After the twistiness of their last feature documentary “Better This World,” which followed two men from Midland, Texas as they became ensnared by the FBI and labeled as terrorists after their activist efforts drew the government’s attention, that the directing duo of Kelly Duane De La Vega and Katie Galloway left no doubt they want audiences to take a second look to what they’re seeing. So it is no surprise that their latest, “The Return” allows for a long, hard look at two recent parolees – Kenneth Anderson and Bilal Chatman – in California, who receive an unexpected release from prison after voters passed Proposition 36 in 2012, repealing the state’s harsh “three strikes” law that put serial offenders behind bars for life, often for non-violent crimes.
Duane De La Vega and Galloway follow the two as they readjust to civilian life, not made easy by either their time away, which in Anderson’s case means a family that’s grown up without him, or the fact they still must constantly report back to their parole officers, giving the sense that the outside world will never feel much bigger than their cell. Through the year the filmmakers spend with the two, weaving in other stories of cases that are being pursued by the Justice Advocacy Project at Stanford run by Michael Romano, “The Return” shows a system whether by intent or not that appears designed to make it impossible to rejoin society as an equal with plenty of bureaucracy but no infrastructure to help those who truly want to pursue a path on the straight and narrow. Shortly after the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival where it claimed the Audience Award for Best Documentary, the two filmmakers as well as Chatman, who has since gone on to become an outspoken (and well-adjusted) advocate for ex-prisoners, talked about how the got inside the experience of life on the outside, finding their subjects and inadvertently discovering how their films are not only helping other causes, but their own as filmmakers as well.
How did this come about?
Kelly Duane De La Vega: Both Katie and I have been working in the criminal justice space for a very long time and Michael Romano, who is the main subject in the film, told us that they were going to put Prop. 36 on the ballot, and we decided to do a series of short format pieces profiling nonviolent offenders serving life [sentences]. They ran in Mother Jones and also in the New York Times. [Prop. 36] passed in every county in California – 70% of Californians voted in favor. Even the most conservative counties voted to pass it.
We were so excited because it was really the first big criminal justice reform since we’ve been scaling that mass incarceration for the last 30 to 40 years, so we wanted to see what reform would look like and how as the society, where we needed to improve [the reintegration process]. We have really strong connections with people on the inside and also people on the outside, so it seemed like a great opportunity to look at reform from the institutions, the prison, the court rooms, and also the individual level.
Because of those connections you’ve made over the years, do you feel like this is a film you’ve only could’ve made now?
Kelly De La Vega: We have a lot of credibility in the space and there is a lot of trust, because of our long-term commitment. Both of our fathers were also civil rights attorneys – mine was a criminal defense attorney – and we have a lifetime connection to the community, but in some ways, we could only do it now because it’s the beginning of reform; reform didn’t exist really prior to that. California led the nation in [the establishment] of draconian sentencing, then New York with the Rockefeller laws. We hope that California is now going to lead the nation in the opposite direction.
Katie Galloway: Some reforms existed, but this was the first time that voters have ever scaled back sentences [of people who] are currently incarcerated. [This moment is] also seen by most people in the space as the first time that there is real potential for a meaningful shift to criminal justice policy, which doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. A lot of people are dubious about what will actually happen – people who work in the space have seen 40 years of escalating mass incarceration and not a lot of public or political will for changing policies in any major way, but now a lot of people, including us, are very committed to pushing on the change moment to seeing where it can go.
How did Bilal and Kenneth become the two parolees you followed?
Kelly Duane De La Vega: We filmed with a lot of different people, and from our perspective, Bilal, Kenneth and also the Anderson family – [Ken’s wife] Monica and [his daughter] Kaylica are really the focus in part because they were the people we connected most deeply with, and in part that it was their stories we believed would resonate as authentic and representative to those who have loved ones that have been incarcerated, or have been incarcerated, and would resonate beyond that community to people who have not been touched by the criminal justice system because of the beauty of who they are and the depth of the connection that they have with the families.
