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Published on January 23rd, 2017 | by Meg Lemke

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The Legacy of What We’ve Done: An Interview With the Filmmaker MUTHAs Behind THE RETURN

Did you march? I walked with my daughter on my shoulders, holding her sign (Love is Love is Love) high, and it was amazing.

MUTHAs are back now and fired up, and painfully aware that there’s so much more fighting ahead. What’s next? So, did you also see the signs asking if all these nice white ladies will make it to the next #BlackLivesMatter march? Good question. Pause and take that message in, and act now to learn more about consequences of the structural racism in our country—in particular how it intersects with policing, the judicial system, and unjust sentencing laws. Are you also looking for hope, in stories of successful reforms that don’t shy away from the hard truths? And, maybe, do you need to take a day to rest sore legs, so it might be nice to watch something on a screen?

I have a movie for you. 

The Return, directed by Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway, is a film you should queue up NOW on your to-watch list. (I’m assuming you’ve already got The 13th on there; this is an excellent companion piece). Newly on Neflix! Winner of the Audience Award at the 2016 Tribeca Film Fest, the film follows two men, Bilal Chatman and Kenneth Anderson, returning to their families after California struck down the controversial “Three Strikes Law” (in 2012) that sent more than 10,000 people to prison for life, many for petty crimes (disproportionately non-violent drug offenses). We must reform our unjust prison system, and reform must include consideration of the complexity of re-entry and all of the people it affects. The film intimately investigates the lessons learned from California as waves of formerly incarcerated people were released on very short notice, following not only these two men, who provide narratives representative of a larger story, but their lawyers, social workers, their mothers/children/former wives, and broader systems of family and community support. What does it mean to re-enter society after adjusting inside as a lifer, with no chance of parole?  “The Return will take you on a roller coaster of emotion,” writes Clara Jeffery of Mother Jones. It “opens up a world that most of society doesn’t want to think about but should.” (The New York Times)

The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people. When I saw The Return at the Tribeca fest last spring, and then got its filmmakers on the phone, not only was there bipartisan support for sentencing reform, there was hope to see the trend of privatization of the prison system coming to an end. Now, Trump’s proposed policies may “Set the Private Prison Free,” despite how they have been linked to “numerous cases of violence and atrocious conditions” (ACLU). The message of this film is more urgent than ever. Make those calls, write those postcards, see you at the next march, and check out this handy further guide to Take Action, from PBS’s POV series, where The Return is now streaming. Preview here!

Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway are not only incredible filmmakers, they’re also inspiring MUTHAs. I’m grateful to them for this conversation about the making of The Return—and how they balance involved parenting and the demands of running a film production company. – Meg Lemke

MUTHA: Congratulations on the win at Tribeca Film Festival—which is where I saw the film. I came to it not necessarily thinking it would fit for coverage at MUTHA, but as I watched, realized The Return is at heart a story about family—about parents and children, young and grown.

What drew you to the topic?

KELLY: The stories that Katie and I have been telling together, for a long time, have addressed “horror stories” within the criminal justice system, about race, poverty, class, mental health, and public health issues—like the criminalization of drug addiction. We created a short-film series on nonviolent offenders serving life sentencesSo when Proposition 36 passed—overwhelmingly, in every county in California, including the most conservative, and with polling that confirmed that people were not only on board with the substantial savings by changing this law but understanding the unfairness of sentencing practices—we leapt at the chance to tell this story. It had elements of hope. We hoped that by covering it, we could amplify any lessons about its implementation and inspire similar reforms across the country.

MUTHA: How long did the film take to make?

KATIE: We started it before the law passed, and then followed the roll-out for almost three years.

Lawyers work around the clock processing thousands of case files after the repeal of “Three Strikes”

MUTHA: And you came at this story from an advocacy lens?

KATIE: From a journalistic lens. I think it’s dangerous for us to say advocacy. We are investigative journalists first, and we also do not believe that mass incarceration policy as it has been practiced over the past four decades has been at all healthy or good for society.

We weren’t going to frame our story as good news if it didn’t turn out to be. So we were very relieved to discover very low recidivism rate and lessons that could be learned about what was working and what was not working with “the return.”

I think it’s a wonder that there was bipartisan support for this because the public had indicated clearly that we as a society are in need of redemption, and not just for people coming out—for all of us. As a country we’ve made some really bad choices, often with the wool pulled over our eyes, in a state of fear, and it’s time for us to start thinking about not only always “moving forward,” but looking at the legacy of what we’ve done and how to try to heal.

Families full of hope and searching for healing after the repeal of the “Three Strikes” law in California

MUTHA: The film is not just about the impact and the legacy of incarceration, but what the serious challenges are to reintegration into society following that trauma. What I found especially compelling is that when given a life sentence, most of the personal support network and connections these individuals had, they all fell away. When they were released, the relationships they had remaining were with mothers, whether with their own mother, or the mother(s) of their children. That’s who was there waiting still, when they came out, however unexpectedly. Was that a purposeful focus, or was that emergent as you followed the stories?

