By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act June 10, 2014 at 5:32PM
An update to a documentary project whose Kickstarter fundraising campaign was pushed on this site over a year ago - a campaign that I should add was successful, squeaking by its $30,000 goal, to raise just over $31,000.
A year and a half later, announced today, the Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) has unveiled this year's grantees of the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, and "Freedom Fighters" is 1 of the 9 projects selected from 560 submissions.
The film's tagline reads: "There's a new detective agency in Dallas, Texas, started by a group of exonerated men who have all spent decades in prison... for crimes they did not commit."
They call themselves the Freedom Fighters, and have tasked themselves with the job of freeing those who are wrongly serving sentences in prison for crimes they didn't commit.
Selected from entries received from more than 50 countries to receive a total of $150,000 in grants, Jamie Meltzer's character-driven documentary follows these change-makers as they rebuild their lives and families, learn to investigate cases, work to support each other, and campaign to fix the criminal justice system. The film will follow them as they learn the ropes of investigation - following leads, tracking down witnesses and finding out what kind of evidence will make a strong case in court - on their first cases.
Meltzer's film is certainly timely and topical, especially in light of ongoing conversations about the disproportionately high number of black men in prison, measures like stop-and-frisk, and the recent release of "The Central Park Five" documentary - itself a story of young men who served lengthy sentences after being accused of a crime they didn't commit.
I love the idea (and I know some of you do as well) - not only the real-life agency/initiative, but also the film that's being made about it and the men who run it. In addition to this documentary, I think the story would make for wonderful material for a scripted work of fiction.
The Freedom Fighters, whose own wrongful convictions inspired them to create their detective agency, are:
- Christopher Scott was released from prison after serving 13 years of a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit. This sounds like a nightmare, but it’s more common than you might think. 32 people like Chris have been exonerated in Dallas. Most of them are black men who were locked up in their youth and emerged in middle age looking for a way to make sense of what happened. One day at an exoneree support group meeting, an idea came to Chris: exonerees could become detectives, find other wrongfully convicted people sitting in prison, investigate their cases and prove their innocence. "I'm the go-getter, I'm the one that sets the standards, because I'm a leader - I lead by example." Chris was recently named Texan of the Year by the Dallas Morning News.
- Johnnie Lindsey, the most dapper member of the Freedom Fighters (Chris calls him “laid back… a real smooth operator.”), spent 26 years in prison for a sexual assault he didn't commit. As calm, cool, and collected as he is, Johnnie can get fired-up about all the wrongful convictions in Texas: “Something’s wrong, something's happening in Texas… they robbed us out of our lives - 26 years of my life… I was robbed.”
- Billy Smith was released in 2006 after spending two decades behind bars, after being wrongly identified and convicted for aggravated sexual assault. He knew his case had DNA evidence but it wasn’t until 2001, 15 years into his sentence, that prisoners could request DNA tests. Billy is still overcome with emotion at times when he looks at his front door, sees the doorknob on the inside, and realizes he can turn that knob and walk out anytime he wants to go. “There’s no bars there, no guards walking past my door. I can go out when I want to go out... I'm free.”
Watch a trailer for the upcoming film below.
The TFI Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund provides production and finishing finances, along with year-round support and guidance to feature-length documentary films that highlight and humanize critical domestic and international social issues. Also, for the fourth year, the Kering Foundation has partnered with the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund to present the Spotlighting Women Documentary Award. The award provides grants to three film projects that the jury believes illuminate the extraordinary strength of character and contributions of women from around the world.
Recent alumni of the grant have received high praise on the festival circuit.
The other 8 projects that will collectively receive $100,000 total in funding for the 2014 Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund are:
3 ½ MINUTES, Directed and Produced by Marc Silver (2013 TFI New Media Fund Grantee for Who Is Dayani Cristal). 3 ½ Minutes dissects the shooting death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis, the aftermath of this systemic tragedy and contradictions within the American criminal justice system.
A FLICKERING TRUTH, Written, Produced and Directed by Pietra Brettkelly. A Flickering Truth unwraps the world of three dreamers living amongst the dust of Afghanistan's 100 years of war as they struggle to protect and restore 8,000 hours of fragile film. What truths will emerge from the cloak of time?
AFGHAN JUSTICE, Directed by Nicole N. Horanyi; Produced by Helle Faber. 38-year-old Kimberley Motley left her husband and three kids in the US in order to work as a defense lawyer in Kabul, Afghanistan. She is the only foreign lawyer, not to mention the only woman, who has a license to work in Afghan courts. Together with her Afghan assistant, Kimberley defends Western and Afghan clients accused of criminal actions.
COLD RUSH, Directed by May Abdalla; Produced by Elhum Shakerifar. Cold Rush is set at the front line of the fast changing Arctic. As the UN decides how to divide up state sovereignty into the High North we travel into the lives of American entrepreneurs, Danish scientists and Russian priests who are investing in the thawing ice and the young island man who is trying to stop them. A timely documentary about the race for the last frontier.
FREEDOM FIGHTERS, Directed by Jamie Meltzer; Produced by Kate McLean (2012 TFI New Media Fund Grantee for Immigrant Nation). There’s a new detective agency in Dallas, Texas, started by a group of exonerated men, with decades in prison served between them. They call themselves the Freedom Fighters, and they are looking to free innocent people still behind bars. Freedom Fighters explores their stories of wrongful imprisonment, their struggles to start their lives over again as free men, and their quest to help others who may be innocent.
OUT OF MIND, Produced and Directed by Kristi Jacobson; Out of Mind investigates an invisible part of the American justice system: the use of isolation and segregation in US prisons, commonly known as solitary confinement. With unprecedented access inside a prison tackling the issue head on, the film explores this divisive issue through the experiences of those on both sides of the bars.
The projects that will collectively receive $50,000 total in funding for the 2014 Spotlighting Women Documentary Award are:
AWAKENING, Directed by Gini Reticker; Produced by Beth Levison. Against the backdrop of the Arab uprisings, Awakening – a multimedia initiative anchored by a documentary film – tells the stories of five fearless women from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region who risk everything in their fight for human rights for all, despite flagrant efforts to silence them.
INDIA’S DAUGHTER, Directed and Produced by Leslee Udwin. This documentary pays tribute to the remarkable and inspiring short life of Jyoti Singh and documents the brutality of her gang-rape and murder in Delhi in 2012. It also examines the mindset of the perpetrators, and it sets these specifics against a wider in-depth exploration of why rape happens.
THE STORM MAKERS, Written and Directed by Guillaume Suon; Produced by Rithy Panh and Julien Roumy. Filmmaker Guillaume Suon turns his cinematic lens on globalization and contemporary Cambodia.
Here's an early trailer for "Freedom Fighters." Given today's news, I suspect that it'll be making its premiere in early 2015: