Luther enters the court room in the documentary Control, which chronicles his experiences with the criminal justice system. (Control)
Control is a feature-length documentary that tells the story of Luther, an African American teenager whose life has been caught in the web of the criminal justice system. Co-directors Chris Bravo, an independent filmmaker, and Lindsey Schneider, who works for Vice, investigate how the system of mass incarceration affects the court system, high schools and the living rooms where families confront it on a daily basis. A three-year-long project, Bravo and Schneider followed Luther, affectionately known as Mouse, as he deals with a felonious second-degree assault charge, which he received by simply being outside of his building. Yet, Control is not primarily a story about guilt or innocence, crime or punishment, but rather about how the ongoing presence of the justice system in this community infuses every aspect of daily life. I sat down with Chris Bravo and Lindsey Schneider in Union Square Park recently to discuss their film, which recently won the Best Documentary award at The People’s Film Festival in New York City and which has been screened at the Oakland International Film Festival, the Landlocked Film Festival and many other venues.
How did this project begin?
Bravo: We were working with a group here in Manhattan called Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities. We got involved in some of the activism of keeping people with diagnosed mental illness out of solitary. That was really an intense experience for us and really kind of rewarding.
Through our work with them, that’s how we met Mouse and his family. When we heard the story, it was so remarkable in certain respect. It was the opposite of the movie we thought we were going to make. Solitary confinement is just extreme incarceration; your entire existence is completely overwhelmed by the penal system. Mouse experiences a kind of incarceration that is much more invisible and subtle. But we sort of realized the way Mouse experiences incarceration is the way millions and millions of people in this country experience it. We wanted to show that it’s not “low level,” that it’s actually very destructive. The challenge of the film is to take something small and something nondramatic, invisible, and to point at it.
Schneider: We followed him throughout the entire court trial, which took about two years. Control is kind of like a coming of age and family story. It’s about the impact of incarceration and the criminal justice system on everyday people.
Is this the first film you two directed together?
Schneider: Chris and I met many years ago working on an online magazine. After that, we started on our own web project, Silence Opens Doors, which was a multimedia investigation of silence and noise indicators of certain cultural and political situations. We got really interested and started to investigate the silence in the prison system, which lead us into the solitary confinement project. We made a bunch of movies for that. Eventually that morphed into Control.
How did you guys collaborate with Luther and his family during his ordeal with the court system?
Bravo: I admire things like Theater of the Oppressed. Don’t make movies about people; make movies with them. Don’t make books about somebody; write books with them. We tried some things involving Mouse and a self-documentation process. We tried to do that, and also to not shy away from our own experiences and the kind of resources we bring to the table as filmmakers, [but instead] to use those tools as a platform to allow Mouse and his brothers and sisters and family to speak their own stories. It wasn’t a question to not engage them in the filmmaking. I hope we succeeded to a certain extent in not making film about Mouse and his family, but rather making film a real platform to allow them to have a voice and get it out there.
Where did the name Control come from?
Schneider: Very early on in the process we settled on that title as a working title and it always stuck. Nothing else perfectly fit the ideas that we wanted to express, the things we were seeing, and the different relationships between the criminal justice, Mouse, foster care and the family history of drug addiction. The only way we can wrap all that up in one idea [is to say]: It’s all about control; It’s about state control, individual control and family control. It’s about those different power system, and where things end up. Now that it’s over, I think for me it also reflects how Mouse, through his criminal trial, is trying to take control over it. And in the last scene we see him trying to take control in a different situation when he’s in the Marines.
