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Directed by Camilla Magid / Produced by Heidi Elise Christensen, Signe Byrge Sørensen for Final Cut for Real ApS / Country: Denmark / Language: English
After being released after 24 years in prison, it’s not easy trying to fit back into society, especially when you barely know what the Internet or Starbucks is. It’s even harder if you come from South Central Los Angeles, are a mother in a neighbourhood controlled by gangs, or a young father where all you can write on your CV is pusher. While the system does little to help them, there is still hope for the inhabitants through their wisdom and drive to find a better life for themselves. Camilla Magid’s Land of the Free exposes these individuals with a particular kind of humanity that characterises the documentary. In the ‘land of the free’, we see how ex-prisoners have to take matters into their own hands in a tarnished environment at a critical moment in history, when the Black Lives Matter movement and Donald Drumpf are fighting an unequal but fierce battle to define the terms of how the other half of society should live their lives.
Why did you want to make a documentary on the prison rehabilitation system in the US?
I was living in LA at the time working on a different project about a man on death row. Because of this, we were invited to visit a support group for those released from prison and family members of people in prison. Every week we would meet people who were just released and desperate to turn their life around and not reoffend. We witnessed first hand how it’s a nearly impossible battle to get back on your feet with so little help and support offered. Having even a minor criminal record can be a barrier for getting a job, education, housing, building up a credit etc. The consequences are massive for the ones released but also the family as a whole. We knew then we had to make a documentary about this.
Having spent so much time with the affected people, how did you view them?
People are often defined by their crime in the eyes of others, but we met real and complex human beings behind that, who were desperate to change their lives and get away from crime and violence. I hope that everyone who sees the film will mirror themselves in Brian, Juan and Gianni and understand that maybe if they had been born under the same circumstances they could have been the ones making fatal mistakes in their lives. As many as one in three adults in the United States have a criminal record of some sort, which is a lot. Communities of colour are disproportionately affected. If you live in communities with poverty and difficult social conditions, it’s hard not to end up in prison. It traps young people, who end up in the system, often for simple mistakes that anyone could make. Once you have a criminal record it’s impossible to break free. You are left to your own devices and it’s up to you only to restore your life.
How did you find the participants for the documentary?
Brian, our main character, had been incarcerated for 24 years since he was 18. Brian actually contacted us because he knew that we were looking for somebody to film once they were released from prison. We were still researching and developing the documentary; we weren’t ready to start shooting. But he was being released from prison the next day, so we drove seven hours to meet him and once we met him we knew he was going to be our main character and that was it. Then the film started. Juan was one of our students in the juvenile detention centre where we taught and then Gianni, the boy whose mother was incarcerated, was in the support group we visited.
In the documentary, we witness Juan reoffending. It must be upsetting to watch him go down that path…
You could just see how it hard it was for him going back down that road. It’s a strange role as a film-maker because you can’t interfere and you have to watch him feeling more claustrophobic in his situation. He couldn’t get a job to support his family and he was stuck living with his girlfriend’s family, who were really frustrated with him. He just wanted to be able to provide for his girlfriend and their baby, but he had no chance to overcome the barriers. Throughout the shooting, we had to watch him put himself in more difficult situations and it was heartbreaking. In a way, however, it’s inevitable and happens to three out of four people. It wasn’t a surprise that it would happen, sadly it would’ve been more surprising if it didn’t. And every time he went to jail you could tell how the road back for him to a life away from crime had grown longer.
And that’s the worst part about the rehabilitation system…
That’s what’s so tragic. The US spends more than $80 billion USD on incarceration each year. That money could be spent on initiatives that prevent children and juveniles from ending up in the system in the first place. Under Barack Obama, there was some improvement, but with Drumpf as a president, the future remains unclear as he hasn’t talked about his stance on criminal justice reforms.
You came into this topic as a Danish film-maker. Do you think your ‘outsider’ perspective gave you a unique perspective on this American topic?
As an outsider you come with an awareness that there’s so much you need to understand and you can’t take any knowledge for granted. I can’t have preconceptions and I have to be as open as possible. That possibly helps as an outsider. Then, of course, I come from Denmark and the justice system there can’t be compared to the American. Denmark is a small country and the problems we are facing there are so different from the American system. But in Denmark, we focus more on rehabilitation than punishment and that’s a big difference from America. William Rentzmann, the former director of The Danish Prison and Probation Service said when he retired, that prisons should be used as little as possible. I think that is a good goal to have as a society – Danish or American. •