Ismael Nazario spent more than two years at Rikers. Credit: Mark Benjamin
Ismael Nazario spent more than two years at Rikers. Credit: Mark Benjamin

In his latest documentary, Rikers, Marc Levin delves into one of the country’s most famous correctional facilities to put you face to face with those who faced time in one of the world most violent and notorious prisons.  The documentary features personal stories of former prisoners from the late 70’s to present day, who vividly describe their experiences of the torture of solidarity confinement, what it’s like living in a cage with criminals and being at the mercy of the hands of the correctional officers, as well as the kind of life you face if you’re fortunate enough to leave.The documentary features about 12 testimonials of former prisoners from Rikers Island and how the prison managed to bring out violence in them that they never knew they were capable of. We interviewed Marc on his journey to get the word out on those who couldn’t get out.

In a brief summary, could you tell us what the documentary is about?
Rikers is about the experience of being incarcerated at Rikers Island, NYC’s largest jail that holds about 7,500 people on any given day. We gave former detainees who have been incarcerated there – some for months, some for years – the opportunity to describe what they experienced, direct to camera.

What was your motivation for making a documentary about Rikers?
The film was an idea that Bill Moyers had, and he approached us with it. We’ve worked with Bill over decades, and he knew that we had a deep background making films about jails – where people are held awaiting trial – as well as prisons, where people are sent to serve their sentence. Like many of us, Bill had been reading the excellent investigative journalism about the abuses and corruption at Rikers Island, and it started him thinking that we really hadn’t heard directly from the people who have endured it. How long did this film take? Did you run into any roadblocks while making it? The film took about a year to make.

What was the most challenging part of getting the film made?
The biggest challenge was finding the right people to feature. We interviewed over 100 people and then narrowed it down to about a dozen who are in the documentary. The other major challenge was editing it into a composite narrative. We used very little B-roll or archival. As Bill Moyers said to us,“There is no production value greater than the human face.”

What do you want the audience to take away from RIKERS?
We have criminalized so many people that the word CRIMINAL has come to mean something subhuman and undeserving of any empathy or compassion. The people that you meet in Rikers are thoughtful, articulate, humble, spiritual human beings. They have families, and they have hope. Some were found guilty of the charges against them. Others endured Rikers and then they were cleared of the charges. None were spared the culture of violence that exists there. We need to think about that and what we want justice in New York, and in America, to look like. In a sentence or two tell our readers why they should see the film.  We’ve had a very powerful reaction from audiences already, and I think it will move people. There seems to be a growing understanding that our criminal justice system needs real reform. This film is not just about “them,” it’s about us, who we are. You don’t have to travel to Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib to see torture. You can just go a few miles from the heart of Manhattan. Remember what Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote over a hundred years ago, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

What did you learn while making Rikers and can you give tips to any prospective Documentary filmmakers?
Many of these characters had other compelling stories about their early lives, their time in prison, and their struggles reentering society. It was very difficult to leave them on the editing room floor. But we wanted to focus exclusively on their experiences on Rikers Island. It sounds rather straightforward to edit together the stories of a dozen people so they tell a collective story, while also each offering their own unique perspective. But finding the right rhythm, pace, and structure is a lot trickier than it appears. The editing room is where it all comes together

What’s next step for both you and the doc?
After premiering at the DOC NYC film festival on Saturday, November 12th , Rikers will be broadcast on THIRTEEN/WNET in New York on November 15th at 10pm and again on the 20th at 10pm. We are in discussion for national television distribution, but in the meantime, it will be streaming at RIKERSfilm.org starting with the broadcast premiere. Already many organizations are hosting screenings of the film, and we hope it will continue to be used for education and a catalyst for change.

Rikers had its world premiere at the DOC NYC 2016.

For more information click here.

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