“I used to calculate the years. Like, ‘Life–how long is that?'”
In 2012, California passed Prop. 36, effectively amending its harsh “Three Strikes” law. This was “the first voter initiative since the Civil War to reduce inmate sentences, and as a result, thousands of convicts who believed they might spend the rest of their lives in prison were reintegrated back into society.
Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega’s documentary The Return, which debuts at Tribeca on April 17, follows several men as they adjust and struggle with reentering society. “These guys are not as prepared as we would want them to be, ideally,” one official working behind the scenes to help with the reintegration understates at one point: the film finds the men and their families adapting and coming to terms with a future that didn’t seem possible.
The “Three Strikes” law was sold as a way to “keep murders, rapists, and child molesters behind bars, where they belong.” But today, per press materials for the film, “more than half of inmates sentenced under the law are serving sentences for nonviolent crimes.” These nonviolent criminals are the focus of The Return: Bilal Kevin Chatman, originally sentenced to a 150 years-to-life sentence for selling $200 worth of drugs to an undercover police officer and Kenneth Anderson, originally sentenced to life for purse snatching. They come out of prison finding the world a different place, and Galloway and de la Vega find subtle methods to illustrate this, such as when one of them men attempts to register for college classes and is mystified when he’s informed he has to do so online.
The Return is both honest and emotional in its focus: it neither makes excuses nor judges. Instead, the doc stands back and lets the narrative do the heavy lifting. It’s impossible to not feel emotional as these men who believed their lives as they knew them were over learn to reconnect with their estranged families. The Return also endeavors to portray how the system particularly plays hell with the lives of people with mental health problems. In one directorial flourish, the camera perches from a low angle as Kenneth Anderson works diligently at his minimum wage job, tearing apart a decrepit ceiling. As Anderson speaks of his continuing mental and emotional issues, the camera becomes fixed on the dark, gaping holes in the ceiling ominously hovering above him.
The Returns is a quiet, measured film. Galloway and de la Vega keep their doc both cinematic but un-showy, making strong use of sound design while also avoiding heavy-handedness. They’re telling a story here about people, about how they failed themselves and how the system failed them, and about the pains taken to make things right again — or at least as right as can be expected. There’s hope and redemption here; it’s not easily won, but it’s there all the same.