Bravo: While we were working on the movie, we made a small short film about Riker’s Island called The Island is Ridiculous. It’s about the history of Rikers, which is very fascinating. It’s an artificial island. They started dumping all the city trash in middle of the East River to build it up. So we were screening that film at the Anthology Film Center. After, someone raised their hand. “Did the people you worked with on these movies, do they think it’s odd that you identify as a person of privilege, and are coming into communities of color and talking about incarceration?” I’m actually Hispanic, but she labeled me as white. I thought it was kind of an interesting question. I never really thought about it like that. Part of a reason is that we sort of think about incarceration being a focused phenomenon that only affects a certain group of people. In a certain respect this is 100 percent true; this is a segregationist, apartheid mechanism. What control means to me is the ways that the state is involved in your life and is really deployed throughout society, which is subtle. People with greater privilege also think about issues of state regulation, Edward Snowden, the NSA and email hacking. Communities of color are interested in incarceration, policing and Stop and Frisk. I think it’s good to show that those things are not different.
How did you guys secretly film the scenes in the court room?
Bravo: When we were making this movie, there was an opportunity to get permission from the courts to bring cameras in. But automatically, once you are doing that, in certain respect you are imaging the system from the perspective of the state. You are a sanctioned state body, and taking pictures of the situation is going to look a certain way. We wanted to image the court system not from the state perspective but from Mouse’s perspective. The only way to do that is to do it in a sneaky sort of illegal way. Court security is not going to confiscate everything. There is certain amount of leeway. They warn you against it, but we went in stealthily with the camera, pretending to play Candy Crush and taking images in the court room.
How does the military-industrial-complex and the prison-industrial-complex tie together in your movie?
Schneider: Can I start from the family’s perspective? Not to speak for them, [but] this was what they were telling us the whole time. The second that we met Mouse, the whole plan for him was to join the Marines. They really wanted him to go to the Marines. I think Mouse wanted to go to college first, but the whole rationale around it was to just get him out of the Bronx. He has to get out of the Bronx. He’s got to get to a safe place, which is kind of ironic that it happens to be to the military. For me, it’s very jarring to see the military as a safe space. I think it speaks to how they think about the Bronx and their own community, how incredibly insecure they feel in their communities, with the lack of options, the complete lack of opportunity for him to safely determine his life in any other way or shape or form.
Bravo: Seeing him in the Marines, it was clear that he relished the opportunity to have people respect and trust him as a fully formed human individual. So it’s one of those things — it’s great to self-actualize and kind of depressing. It’s horrifying to have that sort of relationship to your home be negative, where your home is something you need to leave.
What struck me about those scenes as an activist is how those scenes totally unveiled the hypocrisy of the entire situation, hypocrisy of the policing institution and the incarceration system. The first thing that I saw was Mouse pulling weapons out of his bunk.
You trust this kid now with guns; you trust him to learn; you trust him to be individual; you trust him to make the right decision. You trust him with your life. But in another situation, [back in the Bronx] you are so hell-bent on undermining all of that that you will kill him. It was sort of shocking and jarring — more for me then for him. He pulls the gun out of his bunk, I was like Mouse, “Is it weird to carry weapons around, because you know, if you had that gun in the Bronx, that would be open season for you?” And he tried to played it off. He tried to be cool. He was like, “It’s no big deal.”
What do you intend to do with this project, and what do you want people to get from it?
Bravo: We are screening it at a bunch of festival. The People’s Film Festival here in New York was really great. The Allied Media Conference in Detroit was an amazing screening. We started doing a lot of community-based screenings with the film too. We are doing partnerships with people who are service providers, particularly the Department of Probation here in New York, which has amazing people. We invited the deputy commissioner of the Department of Probation to speak on a panel with the film at the People’s Film Festival. We also distributed 50 or 40 copies of film to the Young Man’s Initiatives, which are support groups for young people who are in the probation system.
So we are really at this point looking to expand those opportunities. Looking at how documentaries are distributed, we realized that we were going to miss our audiences that way. Even if we got the film into good festivals, even if we got some sort of independent distribution, we were unsure if that would get [the film] to people who we would be psyched about seeing it.
So we’ve got to figure out ways to get the film in alternative spaces. One of our goals is to build a website where people can go and watch it.