One Dozen Questions with Marc Levin, Producer of the new documentary, “Rikers”
"There is no production value greater
than the human face." Bill Moyers
One Dozen Questions with Marc Levin,
Producer of the new documentary,
It's a brisk autumn day and I'm standing in front of the SVA Theater on 23rd Street in Manhattan, looking at hundreds of people lining up for the DOC NYC Festival. Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin have invited me, a second time, to come see the world premier of their new documentary "Rikers". The first invitation was a private screening of the film in their offices, about a month earlier, but I had a previous engagement and couldn't make it. I met Marc with a big smile and a warm hug and asked him if he would step aside from the theater after the screening, so I could drop some questions on him for the Tribes website- he obliged without hesitation.
Marc Levin has won awards for his film and TV work that range from the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, to the Camera D'Or at Cannes, to the Cine Golden Eagle Award, to Emmy Awards and at least one NAACP Image Award. After the screening he said let’s walk around the block and talk. I knew that I'd have to be fast, focused, and quick with my questions because as long as I've known Marc, he says something once and once something’s said, it’s full steam ahead with the next artistic, philosophical, or political thought. So… here we go!
What was the inspiration for making the film "Rikers" and why is important, at this time, for people to see it?
Bill Moyers called me and said 'Marc I have a project only you can do, let's get together.' I've known Bill for over forty years and when he tells me he's got an idea that only I can do, I listen. We worked on the "Close to Home" series on addiction and one episode was called "Portrait of Addiction" featuring talking heads intercut as they recounted their battles and ultimate recovery from addiction. The show got a great response so Bill said he wanted to do the same kind of treatment, with the film Rikers. The jail is a stone's throw away and Bill was very serious about the idea of showing just the incarcerated. No experts, no politicians, no guards, just the voices of the incarcerated. I was intrigued by the approach and having done quite a few movies on people behind bars I wondered if it would work. We had passionate discussions about going to Rikers to get corrections officers to talk, to get staff to talk, families, and Bill said "no". He had a line stuck with me, "there's no production value greater than the human face." That's where the idea came from and that was the challenge we were put to. In our research we saw that Vice had a piece about Obama visiting a federal prison and it was a good story, but right after seeing it, Rolake Bamgbose ("Rikers" Producer) and I had the same reaction. We felt that the Vice show tried to tell everything and while it was good and necessary, it just wasn't satisfying regarding the humanity of what we're talking about. That's when Rolake and I said Bill is onto something. Because Vice and the documentary "13th" showed the history and current situation regarding incarceration, it actually made it easier for us to tell the story in the way we set out to. But they didn't have the faces and human beings who have lived through it, so our feeling was now maybe will be able to appreciate just hearing from people who lived it.
Talk about any roadblocks that appeared as you were shooting and putting the film together. If there were no roadblocks to mention, what were some of the factors that made it easy to make this film?
We still tried to get into Rikers Island Jail as a fallback but we were put in a long line and because it is so tough to get in, as media) we knew we needed to open up our approach. We had done the film "SLAM" in a Washington DC jail, our piece "Thug Life" won an Emmy, and we spent over a year in Cook County Jail for "Chicagoland" so we had spent a lot of time in jails. In light of that, we didn't feel the need to have to go into Rikers to make this film. I had been to Rikers Island Jail as early as 1978 and was there again in 1997 when we put "SLAM" together because we thought Bonz Malone was going to be the lead in "SLAM" and we thought we'd shoot him in Rikers. He had gotten arrested and I went out on the Q100 bus like most family and friends do and met Bonz in the visiting room. We discussed "SLAM" and what we needed to do now that he was in jail, how it affected our production. It was a tough conversation and Bonz was great about not being the lead and told us to go with Saul Williams, which we did. But he made it clear "I still ‘wanna be in it!" Bonz unveiled a character named "Hoffa", as the gang leader protecting Saul's character, and we loved it and went with it in the film.
What did you do to get the subjects of the film to speak so freely?
