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Why Shocking ‘Kids For Cash’ Is the Best Oscar Doc Contender You Haven’t Seen

Why Shocking 'Kids For Cash' Is the Best Oscar Doc Contender You Haven't Seen

A true-crime document that examines a 2008 judicial kickback scandal from all sides, “Kids for Cash” will scare the wits out of anyone worried about how institutional neglect is affecting our kids.

“It’s one of those stories that keeps on giving,” said director Robert May of this bizarre and many-layered tale of lives affected by a once-celebrated judge whose zero-tolerance policy for juvenile crime precipitated over 3,000 child incarcerations paid for by the incarceration centers themselves. The scandal, though dating back to 2007, made international news in 2009 when a federal investigation in Luzerne County revealed that judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan were accepting nearly $3 million in bribes from Robert Mericle, the millionaire developer of two private juvenile detention facilities.

None of these incarcerated — and eventually freed — young people came out the people they were before. May and his producing partner Lauren Timmons turned up over 600 hours of footage including exclusive and extensive interviews with many of the “kids for cash,” five of whom are the long-suffering subjects of this documentary. One kid, Charlie, did five years for riding a scooter he didn’t know was stolen; another, Hillary, landed in juvenile detention for creating a satirical MySpace page; Ed, a college-bound senior, ultimately killed himself, leading to a shocking confrontation between his mother and Judge Ciavarella on the footsteps of a courthouse.

But May and Timmons wanted more than these candid testimonies. “We decided we weren’t going to make this movie without access to the judges, the villains,” May told me. “Otherwise this would be one of those documentaries that no one would see, they would think it might be important but they wouldn’t see it. It would be a ‘poor kid,’ ‘poor family’ story.”

Behind walls of secrecy and through reams of nondisclosure forms, May and Timmons obtained exclusive interviews with the two judges while they were still in the middle of federal prosecution. Crew members were in the dark about this, as were the co-conspirators’ attorneys, who May said “found out about it the day the trailer hit theaters in January” 2014.

May and editor Poppy Das nimbly whittled their footage down to a tight real-life thriller under two hours. Opened in early 2014 to rave reviews by SenArt Films, “Kids for Cash” (now on VOD) is a compelling indictment of a society that allowed such high-level corruption to happen. So why aren’t more people talking about it? May considers that question, and more, in our insightful interview below:

Ryan Lattanzio: Why do you think this story has been neglected?

Robert May: When the scandal came out in February 2009, it made international news. It was “Kids for Cash: Judge sells children for money” kind of story and that was bizarre, and it had its news cycle. That’s six years ago almost. People took notice of it at the time, it was on the front page of The New York Times twice, The Guardian, all the major networks had something about it. But that was it, primarily because it’s one of those awful stories about greed and children and it happened in a small town, like a Stepford town. And yet the bigger story, which we think we’ve come upon, is beyond the greed, that this guy ran on a platform of locking kids up, people elected him for two ten-year terms and applauded him. Everyone was fine with it until they found out money was involved. Our research shows that the kinds of things that happened there are happening all around the country. We screened the film everywhere. It was part of the news cycle, and it passed, and it was over with. That was a long time ago.

There’s also a lot of fear when stories involve both children and money. Media outlets handle these scandals so delicately that they become sanded down.

That’s true, and no one wants to feel that things that happen there are happening in their own community. Audiences that see this film are never the same again and yet I’m sure there are audiences who, “Do I really want to see this? I have enough problems in my life.” We’ve even had judges and prosecutors and even people from the government because we’ve screened os many times on Capitol Hill, and we have people weeping in the audience when the lights come up. Perhaps it’s that they never saw it from the kids’ point-of-view. The film has an indelible mark on them, so I’m told, in a couple ways: one is the way it treats kids, and the other is it makes people feel really uncomfortable because about half the audience that sees the movie has some level of empathy for the judge when it comes to how this happened. But the other half of the audience wonders what that other half was watching, because they don’t have any empathy at all. Nobody likes to feel uncomfortable. In fact, we like documentaries that preach, preach, preach to the choir. “I already know this is a bad thing so I’m going to see a movie that leaves me convinced how bad it is.” We tried to put it out there as it is, and let you decide how this could happen.

You were working from 600 hours of footage. Once you had everything you needed, how did you break it down to a movie that’s under two hours?

