Land of the Free: The battle of LA
by Giampietro Balia
- KARLOVY VARY 2017: The feature-length documentary debut by Danish filmmaker Camilla Magid spotlights the victims of an inadequate prison system trying to find redemption in South Central LA
What does it take to turn your life around in a society that allows little to no room for change? In her feature-length documentary debut, Land of the Free [+see also:
film profile], which is duking it out in the Documentary Competition of the 52nd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, award-winning Danish filmmaker Camilla Magid explores the depths of the economically depressed district of South Central LA and its disadvantaged inhabitants, subjugated by an uncaring and sweltering prison system, and oppressed by the devastating, ever-present threat of gang violence.
Brian Watts (42) has just been released from Soledad State Prison after serving 24 years of a 28-to-life sentence. He grew up in a dysfunctional family and learned from an early age to make poor choices. He has spent most of his life in jail and now has to learn everything from scratch. One of the first things he does is to open a Gmail account and create his digital identity, which is so crucial nowadays if you want to apply for a job and is a prerequisite for merely existing in today's automated society. Brian attends a community programme that aims to promote acceptance and forgiveness and, mentored by Pastor Swaringer, he has recurring meetings with a psychologist. Attending this programme are also Juan (18), an illegal immigrant from San Salvador on probation after being arrested for gang activity, and Gianni (seven), who is convinced that nobody loves him, not even his mother, Cezanne Lewis, with whom he has a very conflicting relationship after she has been arrested at the border for trying to smuggle 200 pounds of marijuana. All three characters are trying to find their place in a society that seems to have no use for them.
If one were to make a hasty judgement, one could say that the relationships between individuals, family, society and institutions are the sole focus of Magid’s critical dissection. But that's not all. Brian, Juan and Gianni have two things in common: they’ve all been victims of gang activity and raised by a single mother. “I don't look like her,” says Gianni, referring to his mother; “I look like my father” – a person he's never even seen. "You ready?" asked Juan's mother before hugging him and accompanying him to the border. "I love you. Take care of yourself. Walk and don't look back." The reconciliation between Brian and his mother, with whom he hasn't connected for the past 24 years, becomes a cardinal part of the documentary – and of Juan’s grievous process of building healthy relationships with the women in his life.
Over a span of two years, Brian, Juan and Gianni remind us that living in the free world doesn’t necessarily mean being free. Brian is still carrying around the burden of his past choices, Juan is in a country he can’t call home, and Gianni is confined to his house for fear that something might happen to him in the streets.
Produced by Danish outfit Final Cut for Real and Finland’s Tuffi Films, and handled internationally by Danish sales agent DR Sales, Land of the Free is a must-watch documentary that will surely find success as it continues its festival run and attract the interest of many international buyers.
Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.