria Films been with documentaries such as Better This World?

Kelly: All of our work has to do with the intersection of race, power and politics… we are committed to telling stories that we think are touching on the crucial issues of our time. In our last film, Better This World, we looked at the post-9/11 landscape, the surveillance culture, and what that meant for civil liberties particularly for young activists.

Our film, The Return, now in post production, looks at a historic sentencing reform. A primary area of focus for us is how to shed light on the injustices of and misinformation around the American criminal justice system. People need to understand those who are actually behind bars in the United States, and the humanity of that population.

And within that constellation of forces at play comes El Poeta. Javier Sicilia story and our story in the United States are very interconnected, and for us it was just a different angle on the body of work we are really committed to.

And within that constellation of forces at play comes El Poeta, Javier Sicilia, and his fight to bring attention to the international War on Drugs. Mexico’s story and our story in the United States are deeply interconnected, and for us this story was a different angle on the subject matter we are drawn to – an international storythrough a charismatic poet’s lens.

Andrew: So, it was by already working on these questions that y’all sought out the Sicilia story?

Kelly: Well, my film partner Katie Galloway and I both read about Sicilia in the New York Times, actually. We thought his story was incredibly moving. We knew what was happening in Mexico, and we had been following the tragedies. So, when we heard his story we thought it was a strong vehicle to explore some of the bigger ideas that his movement was discussing. It was our way in.

Andrew: How were y’all able to get the footage from the initial parts of the movement?

Kelly: We collaborated with EmergenciaMX, a collaborative of passionate activists, video journalists, and dedicated reporters who were in Mexico and in close proximity to Sicila and were incredibly dedicated to the story. They shot hundreds of hours of footage – much at low res and always on the go. Much of the film is made up of their footage of the unfolding story in Mexico.

They were close with Sicilia from the beginning of the movement, and when we approached Sicilia to do the story and began to do our research we connected with them, sharing resources along the way. They really wanted this story told, but they weren’t in a position to edit the material – they were doing daily reporting. They had done a lot of short pieces that were very powerful during the Mexican caravans as they unfolded, and we drew on much of their work in our collaboration to make the feature film. We couldn’t have done it without them.

Andrew: What about other footage in Mexico, like in the Cathedral in Cuernavaca?

Kelly: Ya, that was Loteria. We shot the US caravan, and the interviews with Javier, the main subject matter, in Cuernavaca.

Andrew: Thanks for giving me your time to discuss the film further. I think it is important to show how documentaries can play a role in struggles for justice.

Kelly: Thanks for bringing attention to the film. You know, his caravan didn’t resonate as loudly as we hoped it would in the US. Hopefully the film in some way can spread his message on in some small way.

Andrew: One last thing that came to me when you said that. Could you elaborate on the connection between Mexico’s drug war and the recent black uprisings against police brutality?

Kelly: Ya, really it is the legacy of the US & Mexican drug war policies – the criminalization of drug addiction has been devastating to families and communities throughout the United States. And obviously, the drug trade has been also been devastating to so much of the Mexican population. But it’s not just about drug use, or drug sales. It goes beyond that to much larger systemic issues revolving around poverty and lack of opportunities on both sides of the boarder. We really think it is time for people to examine the criminalization of drug addiction. Is that really a healthy way to manage a public health crisis.

Andrew: Thank you for that. I think it is a very important part of the documentary that y’all aired, the connection between the two countries and the drug war. It is important for people to recognize that.

Watch El Poeta at: http://video.pbs.org/video/2365444227/

Kelly Duane de la Vega is a filmmaker. Check out Loteria Films work at www.loteriafilms.com

Andrew Smolski is a writer and sociologist.

The Brutal Ramifications of the Mexican Drug War” appears republished here courtesy of Counterpunch.

Better This World nominated for Gotham Award

Better This World was nominated today for a Gotham Best Documentary Award!

The Gotham Independent Film Awards, selected by distinguished juries and presented in New York City, the home of independent film, are the first honors of the film awards season. This public showcase honors the filmmaking community, expands the audience for independent films, and supports the work that IFP does behind the scenes throughout the year to bring such films to fruition.

Better This World nominated for Grierson Award

The 55th BFI London Film Festival has announced the shortlist and jury for 2011 Festival Awards including The Grierson Award for Best Documentary. The Awards will take place at LSO St Luke’s on 26 October.

A partnership between the Grierson Trust and the Festival, The Grierson Award for Best Documentary recognises outstanding feature-length documentaries of integrity, originality, technical excellence or cultural significance. The Award is presented in commemoration of John Grierson. Two-time BAFTA winner Adam Curtis will chair the jury, which also includes documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto, and Grierson Trustees Mandy Changand Charlotte Moore.

This year’s shortlist is:

  • BERNADETTE: NOTES ON A POLITICAL JOURNEY
    Lelia Doolan, Ireland
  • BETTER THIS WORLD
    Katie Galloway, Kelly Duane de la Vega, USA
  • THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967-1975
    Goran Hugo Olsson, Sweden/USA
  • DRAGONSLAYER
    Tristan Patterson
  • DREAMS OF A LIFE
    Carol Morley, UK/Ireland
  • INTO THE ABYSS: A TALE OF DEATH, A TALE OF LIFE
    Werner Herzog
  • LAST DAYS HERE
    Don Argott & Demian Fenton, USA
  • WHORES’ GLORY
    Michael Glawogger, Austria/Germany

“Better This World” Wins Two Out of Three Top Documentary Awards in San Francisco

Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway’s documentary “Better This World” topped the 54th annual San Francisco International Film Festival Awards Thursday night.

The film won two of the three Golden Gate Awards for documentary features, taking a $20,000 cash prize for Best Documentary Feature, and a $15,000 cash prize plus $2,000 in EFILM Digital Laboratories services, for best Bay Area Documentary Feature.