We broke every character down individually and created an arc for every character, not knowing how they’d be used. We looked at what every character was saying and then, with transcripts for every single interview, figure out what the story was. Eventually we realized this is a struggle between good and evil but in a much bigger way than we thought, between greed and power, between power and the powerless, and it involved kids. We felt that it’s a story between judgment and kids, and it just so happens to be that the judgment was delivered by judges. It’s really a judgment of society. It takes society to allow these things to happen. It takes a society to be complicit and complacent in zero tolerance policies, and to celebrate Ciavarella’s zero tolerance policies just enabled him to do what he was doing. Until they found out money was involved. Then they wondered, what are you doing to this kids anyway? No one cared before. Once we started realizing– we were screening pieces of the film to audiences through a MacArthur Grant around the country where people signed confidentiality agreements because we didn’t want people to know the judges were in the movie. 

How did you convince the judges to allow you to film them?

It was simpler than most people would image. We decided weren’t going to make this movie without access to the judges, the villains. Otherwise this would be one of those documentaries that no one would see, they would think it might be important but they wouldn’t see it. It would be a poor kid, poor family story. We thought that wasn’t complex. We wanted to understand what happened from both [sides], a more Dickensian kind of story. To be able to tell the story from the villain and the victim’s point of views. I was going to try to reach the judges but had no idea how, there was no way they would agree to talk to me. Why would they? They’re going through a federal prosecution. I was able to get to Judge Ciavarella first, saying that we wanted to tell the story from both sides. “You sold children for cash, there must be some other side,” and that was the magic word for him. No one ever said that quite to him. He said “I will do it on one condition: that I don’t tell my attorney.” You’re a lawyer, you’re a judge. And the same was true with the other judge.

Were there legal hurdles involved in getting the judges on camera, since at that time they were still being prosecuted?

We had to create an extensive amount of walls and secrecy around the project because we didn’t want to become part of the story. We didn’t want to be dragged into the federal prosecution, which could’ve been dangerous. We just made sure we had all sorts of processes in place to make sure that wouldn’t happen and for three-and-a-half years no one knew we were interviewing them. And, in fact, their lawyers found out about it the day the trailer hit theaters in January.

How much did your crew know about what you were actually doing?

The actual camera crew and sound crew knew what was going on but our research team, only one person knew we were interviewing them and then all the other folks involved didn’t know. We set up shop on campus in Luzerne County so that we could be really close to the action, and we brought in our editors from Los Angeles and New York and we put them up there for a year and the only thing that the campus knew was that we were making a movie about the scandal. We used common sense in the way we set up interviews. we made sure they were in places where everyone wouldn’t know what we were doing, and we had everyone sign confidentiality agreements. At the end of the day, it was based on the honor of the people involved. Even the research we did, it shocks me that no one violated the agreement everyone signed. It gave me hope. No one breathed a word about it.

How did you establish a comfortable rapport with the kids to achieve such candid testimonies?

We contacted the Juvenile Law Center, who knew who the kids were. We said, we wanted to make this movie. They were very protective but understanding what we wanted to do, they basically contacted the kids and said, “Do you want to talk to us?” We talked on the phone but did no preliminary interviews. [We asked] “Are you willing to go through this with us?” We wanted to be able to tell the story and hear the responses the same way the audience would. For example, Amanda, who’s in the movie, all we were told about her was she had never really talked about this to anybody and that it might be a waste of time to come here and film. She got into a fight in school and somehow ended up in the system for four years.

She agreed to talk with us out of the novelty that we were making a movie. We sit her down and start talking with her, and through our interview process– which is long and thought-out, over multiple days and months and in this case years — we got her talking very conversationally about her early memories leading up to what we wanted to ask her. She just started spewing what happened to her and her father was in the next room and he had never heard the story himself about what she felt. After three and a half years of filming, after the last interview she said, “I’ve got to tell you that around the time that you were going to make this movie. I was literally thinking about killing myself. These last few years have helped me move on.” That’s pretty darn remarkable. We’re just making a movie; this is her life.

We had to screen for the kids and families before we brought it into the public and they were all tough screenings. That’s when we had to say, “Guess what? We’re telling the story from both the villain and the victims’ sides. You’re going to see your villain in this movie.” That was hard for a lot of the kids at first because they’re like, “Whoa, we trusted you all these years and you mean that you were also talking to the people we hate?” But they all support the movie. People are vilified right and left and it’s about moving forward. At the end of the day that’s what’s happened with these kids and families

Was anyone not happy with how the film turned? Aside from the judges, of course, who are still in prison.

No. The judges haven’t seen the movie because the penal system does not allow them to see or even benefit psychologically from the film. The kids and families have become part of my life, including the judge’s family. They beared their souls. When a documentary is done, either the filmmakers and the characters never speak to each other again or they’re connected forever because of the deeply personal stories. In my case, I’ll be deeply connected with the people who were in the film and the issue until the day I die.

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