One of the biggest challenges was to find people willing to speak honestly about their experiences at Rikers Island Jail and another was that we wanted to get a certain mix of age, race, gender, and background. Rolake pre interviewed near 100 people for the film. We then did twenty or so interviews together to get it down to the final twelve people. I was honest in the interviews and they were honest with me back. There is no doubt their honesty and experiences and their articulations made the film. All the characters were able to transport themselves and we made a point of focusing the discussions and conversations as first person. "What did you actually see, smell, feel, remember?" So that took them deeper into their own experience and it was powerful. Some of interviews went into prison experiences and into court experiences and into family experiences but Bill demanded we keep the content on their first person experiences in Rikers only. We left a lot on the cutting room floor and mostly they were anecdotes about family life, past criminal and life stories, but we needed to keep Rikers as the subject and the symbol and not dilute it with any other stories.
Have you seen "13th" and/or read the New Jim Crow and if so, how did they influence your approach to "Rikers"?
I got "The New Jim Crow" in its manuscript form a year or two before it came out and in opinion it’s is a classic, definitely. "13th" is the illustrated version of "The New Jim Crow" and they didn't really influence our approach because we focused on one specific: putting the human face on the word "criminal". It's a loaded word. And you have to understand that people are sent to Rikers have been accused but not been convicted of a crime yet. The underlying message is "keep us safe". Well you see this film it's the exact opposite; it's a university for crime and the worst environment you can put someone in. If you stay there days, months, years… you come out worse and it is in no way making a safer world. We don't have to look to Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib as Rikers Island Jail is only a few miles from the greatest city in the world and it is failing in it's mission to make us or anyone safe.
What is the key takeaway you'd like people to leave with after seeing the film?
The key takeaway is putting the human face on the word "criminal". It's a loaded word. Rikers Island Jail is like a penal colony island and is out of sight and out of mind even though it's close. It is a stone's throw from Manhattan and human beings are there and our goal is to put human faces on people who, most of whom, haven't even been convicted yet.
If the film is to inspire any action from its viewers, what is that action?
If it's going to inspire any action… there is a movement to close or alter Rikers Island Jail and we've shown the film to people on the commission that is issuing a report on the jail this spring. We hope the film informs the commission. Also there are advocacy groups working on closing the island, bail reform, reintegration into society, and the conditions of people who are getting stuck there, ala Kalief Browder.
What is your reaction to Trump being elected and what do you advise citizens to do if they are not satisfied with this result?
I was at the Javits Center on election night and that was difficult. The young people that worked so hard were devastated. They know their futures are at risk and are uncertain and they were shaken. I was shaken and I went back to the first time I voted and was involved in an election. It was 1972 and I was in the McGovern campaign showing the documentary "Millhouse: A White Comedy" across campuses to get people involved and raise money. I remember thinking the screening and the Watergate story would break things our way and Nixon is going to fall and of course Nixon won 49 states, so talk about being young and depressed. I was crushed. I brought that up to the young people in my office and told them 18 months later Nixonand Agnew were out of office. So we take a deep breath. The good thing about this is we get him out of New York City but now I'm doubting that because now he says he doesn't want to live in the White House. It's "Dr. Strangelove" for real and we've gone though the looking glass we're on the other side now. No retreat no surrender. I grew up and it was Johnson and Nixon and we were chanting "how many kids did you kill today". We watched the Kent State shootings and no one thought they'd turn guns on white middle class and they did. I had so much hatred and thought Nixon was the dark demon of the American spirit, turning his perversion of the white house into this cabal. Then came Carter, he was a respite, and then later Clinton was elected and he came to power and it was a strange feeling to like the power of the president. When Obama got elected, it showed the possibilities for America are indeed great and he's a leader that I respect, but now I've gone back to the default setting: "no retreat no surrender". That is where I was as a teenager and unfortunately that is where I am now. It's not a straight line forward and sometimes it's that kind of kick in the ass that makes the progressive side stronger. That doesn't lessen the fear of American fascism, because it is growing stronger. Like Trump, everyone thought Hitler was a buffoon and it 's a scary parallel. National level challenges are going to be greater. Ending the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and the waste of money and human potential makes no sense and is morally bankrupt and financially bankrupt. The movement that has been gaining momentum, and has crossed partisan lines, and that's powerful. If you go to the Rikers film website, rikersfilm.org, you'll see a section called 'act' showing you how to get involved and how to use the film as a conversation starter and create more movement.
