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Here's How 'Lost for Life,' A Powerful New Documentary About Juvenile Murder, Came Together

Photo of Paula Bernstein By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire July 18, 2014 at 4:11PM

Indiewire recently spoke with Jonathan Mark Harris and Joshua Rofé about collaborating on the powerful new documentary "Lost for Life."
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"Lost for Life"
SnagFilms "Lost for Life"

In the United States, more than 2,500 individuals are serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes they committed when they were 17 years old or younger. A powerful new documentary, "Lost for Life," tells the stories of these individuals, their families and the families of the victims. The film is the result of writer-director-producer Joshua Rofé’s intensive efforts over four years. 

Beginning today, "Lost for Life" -- an official selection of five major U.S. Film Festivals, a ratings powerhouse for the BBC in the U.K., and a title coming to television in 57 countries (including Lifetime Movie Network in the U.S.) -- will be available in the U.S. on iTunes. The film is being distributed by SnagFilms, Indiewire's parent company. Produced by Ted Leonsis, Rick Allen, Mark Jonathan Harris, Peter Landesman and executive producers Scott Budnick and Ari Silber, "Lost for Life" highlights four stories of homicide and the resulting life sentences for the teenage offenders.

"I didn't have an agenda. I just wanted to cut to the heart of their experience."

Veteran documentary filmmaker Harris, who claimed Oscars for "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport" and "The Redwoods," collaborated with Rofé as a mentor on the project. In fact, the two worked so well together, they are now in production on their next documentary, "Swift Current," about the impact of sexual abuse.

"I would not have ended up with the film we ended up with if not for Mark pretty much showing me how to be a director," Rofé told Indiewire.

"Lost for Life"
SnagFilms A still from "Lost for Life."

Producer Ted Leonsis said, "I fell in love with Josh; his passion for this story and the innate tension I felt around 'could I forgive these children if they had slain my loved ones?' We talk about forgiveness and redemption often in society, but this film really called the question to me, and it dealt with such a big and sensitive and hidden issue as well: Why are we as a country so populated with so many children sentenced to life without parole? Who are they? Should they be released and forgiven? When? Why?"

Leonsis said the project is a "true example of 'Filmanthropy' --shining the light on a tough subject and activating discourse and change."

READ MORE: Watch Exclusive "Lost for Life" Trailer

Indiewire recently spoke with Harris and Rofé about how the project developed and how their collaboration led to the final product. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

How did you both become associated with this project and whose idea was it from the start?

Joshua Rofé: I guess the place to start is the beginning. It was October 10th, 2008. I was at a friend's birthday party here in Los Angeles, where I live, and her parents were in for the weekend from Panama City, Florida to be with her on her birthday. And her father's a judge in that town. He's been on the bench for over 30 years and I really spent most of the evening just talking to him and asking him about his career. And one of the last questions that I asked him was, 'What cases and trials have haunted you throughout the years?' And he told me about a fifteen-year-old girl who shot a cab driver in the back of the head, killing him, who he sentenced to life without parole. It was an automatic life without parole sentence because it was a first-degree murder conviction and he seemed conflicted and questioned whether or not it was the right thing to do, but he had no choice due to mandatory sentencing and then immediately didn't want to talk about it anymore.


I went home. I Googled this girl's name. Her name is Rebecca Falcon. I Googled her attorney. I reached out to her. I reached out to her attorney and I initially thought I was going to make a film about just her case, until her attorney told me that there are over 2,500 juveniles serving life without parole in the United States. We're the only country in the free world that utilizes this sentence. It's literally against international law. And that was it. I literally then Googled the words 'Credit Card' and then I got a handful of credit cards and set out to make the film, and went on like that for about two and a half years -- shot prisons all over the country, visiting the families of the incarcerated, families of the victims. I raised a chunk of money on Kickstarter (over $20,000).

Then I got the film to a place where I had about twenty minutes worth of what I would call an extended trailer. And through Peter Landesman, who was producing the film from the beginning, we reached out to Ted Leonsis (co-founder of SnagFilms) and then I met with Rick Allen (CEO of SnagFilms). You know, cut to -- Ted and Rick came on board. They said, 'We want to help you. We want to make this film.' It was amazing. I literally had twenty minutes of footage and had distribution before even having a cut of the film or an editor on board or anything.

"It is certainly an issue film, but it's an issue film by way of a character piece."

Had you made any films before that? What was your background? 
 

Joshua Rofé:  I made two no-budget and terrible narrative features when I was nineteen years old and when I was twenty two years old, and thank God they went nowhere. And it was one of those things where I was a crazy nineteen-year-old kid and I decided that I'm going to write it. I'm going to direct it. I'm going to act in it. I don't want to deal with anybody. I'm going to make a movie. And, actually, Reed Morano, who's an amazing DP and is working like crazy right now, reshot the second one of those for me. We made a movie with three people for, like, $500, essentially, and it sucked and it was nobody's fault but mine.

But what it did was... Look. I didn't go to college. I didn't go to film school. It gave me a tremendous amount of experience in this sort of three-and-half, four year period to learn, more than anything, just how to see something through to completion, regardless of what the outcome is.

And then I made a narrative short film in the jungle in Trinidad that a great producer named Alex Orlovsky produced and it was the first time filmmaking and transmitting an idea through the lens started to seem to make sense. And when I was in Trinidad, I met all these people in this village that we were shooting. That film is called the "The Smallest River in Almirante" and I just thought, these people are more interesting than anything that I can personally cook up. And so my heart and mind were open to documentary.

