Dan Birman spent six years capturing the evolution and nuances of a case that is both depressingly common and refreshingly multifaceted. He met 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown after she murdered a man. Instead of a lost cause, he found a very bright young woman trapped in a juvenile justice system that leaves no room for redemption. His film Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Tuesday, March 1, 2011. Check your local listings.
What impact do you hope Cyntoia’s story will have?
My hope is that one person’s story, produced in depth and over time, will help to change our entire approach to juvenile justice. Cyntoia Brown received a life sentence with no room for the possibility that her history, youth, and bad circumstances, could be overcome. Indeed she has overcome them all within a few years – only now, her chance for freedom will come when it’s too late for her to be a productive member of society.
What led you to make Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story?
I was driven to make this film because I recognized my own knee-jerk reaction to her story. Initially Cyntoia, in concept, was not a sympathetic character because I thought her story was just so similar to the daily grind of news reading. Another youth becomes violent through drugs and prostitution. Then I heard my own voice ignoring the obvious flaw in my thinking – a 16-year-old girl facing murder charges. There had to be more to the story. Then I met Cyntoia; there was no question, this film had to be made. It could not be made through traditional means though. I needed to spend whatever time it would take to go to the heart of her story to answer a very basic question: “Why did this happen?”
What were some of the challenges you faced in making the film?
There were big challenges along the way. First was access. I am an L.A. producer entering a southern story. Her family did not know me, I had to gain the trust of the juvenile justice system, the county jail, do this all from 2,000 miles away, commit the time and my own funds to make it all happen.
How did you gain the trust of Cyntoia, her family, and law enforcement personnel?
It took some convincing to get the family to allow me in. Their plate was full. Now they had to figure out what it would mean to have a documentarian at their doorsteps.
Access to the juvenile justice system was an issue: the Sheriff’s office, the judge, and even more, being able to bring a camera into the courtroom – this was the first time in this juvenile court’s history. The county Sheriff agreed to allow me access to the prisoner if I promised to answer the question, “Why?”
Cyntoia had to be okay with being challenged on camera, in every aspect of her life. I made only one promise – that I would ask intelligent questions and look for the buried issues so that we might shed light on youth violence. By doing so, she would have a purpose – to help prevent others from going down the same path.
What would you have liked to include in the film that didn’t make the cut?
Unfortunately, I was unable to include Cyntoia’s adoptive father into this story. He was not interested in participating, and I do think the audience will want to know more about their relationship.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
I interviewed Cyntoia following an emotional breakdown during which she cut off much of her hair and shaved her eyebrows. The interview seemed difficult during the process, so I put those tapes away thinking it was a bust. Two years later I looked at those tapes and realized that I had gained Cyntoia’s insight into what really happened. Upon reflection, my own difficulty with the material caused me to miss just how important this was. Her epiphany is profound as it is the most important piece of the story about her relationship to abusive men.
What has the audience response been so far? Have you gotten feedback from anyone who appears in the film?
It’s amazing to me that everyone finds something that resonates. Viewers all comment on my access and just how much depth we were able to include. It’s unusual in this regard and because I was careful with the content, people on both sides of the story see its great value.
The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?
My motivation to continue for nearly six years was my stubborn insistence that we would be able to present this story to an audience and that they would get it. I considered several networks but ultimately chose the PBS route because I knew that the story would be heard for what it is and not be subjected to the genre du jour needs that occur with cable networks.
Why did you choose public television?
The project is derived from more than 130 hours of footage, collected over six years. There is a wealth of material within that ranges from the very serious to the amusing. My greatest moments occurred when Cyntoia – a youth with a 7th-grade education and a 140+ IQ, was able to anticipate and respond in complete ways. As a result, her statements were often humorous but always loaded with insight.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Many things took a backseat while I made this film. I sacrificed vacations, down time, and significant personal resources in order to make it all possible.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
My advice to aspiring filmmakers is to follow your passion but to keep a keen eye on the marketplace. It is a big challenge to make independent films, and anything but lucrative. Do this when you have something important to say, not just because you can.
There’s no craft services on an indie production. What’s your fuel?
The best production food includes navel oranges, almonds, Fuji apples, multi-grain crackers, and extra sharp cheddar cheese.