Much of their story touches on universal desires – the desire to connect with your children, to connect with your mother, to find your way in life and the human need for that. We wanted to very much lift up the voices of people whose voices are just not really heard or understood and we felt there couldn’t be better people to do that by shedding light on their journeys.
Katie Galloway: I’ll add the story of mass incarceration in America is largely a story of people of color and people who are not of means. We felt in terms of African-American male being so overrepresented in the prison population, and the more harsh the sentences are – nearly half of the “three strikes” population is African-American while they’re only 11% of the population – it was really significant and felt like it should be represented in the film.
It is also a story of addiction and mental health issues. There was addiction in both cases, [it’s a part of] a hugely disproportionate number of cases. Kenneth also struggled with mental health issues, which may or may not have preceded his time in prison, but definitely were present. It was also important for us to have a family as a character to see someone – [showing how] a family would have been interrupted not just in terms of the housing and jobs, but emotional and psychological development, [with] four young kids left behind, and what was it like to try to reintegrate. We followed a lot of cases, and we anticipated that there would be more of a struggle in Kenneth’s story because of some of the issues he was dealing with and how prison had affected him.
With Bilal, there was just a man on a mission, and we weren’t sure what was going to happen because there are so many barriers to success, but we really believed that from the day one when we saw him coming out of prison, he was going to stop at nothing to find success. It was also to represent the people inside who could be a model for people to come out through his actions. He’s always been committed to helping create more pathways for those who are inside.
For Bilal, was this an easy decision for you to let the cameras in?
Bilal Chatman: Absolutely not. First, it was strictly survival, I wanted to put the judge, the [District Attorney] and everybody on blast. The law changed, but written into the law was the opportunity for the judge to make a decision whether or not they were going to let you out or not. Some people were immediately released, and I was considered a contested hearing, so I had to go prove to the court why I was not still a detriment to society. Part of that was me [getting] history on the job, but first you had to be eligible. Your last strike had to be non-violent or non-service, then after that, the judge had the opportunity to look at your case, look what’s going on and then say, “Hey, I want to look at him more.”
My attorney knew [Katie and Kelly], and I was so blessed to have them with me [because] I was excited about the fact that I was eligible and I had done some good things in prison, I was disciplinary-free, and I wanted all that to go in to the court room. I expected [the judge] to tell me, “No, you are not going to be let out,” and I wanted the world to see how bad the system is.
One of the best moments in the film, though certainly it must not have felt like it at the time, is when your parole officer is insisting you report when you’re on your way to work, showing the vicious cycle of how you’re prevented from being a productive member of society by the same system that’s evaluating whether you are. Was that important to you to have in the film?
Bilal Chatman: Yeah, of course everybody wants to be looked at in good light, but I wanted them to see some of the struggles. The probation officer was a straight menace. He was completely in the way, and I felt as a former inmate and a person that was out on probation and given this opportunity, I did all the things that he needed from me. I needed to see him once a month, which I did. I needed to have gainful employment, which I did. I needed to have a stable residence, which I did; I needed to have identification all the time, which I did and I needed to have transportation, [which is] how you are going to get to and from these offices, and I did. I had no problem with that, the problem is he wanted to see me during my work hours and I didn’t want to lose any work hours.
I wanted the world to see that these are some of the pitfalls that come out for us. I did my time, the court [and] everybody said I was good to go, so why am I still struggling and battling? So I called the film team. I called people where I was working, I called my attorney, and we all went down there. What’s the problem here [I asked the parole officer], why can’t this guy come in a little later, or come in earlier? Why are you trying to take away my job, which is part of my conditions – to have gainful employment? That was part of the issues that I have with them.
Beyond your central stories, you also include Shane, another recent parolee, and the story of Lester Wallace, whose case you revisit from time to time as it comes up before a judge. How did those come into the picture?