KELLY: In the film there’s a scene where Kenneth is talking about the loss of the family, and how incredibly difficult it is to parent through a fifteen-minute phone call. Then he spoke to us about how frequently he would call, and how he had four kids trying to share fifteen minutes. And when he hung up, his wife said the kids are just kind of destroyed, so emotionally upset from getting such a fractured relationship with him. I think for many lifers it’s incredibly difficult to maintain meaningful relationships with people on the outside. Obviously some do, I think mothers can be the ones to hang in there. Sometimes wives and children have to move on, and some women do stay in touch.

Monica, despite in many ways moving on when Kenneth was gone, always looked out for him. She always sent him money when he needed it and always let him know that they cared about him, even if Kenneth wasn’t in regular contact with them. Throughout the country, definitely in California, the state situates many of our prisons in rural areas. Yet many of the prisoners’ families are based in urban centers, and if you’re struggling with poverty or trying to raise a family, traveling four or five hours to visit a loved one and then paying for a hotel room to stay the night is incredibly expensive. This further contributes to the fracturing of families over time.

Women–mothers–are a central focus in THE RETURN

MUTHA: I wondered about women who are also returning. Is that a population that you’re seeing reintegrate into the society in California as well?

KATIE: Well, we went to a prison and interviewed some of the women, and our first series that we did with the New York Times and Mother Jones followed two women returning from prison. One was a grandma who was dying of cancer, her name is Bernice Cubie, and we dedicated this film to her family. In this particular population and overall, despite that women are now the fastest growing group of people who are being incarcerated, the fact is that the percentages of men that are being incarcerated remains much greater. So we made the choice in this film to focus on following the women left behind, at home, Monica and Kaylica, because they’re representative of the millions and millions of women who are suffering the effects of mass incarceration and the harsh draconian sentencing policies.

MUTHA: Can you tell me a little bit about yourselves as filmmakers, and in particular about yourselves as parents? How does parenthood affect your perspective in the film? How does it work for you as mothers to balance such demanding roles that involve a lot of travel? Give us some hope for all of the aspiring.

KATIE: [Noise in background, child calling…] I’m so sorry but I have to go. My son is really sick.

MUTHA: I totally understand, no apologies are needed whatsoever.

That really answers the question in a lot of ways.

KELLY: Katie and I have both been making documentaries for over a decade, and we both started before we had children, and we both continued after. The first collaboration we did together was a film called Better This World and our children were pretty young at that point. Katie has four children, I have two.

MUTHA: Wow, she has four?

KELLY: Yeah, she has four boys.

Katie’s kids!

MUTHA: I know I shouldn’t be so shocked. I live in New York where it skews only child.

KELLY: I think many people can’t afford to have more than one kid. So, when we first teamed up, our kids were younger. Now, I have a daughter, she is almost eleven, and a son, he is nine, and then Katie’s got a nine-year-old boy, twin eleven-year-old boys, and a teenager.

Yes, it’s a real struggle trying to find that balance.

We both have incredibly supportive husbands who are deeply involved parents, and we have kids that are politicized, through our work, and that share our passion for social justice. Luckily also, our kids are friends and love the characters of our film, and know them well. I think they’re understanding having a partner really helps so when we were going down to L.A. once a month to film, we could switch back and forth so that it was less burden on one family versus the other. But it is hard, and it is a balancing act. We really focus on making sure our kids are a priority while trying to do the grunt of work that demands travel.

Processing centers for returnees

MUTHA: When they were little did you bring them on set a lot?

KELLY: No I’ve never taken my kids on a shoot, and Katie never has—with me anyway. With Better This World, which was about domestic terrorism, I didn’t let my kids see it until much later. I thought they were too young and the subject matter was too dark for where they were in looking at the world.

The Return was different in that the Andersons really became family to us. For my daughter’s birthday last year, she was dying to see a professional women’s basketball game, and the closest one was in L.A. For her tenth birthday we spent it with Monica and the grandkids and we went and saw an L.A. Sparks women’s professional basketball game together.

Kelly’s kids with Bilal, one of the subjects of THE RETURN

MUTHA: What’s a change that anyone reading this interview, or who sees the film, could make to change the future for our children? What actions could we do to change the prison system?  

KELLY: As a nation we were sold this idea that burst in the ’70s and really took hold in the ’80s and ’90s that long prison sentences make us safer. Yet no data has suggested that that is correct. I think it’s a backwards way of looking at a problem. What is the root of crime? It’s poverty and structural racism, and the lack of understanding and support for the most vulnerable people in our country.

I think if you want to make a difference, you should support the growing movement to change sentencing length in America. Currently, when you are released from prison, you are then barred from food stamps, you’re barred from public housing, you’re barred from applying for student loans. In many cases getting any employment is incredibly difficult.

