The genesis of Gabriel London's new documentary, which premieres at the LA Film Festival this weekend, can be traced to his Pomona senior film project 14 years ago.
Written, produced and directed by London, The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest looks at the prison world through the lens of the parole case of Florida prisoner Mark DeFriest, a notorious escape artist with mental problems. The film brings London '00 full circle from an exploration of prison issues that started in college with a self-designed major, an open heart and an engaged mind.
From his first foray into the subject at Pomona through the upcoming premiere, "I've maintained the interdisciplinary curiosity that I gained as a student and allowed me to connect the dots of this complex story," says London.
During London's sophomore year he created a major, Theories of Human Behavior, which drew from English literature, psychology and political theory. Also in college, London volunteered at a group home for foster kids in Beaumont—and went on to create an on-campus program matching students from the Claremont Colleges with kids from the home. London's heart went with him on his visits, and seeing one of his favorite kids go from foster care to the juvenile detention system upset him.
Professor of Politics John Seery and London's film professor relative at UCLA suggested he look more deeply into prisons and the criminal justice system. London found his focus zeroing in on sexual assault in prison.
Early in 2000, armed with film gear and funded by a travel grant from Pomona, Gabriel London '00, Daniel May '00 and Eric Gross '02 traveled to Mendocino County, Calif., to meet with the head of Stop Prison Rape, a victim rights organization. The interviews they conducted there became his senior film project, Turned Out, which won the 5C college film award. Classmate Dave Roth '00 encouraged London to keep going with the story post-college—"I didn't forget that," London says—and so he stayed at it for 13 years.
His work carried on, evolving into two short films he created with Human Rights Watch (HRW): The Rodney Hulin Story and The Rules of the Game: Prison Rape in America. Those films, coupled with an HRW report, became ammunition, London says, to pass the Prison Rape Elimination Act, bipartisan legislation signed into law in 2003 by President George W. Bush.
Studying prisoner case histories led him to Mark DeFriest's story—one he found compelling and important to share as London pieced together his past. He was moved by the injustice of a mentally ill man being stuck in prison well past his expected parole release date, London says. Now London has moved viewers—the film was named a top 10 audience favorite at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
"Since his parole case is very much alive—both in the film and ongoing—my sense has always been that audience reaction to the film could end up helping to write a different ending for Mark's story," says London.