Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega are documentary directors, producers and screenwriters whose work explores the intersections of institutional power, civil and human rights and political activism. Known for creating emotionally powerful films that brings attention to pressing political and social issues, their work has received the Writer’s Guild of America’s Best Documentary Screenplay Award, Independent Documentary Association’s Creative Achievement Award, Gotham Independent Film’s Best Documentary Award and seven Emmy nominations.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
KDDLV: In 2012, California amended its “Three Strikes” law — one of the harshest criminal sentencing policies in the country. The passage of Prop. 36 marked the first time in U.S. history that citizens voted to shorten sentences of those currently incarcerated.
Within days, the reintegration of thousands of “lifers” was underway. “The Return” examines this unprecedented reform through the eyes of those on the front lines — prisoners suddenly freed, families turned upside down, reentry providers helping navigate complex transitions and attorneys and judges wrestling with an untested law. At a moment of reckoning on mass incarceration, what can California’s experiment teach the nation?
W&H: What drew you to this story?
KDDLV: I’ve always been drawn to stories that can function at different altitudes — stories that have the capacity to explore intimate personal journeys as well as large systemic problems. A great deal of my work focuses on the injustices within the criminal justice system — in part because of my upbringing. My father was a civil rights and criminal defense attorney for much of my childhood and taught me early on that the system was profoundly racist, classist and in need of an overhaul.
Katie and I had been working on a series of shorts profiling nonviolent offenders serving life because of California’s Three Strikes Law when Prop. 36 — a sentencing reform bill amending the most draconian aspects of the law — passed. Upon its passage, I knew we had to make this film as it would allow us to dive deep into core issues that drive our work with a huge added element — the implementation of historic criminal justice reform. It was an honor that our characters let us into their lives and shared so much with us.
KG: I’ve been making horror stories about the American criminal justice system for 20 years. I was looking for the good news.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
KDDLV: I hope “The Return” will humanize the prison population for those who haven’t personally been exposed to the millions of people serving harsh and inhuman sentences in our country. My hope is that our audience will walk away with a better understanding of the massive barriers that face the formerly incarcerated. [I hope] that they will be compelled to support future reform legislation, and rethink how they personally, and we as a country, can help support returning citizens.
KG: I want the redemption narrative around people coming out of prison flipped on its head. Can we as a nation be redeemed? And how? And what can I do to help right this horrible wrong that we as a nation have perpetrated?
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
KG: Pushing to film when our subjects were at their most vulnerable, in the most pain and wanted us to fuck off. Making sure we were there to capture the story when we were most unwanted.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
KDDLV: A mix of grants, philanthropists and crowd-sourcing.
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
KG: That I have it easy — that I’ve arrived as a filmmaker and it is no longer a struggle.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
KG: [The best advice is] when you think your subject is finished talking, wait. The best things come in uncomfortable silences. [The worst advice is] you’ll never make it as an independent, so don’t bother trying.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
KDDLV: Be honest and be bold.
KG: Be a filmmakers’ filmmaker. Be a woman’s woman. Look out for those who have been neglected, oppressed and treated unequally and unjustly — not just in your work, but in your personal life.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
KDDLV: I love Jane Campion’s work. I still remember a close girlfriend sharing a VHS of “Angel at My Table” and “Sweetie” with me in the 90s. They rocked my world and have stayed with me for decades.
Campion [has an] ability to go deep into the psyche of her characters and gently lead the viewer into these stories that feel simultaneously and utterly real and other-worldly. Her works are always cinematically beautiful, yet emotionally raw and painful.