“I knew I wanted to make films about social justice issues,” says Mackenzie Robertson ’20 whose documentary film, Life Without Parole: The Sammy Gladden Story, was selected to debut at the 2020 Montclair Film Festival on Saturday, October 17. “Montclair State made that possible on a number of levels.”
Robertson’s film, with associate producer Alexa Spear ’19, was initiated during an independent study with School of Communication and Media faculty member Steve McCarthy, who gets executive producer credit. The documentary was inspired by a class with Justice Studies Associate Professor Tarika Daftary Kapur and features interviews with Justice Studies Professor Jessica Henry, a former New York City public defender.
The film is one of many selections for Virtual Cinema screenings by or about members of the Montclair State community being featured at the Montclair Film Festival this year. Also included are eight MSU New Visions Shorts – “visually compelling, emotionally powerful short films” created by the top student filmmakers in the Filmmaking BFA Program; Behind the Strings, a documentary following the Shanghai String Quartet, which makes its home at the John J. Cali School of Music; and Hungry to Learn, a documentary by Soledad O’Brien, who will be on a panel in the Storyteller series. It was shot in part on campus and tells the story of four college students facing hunger and homelessness.
The Montclair Film Festival opens on Friday, October 16, and includes star-studded films such as Nomadland with Frances McDormand, as well as celebrity-filled panels (Aaron Sorkin, Sienna Miller, Stephen Colbert). Rescheduled from May, festival events will either be held virtually or at a drive-in setting at the South Mountain Reservation in West Orange.
Regarding Life Without Parole, Robertson explains that she began work with McCarthy in fall 2019, and, together with fellow Montclarion staffer Spear, rushed to craft a submission for the Montclair Film Festival by the January 2020 deadline. “The last day [before deadline], we spent about 12 hours in SCM trying to finalize the first cut to make it somewhat presentable.”
Fortunately, Robertson was able to complete all shooting over spring break before going into COVID-19 lockdown. Post-production started in December and was completed from March through July.
Growing up, Robertson says, she was influenced by her father who worked in criminal justice. “I always heard stories about inmates, prisons, parole.” At Montclair State, Robertson, a Television and Digital Media major with a minor in Justice and Families, took a class in Juvenile Delinquency and Juvenile Justice with Kapur. “I found the best way to make films about social justice issues was to take courses. Dr. Kapur’s class was a huge inspiration for the film.”
The documentary’s subject, Sammy Gladden, was sentenced in 1994 after being involved in a drug deal at age 16 that resulted in a murder in Philadelphia’s notorious “Badlands” section. Although he had no gun and fired no shots, he was sentenced to life without parole. He was ultimately released in 2018.
“Everyone used him as a scapegoat,” says Robertson, who notes that the now much criticized federal Crime Bill was also signed into law in 1994. “I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that Sam was sentenced in this way at this time. Philadelphia has the highest amount of juvenile lifers in the country.”
Virtual screenings via the Montclair Film Festival are available in the U.S. only, from Saturday, October 17 to Sunday, October 25:
- Life Without Parole: The Sammy Gladden Story
- Hungry to Learn
- MSU New Visions Shorts
- Behind the Strings
The MSU New Visions Shorts, which feature eight short films with a total running time of 79 minutes, include the following:
- Corpus Delicti by Charlee Reiff: A multi-media self portrait reflecting on the way in which experience continues to endure through the personification of memory.
- Dirty Sound by Alex Monastersky: Jack Hoffman is a Foley artist who helps in creating innovative sound design for films of a more … mature nature.
- Disarray Days by Karl Ryan Erikson: A dejected man battles with a cruel universe while he inadvertently robs a store with an enigmatic hitchhiker.
- Ex Disposer by Daniel Ferrer: Andy, the destructively neurotic former drummer for New Jersey hardcore outfit Disposer, attempts to reunite with his bandmates.
- Faked by Evan Bradley: A young man experiments with Deep Fake technology upsetting his commitment to his new relationship.
- Starcade by Adam Derengowski: After 15 years of being on top, Derek loses his high score in Pac-Man and has to win it back from a mysterious opponent.
- Unfortunate by Justin O’Donnell: Two witches must find out if their local politician is a demon sent to sow destruction – or just a Republican.
- Utica Ave. by Leiloni Marie: A young, white-collar worker decides to pursue his dreams of becoming a rapper.
Story by Staff Writer Mary Barr Mann