So then when I met that judge it just felt like, 'This is what I need to do. I need to make a documentary about this.' The 'this' became the issue of juvenile life without parole and these people who are met along the way, serving their sentence and whose lives have been affected by the sentence. Our editor, Jason Rosenfield, who's a great editor, won a few Emmys -- total veteran -- did an "American Undercover" series on HBO a few years ago -- we were in the editing room for a good seven months and we had so many characters and storylines and there was no real clear narrative thread and we were banging our heads against the wall and we were lost, frankly. We had gotten the cut to a point where things started to seem to make a little sense but we needed somebody who could come in with a fresh eye and help us assess what we had. And through a friend of Jason's, an editor called Kate Amend, who is Mark's editor, we got together with Mark and hit it off and he basically told us that we were closer than we thought we were to having the documentary be what it could be. Then the three of us just... We hammered away for about two months and we had the film.

Mark, when you came on board, what was your first perception of the project and what did you think you could bring to it?
 
Mark Jonathan Harris: Sure, I do certain amount of documentary consultation -- to just back up a little bit, I've been making films for a long time -- but I also I've taught at USC since 1983 in the School of Cinematic Arts. So I started, with a colleague, the documentary program there, so I've worked with a lot of young filmmakers over the years and I looked at Josh's film, what they cut, and I saw the potential of it. There were clearly problems in the cut but I was drawn to the material and I met with Josh and I felt the he was really open to suggestion. Josh had been working on the film for almost four years at that point. And it's not uncommon after that length of time to lose perspective or distance on what you have. So I agreed to come on with the understanding that I thought there was more shooting to be done and Rick agreed, if I came on, to increase the budget so that they could do some more shooting. And all three of us worked together to create the film. 


In the footage I saw, Josh really had the ability to draw people out and get them to talk. That was his great skill: being able to get people to talk so openly about their past and how they felt. That's really a talent that not a lot of people have. So, what I think I was able to help him do is to sort of organize the material in a way to tell the story in a more effective way. And we were able to work on it together in a way-- You know, film is a collaborative art and I've worked with a lot of young filmmakers. Sometimes filmmakers are open to hearing your suggestions. Sometimes they're not. We hit it off. I think there was mutual respect between all the people working on the film and that enabled us to work together.

"Lost for Life"
SnagFilms "Lost for Life"

The task was to make the film work. It wasn't about whose suggestion was better. It wasn't a question of ego, although all of us have egos. It was a task-orientated operation. How do we make this film work? And when you get into that kind of situation, it's very -- The film tells you whether it's working or not, and everyone is open, "Let’s try this. Okay, this works. No, it doesn't work." It's not a question of whose idea it is. It's a question of whether it works on screen or not. The proof is always right there on the screen.

 How difficult was it to convince some of the subjects of the film to participate?
 
Joshua Rofé:  Every single person that I reached out to thought that I was either going to be the reason their loved ones never got a second chance or that the memory of the murdered love one would be desecrated. That was the initial response across the board, on either side of the issue. And it was really a matter of just getting to know people. Was it difficult? Sure, it was difficult, but it was understandable. I was asking everybody to recall the thing that tore their family apart, that destroyed their lives and I was asking them to let me into their homes and look into the darkest path that the extended and friends in the neighborhood don't want to talk about. So, with time, I was able to gain the trust of everybody because they understood that I wasn't out to screw them over. I didn't have an agenda. I just wanted to cut to the heart of their experience, whatever that meant.
 
Mark Jonathan Harris: I think what interested me is that the film raised a question -- that's why I responded. The question was, 'Are you defined permanently by the worst mistake you've make in your life when you're a teenager? Is there a second chance? Is there chance for redemption after you've committed a terrible mistake, a heinous act?' And I thought that was a question Josh was exploring. What was so interesting to me is that there wasn't a simple answer. You look at the people in the film and it's up to the audience to decide whether or not you would give any of these people a second chance. Responses vary. We've shown this to audiences and some people say, "This person deserves a second chance. That person doesn't." And you have the reverse, people say, "No, get this person rehabilitated! I don't believe this other person is sorry for what he's done." It's very complicated and to me, that's one of the things that really interested me and drew me to this subject.  A lot of the films I've done are actually about issues like this. I've done a couple of films about the Holocaust. Is it possible to rebuild your life after experiencing a catastrophe or tragedy of that scale? And this is, on a personal level: After you've killed someone, is your life over? And, especially when you've done this so young?
 
So would you consider this an issue documentary or is that too simplistic a term?
 
Mark Jonathan Harris: It's about an important issue. A part of what the film was framed around at that time, when Josh making it, was the issue that was before the Supreme Court -- Is mandatory life imprisonment for juveniles constitutional? The Supreme Court found by a split decision that it was not. So now the issue goes back to the States and every state has to come to terms with that and there's a definite call for the possibility of parole, for examining the cases of many of these juveniles who did receive mandatory life for their offense.

Joshua Rofé:
 It is certainly an issue film, but it's an issue film by way of a character piece. You see the stories on the news, you flip through in your Facebook feed, your Twitter and you hear about these heinous crimes committed by these young people and you think, "Who are these monsters?" and then we're onto the next catastrophe that's being covered in the news. But this will give tremendous insight into who ends up in those new stories. By way of that, it raises all the questions that revolve around the issue of juvenile parole. How do we deliver justice when a teen commits a horrible crime? Do we believe in rehabilitation? Do we believe in forgiveness? Should a young person who murders be disposed of forever? What happened to them before they even got to that point? What kind of trauma have they suffered in their lives that lead them to that? The questions of brain science and brain chemistry come into play. So all of these things are raised by way of getting to know the very people who are serving these sentences.


Watch an exclusive clip from "Lost for Life" below:


This article is related to: SnagFilms, SnagFilms, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries, Joshua Rofé