Filmmaker Jamie Meltzer, also the program director of the MFA program in Documentary Film at Stanford University, has made acclaimed films about a wide collection of topics, from song-poems to Nollywood (Nigerian) film to FBI informants, but each tells a very human and compelling story. And his new film, the Tribeca Special Jury Award-winning True Conviction, may be the most moving of them all.
The story of the unlikeliest of detective agencies, True Conviction captures the work of a small group of men in Texas each served a combined 60 years in prison for crimes they did not commit, before being ultimately freed. They then found their true callings: to help others who may be wrongly incarcerated find hope and freedom.
“True Conviction is powerful and devastating,” writes Aramide Tinubu in Shadow and Act. “It’s a film about the injustices in our judicial system and the lack of compassion that we have for one another.” Adds Meredith Alloway in Filmmaker Magazine, it is “a surprising and profound experience… The men are superbly charismatic, and their passion combined with the film’s depiction of jaw-dropping corruption within the Texas judicial system makes for a rousing piece of work.”
Jamie Meltzer spoke to us about how he found True Conviction‘s true story and how it required years of patience to get there.
Why did you make a film about these men’s story?
“I was immediately moved by their sense of brotherhood, their desire to make change, to turn their experience into something meaningful and impactful.”
In 2012, I got a tip from Michael May, a journalist friend in Texas, that a group of exonerated men in Dallas came together as part of a unique support group. He also told me that three of them were starting an investigation agency, a sort of grassroots Innocence Project, so I went down to Dallas and sat in on a group support session they were having. I was immediately moved by their sense of brotherhood, their desire to make change, to turn their experience into something meaningful and impactful.
Plus the idea of staffing an investigation team with men who had experienced wrongful convictions themselves, that was so unique. There have been a lot of great wrongful conviction stories in documentary film and on podcasts, it’s a genre unto itself, but this felt like a new take on it, focusing on the detective aspect of the story, incorporating film noir elements and unfolding the investigations in real time for the viewer.
Who do you hope your film impacts the most?
I didn’t set out to make a “message” film, but through the journey of the three protagonists the film hopefully gets at the heart of many issues plaguing our criminal justice system, and points at the reasons wrongful convictions happen. I hope the film grips people the way a great detective story does; but with the added bonus of enlightening the viewer about systemic flaws in the justice system.
Thematically – what struck me most is Chris, Johnnie, and Steven’s commitment to turn their personal tragedies into something powerful and transformative in the present. It’s a Sisyphean struggle– trying to overturn convictions (the cases they take on do not have DNA to test, so they are even more challenging), but we can all learn from the way they’ve found a purpose and doggedly stuck to it.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making True Conviction?
This is a film where we really had no idea what would happen or unfold in front of the cameras; the three subjects started an amateur detective agency, with no hard experience except for the fact that they’d been through wrongful convictions themselves. Even more than that, they only take on cases where there is no DNA evidence. So, to overturn a non-DNA case you need to have the perpetrator of the crime come forward and confess, or there has to be compelling new evidence that wasn’t presented in the initial trial.
Chris’s own case really motivates him, because there was no DNA evidence for him, he got out of prison only after someone came forward and confessed to the crime, which is rare but, obviously, it can happen. In the film, you actually see the guys trying to persuade someone to step forward and confess so an innocent man in prison can walk free.“I hope the film grips people the way a great detective story does; but with the added bonus of enlightening the viewer about systemic flaws in the justice system.”
So, the main challenge was just being patient with the process, these kinds of investigative cases take years to play out. In the meantime, I “found” the film – it wasn’t so much about the cases but more about the exonerees’ motivations and struggles, they each battle with time they lost behind bars, and the pain of it, it affects them profoundly, and also has a huge impact on their families.
How did you gain the trust of all the guys, of Chris, Johnnie and Steven ?
Gaining the subjects’ trust was really the most challenging part of the film. The film was shot over a five-year period, and I would say it took two to three years until the trust level was such that I felt like I was understanding who they were, what their struggles were, and also for them to understand how I approached filmmaking, and what my intentions were.
These guys had been through so much, and as a survival tactic it had never benefitted them to trust anyone, certainly not in prison; they’d been screwed over by the system in so many ways. But through putting in the time, just showing up and showing them that I was passionate about telling their story, I eventually gained their trust.
As a result, I think the film goes beyond the surface and clearly heroic aspects of what they do, and shows a more vulnerable, complex, and challenging side of their lives after exoneration.
Was there anything you especially liked but had to cut out of the final version?
I shot an incredibly compelling scene between Chris and the person who actually committed the crime he was sent to prison for… this man not only committed the crime but later came forward and confessed to it- so he was in the odd position of both sending Chris to prison and freeing him by confessing. The scene where they meet for the first time (in a prison setting) was very intense and emotional and it was my favorite scene for most of the editing process.
In the structure of the film, I had it at the very start, and then later as the climax, but it never felt exactly right within the film, even though on its own it was incredibly powerful. In the end, after getting many scenes with equal emotional power but that were more closely tied to the core themes of the film, I made the tough decision to cut this scene.
I’ve used the scene in promoting the film in work for NPR and the Guardian, so I’m glad it still got out there and people can find it online, and in fact it works really well as a scene on its own outside of the film, but it was definitely the scene that “got away.”
And what about a scene that is especially a favorite or made the most impact on you?
I don’t want to give away the ending of the film, but suffice to say that filming someone walking out of prison for the first time in almost 40 years, and spending time with them in those first few hours as a free person was the most unbelievable and exhilarating feeling. Those are the moments you live for as a documentary filmmaker.
Do you have any updates on the main characters in your film you can share with our audience?
The main news in my subjects’ lives is, unfortunately, very tragic. Johnnie Lindsey passed from liver cancer just two months ago. He was such an inspiring, soulful, and calming force and will be sorely missed, I’m so honored to have been able to film with him these last five years and to bring his story to a wide audience.
Meanwhile, Christopher Scott has been keeping on with the investigative work, with Steven, and they are taking on new cases and doing lots of advocacy work (including touring around to colleges and communities with the film).
What has been Christopher’s reaction to the film? And have you seen signs that the film could lead to more cases, and other exonerated and determined guys wanting to model after the House of Renewed Hope?
I showed the film to Chris and the guys a few months before our festival premiere at Tribeca. I rented a theater in Dallas and just sat with them as they absorbed five years worth of filming. I was very nervous as I had captured some very difficult moments for all of them.
But within a few moments, it was clear they were going to respond well – they laughed and cried and joked with one another as the film played; it was honestly one of the most satisfying moments in this process for me as a filmmaker. Now that we’ve traveled to festivals for almost a whole year, they’ve seen the film countless times, and I think it has served as a way for them to not only share their stories but to process a few of their stories as well.
What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?
Any films by the Maysles, but especially Grey Gardens. I love observational documentaries from the 1970’s – I always point people towards Seventeen, a film by Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines. I also love Iranian cinema: Close-Up by Kiarostami and Salaam Cinema by Makhmalbaf. They have a playful sense with documentary form, and also blur the lines between fact and fiction in a way that I find really compelling.
In True Conviction, there’s also a couple of sly visual references to The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris, a seminal documentary that also takes on wrongful convictions in Dallas.