By Katie Walsh
Often documentaries and other nonfiction works become so much more than just films — they become causes, crusades, a life’s work. In many ways, this is the case with The Mind of Mark DeFriest, a documentary that filmmaker Gabriel London has been working on for almost 14 years. Chronicling one man’s inexplicable odyssey through the labyrinthine Florida prison system, it captures so many of the issues surrounding incarceration in this country, from solitary confinement to intra-prisoner violence, as well as the mind-boggling extensions of his own sentence.
The film is creative and compelling in its storytelling, using animation from Thought Cafe to bring to life the wild exploits, violence and fantasies that Mark DeFriest has experienced in prison, including his numerous, sometimes successful escape attempts. It’s a raw, honest and utterly haunting feature, one that this very site named among the five best documentaries of the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival.
London’s activism goes beyond creating the film — he’s been using the screenings to bring awareness and marshal audiences to make their voices heard about DeFriest’s ordeal. Using paper ballots distributed at screenings, audiences have voted on whether or not the man should be paroled, resulting in overwhelming support for the prisoner. With all of the media attention and grassroots activism focused on the case, the Florida parole board decided to reduce his sentence by 70 years, and he is scheduled to be released from Florida custody in January.
London is launching phase two of his “Court of Public Opinion Tour” in California this fall to address the legal issues that the prisoner faces in that state. As he tells us in a statement:
Mark went through the California prison system in the early 2000s and was caught with a joint and a handcuff key on two occasions and given two sentences of two years each. Four years for ‘prison contraband,’ and the judges set the sentences to be served consecutively not concurrently to his Florida time. Audiences will be asked to vote on whether they think DeFriest should go free or be forced to serve additional time in California. Their votes will be sent to Governor Brown, who has the ultimate power to reject the California ‘detainer’ and grant DeFriest the chance to initiate his Florida-approved parole out of state.
It’s the last battle to be fought for this man’s freedom, and London’s not giving up.
It’s so much more than the film now, but the film is the focal point that argues for mercy and rationality within this unjust system and byzantine set of rules this man has been subject to. It gives him a platform to express his voice and experiences in one of Florida’s most notorious prison systems.
London has released a cheeky (quite literally) new teaser for the film, riffing on the movie Steve Jobs currently in theaters. It showcases a bit of Defriest’s quirky personality and his wacky resourceful genius. We’ve got the exclusive, so check it out below.
The Mind of Mark Defriest will be screening in Los Angeles, Pomona and Northern California throughout November. On November 5th, the film will have an International Documentary Association screening in L.A. with London in appearance at the Landmark Theater (details and RSVP link here). For other screenings and release dates, check out the official website, where you can also rent or buy the film.