Kelly Duane De La Vega: Very early on, we were thinking about the film cinematically, like how do you weave together the story? We tend to tell our stories close to the bone, [to] really get people emotionally connected to our characters, illuminating the larger political issue. We knew we wanted to do a collection of short stories, representing more than just one returning citizen and their family. We wanted to show what this looks like in the courtrooms and [to have] the voice of the judge in there. Katie mentioned that our two central characters are African-American because those are the people who are most affected, but the poor white rural community is also very much affected by these draconian sentencing laws, so we wanted to take people into a diverse set of environments and actually spent a lot of time with Shane, who for complicated reasons did not playing a larger role in the film.
We also wanted to show Mike [Romano] and Susan [Champion] as a form of inspiration, and show the hard work that really goes in to trying to create change and to represent people who have so little. With Lester Wallace, I think he embodies this really important part that prison population, the half that has been diagnosed with some form of mental illness. Almost everybody is in prison because of a drug-related crime, whether it was inspired by addiction or has to do with selling drugs. Lester Wallace had both of those – he was a homeless drug addict who tried to steal a car radio, and has been inside of prison for 20 years.
Katie Galloway: He has this connection with Mike [Romano] in a way [because] the case that moved Mike and brings out his humanity, which was important. Mike and Susan are at the center of the story, but they are also the voice of the meta story about people who have never had a chance [and how] for decades our solution as a nation was to just incarcerate the mentally ill, the addicted and the poor. That was the case for Lester – he was arrested at 9 am the day that the three strikes law got signed and the more you find out about his story, the more painful it is. He got disciplinary write-ups, because he was 5’ 2″ and his pants were too long, so he rolled them up and that’s not allowed. That kind of thing is just maddening. For reasons that we can’t fully go into in the film, Susan and Mike were very emotionally bound up with him, and his being released was crucially important to them.
Kelly brings up the cinematic quality of this. Is it hard to find those moments in something that so obviously prizes a fly-on-the-wall quality? You do have that great scene Kenneth is in a room at home and you can hear the prison sounds.
Kelly Duane De La Vega: We struggled with that very question. We felt like how do you get into what it feels like to be struggling with the legacy of, in Ken’s case, the pain and mental struggles in prison? We did flashbacks originally and they didn’t feel right. Ultimately, we thought the sound design was able to allow us to examine that, the fact that prison was with him no matter where he was in many ways and he was having a hard time separating.
As you show, readjusting to life after prison is already difficult. Was it a concern you’re adding another layer on top of it with a camera crew?
Katie Galloway: As documentary filmmakers, that’s always something that you have to be sensitive to. Nobody pretends in journalism anymore that you are getting objective truth, whether you are there with the paper and pen or a whole camera crew. It’s another reason why it’s super-important to us to spend a lot of time with [our subjects] – having people get to know you and forget you are there somewhat – to get as close to their authentic experience as possible. I remember just dropping in Shane’s family’s life, and we had one hour, which is what we were allowed, and trying to really connect and get people to forget about the cameras, which is almost impossible. The most important audience for us are the people in the film. When all of our main characters – Kenneth, [Kenneth’s wife] Monica, [his daughter] Kaylica, [and his son] Sam and Bilal – said essentially, “You got it. It feels authentic to my experience,” that feels incredible, like that’s the true test.
Kelly Duane De La Vega: We spent an afternoon with the Anderson family without cameras, and told them what we wanted to do, what our goals were and what an imposition it would probably be as weeks and months went on. They took a month as a family to decide whether they wanted to do it. Monica came back and said that something like this could have really helped her, and she wants to help other families, so even when it was difficult for them, she had a larger calling that was personal She knew she was doing something for the larger community.
Katie Galloway: Interestingly, and this may be one of the perks of having been in it for a long time, the family had seen our earlier work and it wasn’t as a result of our sending it. By chance, I think maybe the youngest in the family who might have been the most resistant had seen our earlier work and said, “I believed in the way you told that story.” Whether you are sharing it with them directly, or people happen to have come across it, it’s pretty exciting to hear when people have been exposed [to your work].
“The Return” will premiere on May 23rd as the opening night film of the new season of POV on PBS. It will play once more at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 24th at 9:45 pm at the Regal Cinemas Battery Park.