Give us your take on the recent wins that cannabis has scored, both medicinal and recreational, and how that momentum may get slowed down by a Trump administration.
That was the bright spot in this election cycle and that is going to be one of the fault lines that has to be approved by our new attorney general, it's the tipping point. However it kills me that New York is so behind. We think of New York City as being the cutting edge in culture, politics and more, and yet if we enjoy relaxing on a Saturday night with a joint, we still have to cop from a dealer. We can't go to a dispensary. It's a disgrace. Cuomo is pathetic for not pushing harder, but for all my friends in California… I am very happy.
Might as well tell us what your favorite cannabis indulgence is on Saturday night, or on any night for that matter.
My favorite strain…? I am in the Sativa camp. I don't need the body relaxing of Indigo. I'm into the head trip but unfortunately in NYC we can't go into the stores like wines stores where you can discuss and test the strains and legally use all the different strains to figure out the strain you like best. For me it definitely is Sativa. The head is great for the work we do and it stimulates my mind in new ways with permutations and sensations. It is truly a medicine for the soul and mind.
Who can you point people to, to seek inspiration today? Basically who do you look up to that have guided your work and principles?
Bill Moyers. I met him when I was 23 years old in 1974 and i was a copyrighter for Channel 13. I wrote the press release for Moyers essay on Watergate. I traveled to Europe with Bill and I've known him as a mentor colleague and inspiration for my entire career. When I met Bill he came out of the LBJ administration and broke with the administration and he was a moderate liberal. I remember he called my dad a radical from Brooklyn back then. It is amazing to see Bill create such an unrivaled body of work in TV. I don't know anyone that will leave that kind of legacy on TV and what's more amazing is as he grew older he has grown more radical. From a moderate to a liberal to a progressive to a radical… that is truly an inspiration. And the way Bill works with people is incredible. He is always working with people on a human level. He does not abuse, humiliate, or let ego drive the work. He is open, collaborative, he listens, and his generosity of spirit and compassion is inspiring. Bill showed me you can be a man and a mensch and simply do good work. You don't have to be an asshole, player or killer. Trump is the personification of that and Moyers is the exact opposite. I can tell you he is the largest inspiration for me. I am fortunate to have connected with him on a personal and artistic level and on this film I had the opportunity to help him create a film with freedom and zen minimalism. It was an honor.
Your body of work is incredible, radical, and dynamic, what's next!?
Mark Benjamin and I have something big coming on December 4th and I can tell you that Mark is the driving spirit and came up with idea: "Ocean Warriors". It's a series that will take you to the front line of activists and journalists fighting to save the oceans. It's an action packed 6 hours and I can tell you in our screenings people have reacted with "wow!". In this series you see people doing something and you can see "what I can do" also. The ocean is our last frontier and law enforcement in nation states are ill equipped to enforce laws. In "Ocean Warriors" we see the oceans strip mined and overfished, we watch poaching vessels and epic chases for the number one poacher, and we do this while going through storms and ice fields.
We can't sit back and relax. We're in a fight and all the groups working cannot allow themselves to be separated. Black Lives Matters, LGBT, environmental groups… the challenge is to bring all the groups together and to keep fighting!
The official website for the film is http://www.RikersFilm.org. You can watch the film online at http://billmoyers.com/story/rikers-premieres-tonight. Also
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Galinsky is a contributing writer for Tribes and more on him at http://www.GalinskyPlace.com