Culturally, we’ve been told to stay out of bad neighborhoods and if your public school isn’t great, maybe you should go to private school. I really fundamentally think that we should be doing the opposite. Bryan Stevenson, who is an amazing death row lawyer and also a beautiful writer, writes on this topic. Go to those neighborhoods, send your kids to school there, it’s where you’re needed.  

We’re asking people to bring this film to their companies, to their HR departments, to start a conversation about what it means to hire people who are returning citizens. Not just for minimum wage jobs, but for apprenticeships that could lead to a career. For internships, most of the time we think in terms of twenty-year-old kids just fresh out of college, but people that have been locked up for much of their youth need to build their resumes. Just reaching out to your local reentry center and saying, “hey I can volunteer my time to help somebody build a resume,” that simple action can make a profound impact on somebody’s life, and ultimately makes us a healthier society and a safer society.

Families and children affected by unjust sentencing laws

MUTHA: And what advice could you offer parents who want to stay active activists, creative in their work, after having children and in the process of becoming parents?

KELLY: I believe that children should be children and I think that protecting children’s innocence is beautiful in many ways, but I also think if we segregate our children by class or by ethnicity that actually we’re doing them and the society they’re growing up in a profound disservice. I think that it’s our responsibility to teach our children to be deep, empathetic, caring people, and if our children are born into privilege, then they should use that privilege to affect change and to help other people. If your kids aren’t born into privilege, then collectively fighting for their rights is essential.  

Bilal studying

MUTHA: Filmmaker Sarah Zia Ebrahimi writes about how shocked and upset she was when she had trouble reintegrating into her arts and activist community after she had a baby, because there wasn’t a space made for children. Have you encountered any resistance to the balance you’ve created with your kids?

KELLY: Part of what drew Katie and I to each other was the fact that we were both parents and we’re ambitious and take our careers pretty damn seriously. But if there’s a sick kid, it’s okay, you work from home that day. Because we run our own company, we set the rules.

I did work with one man on a film, who didn’t have kids, and hit that lack of understanding—i.e. why I’m not going to take more than one east coast travel trip a month. I had to lay down the law: this is the deal, you hired me and I’m a whole person, and a big part of who I am is a parent. And if you want me, that’s part of what you’re going to get.

MUTHA: You’re saying to be entrepreneurial in making the change you need happen. I don’t know that everyone can do that, but they may be able to point to what you’ve done.

KELLY: Maybe just choose to work with people that actually have kids.

Check PBS POV site for streaming and local listings

Loteria Films principal Katie Galloway (Director/Producer) is a director, producer and writer whose films explore the intersections of institutional power, civil and human rights and political activism. Better This World (POV 2011) won the Writers Guild of America’s Best Documentary Screenplay award, Best Documentary at the Gotham Independent Film Awards and the International Documentary Association’s Creative Recognition Award. Prison Town, USA (POV 2007), which she co-directed with Po Kutchins, was developed as a fiction television series by IFC.

Galloway produced and was a reporter in an award-winning trio of films about the American justice system for PBS FRONTLINE: Snitch, Requiem for Frank Lee Smith and The Case for Innocence. A two-time Sundance fellow, she taught documentary production at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and teaches media studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where she was recently filmmaker-in-residence in the Journalism School’s Investigative Reporting Program. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from UC Berkeley.

Kelly Duane de la Vega‘s (Director/Producer) documentaries have screened at film festivals worldwide, opened theatrically across the country and been broadcast nationally on POV and the Documentary Channel. Her work has received the Writers Guild of America’s Best Documentary Screenplay Award, Gotham Independent Film Best Documentary Award and multiple national Emmy nominations. Better This World (POV 2011) won the Best Documentary Feature awards at the San Francisco International Film Festival and Sarasota Film Festival, received an International Documentary Association Creative Recognition award and screened at MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight. Her film Monumental screened nationally, was acquired by the Smithsonian for its permanent collection and is used by more than 50 universities internationally.

Duane de la Vega has produced powerful short-format work for The New York Times Op-Docs series, Mother Jones, IFC and Discovery, among others. A Sundance and HBO/Film Independent fellow, she has guest lectured at various universities and taught documentary forms at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the founder of the Bay Area production company Loteria Films.

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About the Author

Meg Lemke

Meg Lemke is the Editor-in-Chief of MUTHA. She also programs the comics and graphic novels at the Brooklyn Book Festival, acts as a guest editor at Illustrated PEN, and takes on miscellaneous freelance projects in-between. She has worked as a book editor at Teachers College Press at Columbia University, Seven Stories Press and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Her writing has appeared in The Paris ReviewThe Seattle Review, The Atlanta Review, The Good Mother Myth blog, and Seleni, among other publications. She lives with her family in the dense mother-zone of Park Slope, Brooklyn. Find her @meglemke and meglemke.tumblr.com or read up on her formative years at Lady Collective.



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