By KATE STONE LOMBARDI
Published: March 20, 2009
THE images in the movie trailer come fast and furious. Orange prison garb. Tight shots of young men’s faces — some expressions blank, some guarded, some defiant. A strongly built inmate, standing, fists clenched. A close-up of a tattoo.
“So you want to know what you get when you leave nine inmates in a room with a camera?” asked Stefano DeMicheli. “Hold your judgment.”
“Judgement” is the name of a new movie created by nine inmates at the Westchester County Jail in Valhalla. It is also a complicated subject for these young men, ages 16 to 21, who are part of the Incarcerated Youth Program. Certainly it was a judgment that landed them in jail — a decision made at a point in their young lives that led to their incarceration. And another judgment was made upon each of them, literally, in their conviction and sentencing.
But there are judgments of a different kind, too. The young men in the movie worry about how they will be judged by the movie’s audience.
“Will they understand?” asks one in the film.
“Will they just see wild kids who are trying to get rehabilitated?” asks another.
“How can you make a judgment when you haven’t lived my life?” asks a third.
The movie was made through a pilot program that the Jacob Burns Film Center here offered at the jail in partnership with the county’s Department of Correction. (It was financed by a private grant.) Two staff members from the film center went into the jail to present the digital media class that they have also offered to dozens of high schools in the area. The goal is to teach students how to use video cameras and editing equipment, with the larger intention of what the film center calls visual literacy.
This time, of course, the film teachers were working under unusual constraints. For starters, the entire production had to remain inside the jail classroom.
“Your challenge is to make a film, and you can’t leave the room,” said Mike Kraus, a professionally trained video journalist who was one of the teachers. “You hope these people are going to be excellent talkers.”
Mr. Kraus said he had his own prejudgments about the project. He doubted that young men in that age group would have much to say. He made assumptions about the kind of movie they would want to make, too.
“I thought it would be some kind of rap film or cop chase,” he said. “We got it totally wrong.”
On the first day of class in September, the inmates expressed their own concerns. One suggested that they jettison their prison uniforms for street clothes. “If we’re in jail and we’re in orange jumpsuits, people in Pleasantville are going to judge us,” he said.
Another student saw it differently. He brought up the idea of exposing prejudgments — their own and others’. And so the young men decided to turn the cameras on themselves and explore this very subject. The 18-minute film took about 20 hours over 12 weeks to make. In it, the inmates also grapple with the type of judgment they hope to show in the future.
“I’ve been coming here every year since I was 16,” said one inmate. “You see old people in here. I don’t want to be like them.”
A second said, “When you’re alone in that cell, you do a whole lot of thinking.”
Another said, “There’s not going to be a Part 2 of this movie with me in it.”
The movie had its premiere before a packed house at the film center this month. Two of the inmates in it, Dekwan Clark, 20, and Mr. DeMicheli, 21, have since been released from jail and attended the screening. Two others watched the proceedings from inside the jail, by live video feed. Others in the movie have been transferred to other jails. (County officials would not disclose the charges against the inmates.)
“This is history in the making,” Mr. Clark said, looking around at the audience. Sporting a leather jacket and Yankees cap, he said he was now working, writing poetry and taking technology classes. Mr. DeMicheli said that he was not interested in pursuing film— he is doing drywall construction — but said he enjoyed the experience. “I just hope from the movie people just get a better understanding of who we are.”
County Executive Andrew J. Spano and other county officials also came to see the film, as did teachers and staff members from the jail. Mr. Spano said that the county was committed to education inside the jail and that the jail had the highest high school equivalency pass rate of any county jail in the state. He also said that the film program would continue.
Stephen Apkon, the executive director of the film center, emphasized that the film project was not “an extra” but a vital part of learning.
“The bar between the have and the have-nots has always been about literacy,” he said.
“Judgement” ends with a cameo from each inmate, explaining a little about himself. Jeffrey Lightfoot talks about wanting to be a physical therapist.
Nico Perry discusses his love of astronomy. “I’m probably not all that different from you,” he says.
And after Rory Rohan finishes his clip, he takes off his orange top and tosses it at the camera. “One more thing,” he says. “Don’t judge me by this.”