The documentary TWO STRIKES premieres as part of PBS’s FRONTLINE on Tuesday, September 5, paired with TUTWILER.

Both films deal with incarceration. TUTWILER concerns women inmates who give birth in prison. TWO STRIKES examines Florida’s HB 1371, the Prisoner Releasee Reoffender Act, which was passed in May 1997. This dictates that anyone convicted of certain categories of crime who reoffends within three years is subject to life in prison without parole, even if this is only a second offense.

TWO STRIKES filmmaker Ursula Liang focuses on the case of Mark Jones, and the impact on both him and his wife Rose. Jones was convicted attempted carjacking. He grabbed an elderly woman by the arm in a Florida parking lot and demanded her car keys. She refused, and Jones walked away. He says he was so substance-impaired at the time that he has no memory of the incident. When Liang interviewed Jones for TWO STRIKES, he was twelve years into his life sentence.

As a journalist, Liang has written for The New York Times, ESPN The Magazine, and WBAI Radio’s ASIA PACIFIC FORUM. As a documentarian, her feature films include 9-MAN and the award-winning DOWN A DARK STAIRWELL.

Liang gets on Zoom to talk TWO STRIKES with Assignment X.

ASSIGNMENT X: How did you come to make TWO STRIKES?

URSULA LIANG: The film emerged from a fellowship that I’m part of, with FRONTLINE and Firelight Media, which is encouraging emerging filmmakers who are from the BIPOC community to do investigative, deeply reported stories. I pitched several ideas, and also was offered opportunities to collaborate with news organizations and reporters that FRONTLINE is familiar with.

I ended up seeing an article by Cary Aspinwall for the Marshall Project. She explored several different inmates who were affected by this law. I thought that Mark’s case was the most compelling, and was an interesting case to explore the unintended effects of this really severe law in Florida. Cary had built a relationship with Mark and his wife. She came onboard to our team, and helped us develop a relationship with them.

I met them for the first time when I flew down to Florida. The first time I met Mark was when I interviewed him in prison, and the first time I met his wife Rose was when we interviewed her. But the relationship had already been established. We met Rose first, and she is very emotive in person, and I felt very moved by her. So, while the case intellectually was interesting, I felt emotionally very connected to her and him immediately.

AX: As you did research into the law and Mark Jones’s case specifically, was there anything about the details that surprised you?

LIANG: There are a couple of things we’ve included in the film that surprised me, just the details of a life of someone who’s living with trauma and addiction that start to add up, and you piece together as you’re reading through someone’s case files and talking to them. To find out that Mark was sleeping in the woods, for example, that’s one of those details where you can hear him talk about being depressed. You can hear about him having problems, and that means something, but when you hear that someone’s actually living in the woods when they have a home with someone who loves them [where they could go instead], that kind of detail really struck me and, to me, illustrated the level of trauma that he was experiencing.

AX: It seems like a lot of his problems, including the actions that led to his arrest, were connected to addiction. Were there any sobriety options for him?

LIANG: There were definitely options. I think a lot of the times when people are trying to navigate systems to help themselves when they’ve got a major problem, sometimes those systems have a lot of rules and regulations that make it hard for them, in their current state, to access them properly.

Mark and Rose talked a lot about being bounced around the VA [Veterans Affairs] system, feeling like he had too big a problem for one clinic, and he had too small a problem for another clinic, and another clinic, they claimed that he was asked to be sober for a certain period of time before he would be checked into this place, So, there were things that were really challenging for him in accessing those systems.

There is a group called PRR Families United that is staunchly against this Prisoner Releasee Reoffender Act law in Florida. Most of the people in that group are family members of people who have been put in prison with very severe sentences because of the Act, and there are a number of cases highlighted in their website that also stem from problems of addiction. So, they don’t think this is an uncommon problem. When people are struggling with trauma, struggling with addiction, their lives tend to tailspin, and when you have a very severe law like this, you can get caught up in a way that’s irrevocable.

AX: Florida seems to be passing all sorts of stringent laws all the time. Is there interaction between the PRR Act and other Florida laws that are unique to Florida?

LIANG: I can’t really say, to be honest. There are definitely things that are different that are happening in Florida. They’ve got a governor now who’s doing a lot of new things, and is very committed to law and order. I’m not totally sure how these things are all interacting. I do have family members that live in Florida.

At the same time that I was making this film, I also was filming JEANETTE LEE VS, about a billiards player who lives in Tampa. There are lots of different pockets of Florida that are very different, very curious, very unique. It’s a tourist destination for a reason. It’s beautiful weather and beautiful beaches, but there are definitely very unique things happening legally down in Florida. I’m not a legal expert, I’m a filmmaker, but I think it’s definitely worth taking a look, if you care about this country, if you care about the laws in this country, and you care about how people are being treated.

AX: Do other states have “two strikes” laws similar to the one in Florida?

LIANG: There are other states that have reoffender laws. There are a lot of folks that think we’re wasting a lot of money with the same people in and out of the system, let’s streamline this and let’s get these people off the streets. So, I think a lot of these laws came into place when there started to be movements that were anti-death penalty, and people were looking for different ways to change the system. I think they’re all very different, and they interact with so many other intricate laws in their local spaces that none of them can behave exactly the same. I think that there are some folks in this country who believe that if people are repeatedly committing crimes that they should be treated differently.

Florida [has] the most severe of the laws, and it is definitely catching up some folks that I think the average person in America would not think should be getting such a severe sentence. But I leave that up to audiences to decide. I mean, you can look at Mark’s case and see what you think he deserves in terms of punishment. I don’t know if there’s anybody crying for him to be totally let off the hook, but he committed a crime, in this case, where nobody was hurt, and nothing was taken, and he is in for life without the possibility of parole.

That is what’s unique about Florida. When you get a life sentence in most places, you’re eligible for parole in about fifteen years. Mark has been serving, I think, something close to twelve years now, and there is no possibility of parole in Florida. So, this is it for him.

AX: How did Mark and Rose Jones react to being interviewed for TWO STRIKES?

LIANG: Rose is such a private person that she was very hesitant to be interviewed, and very uncomfortable being interviewed. She’s a very lovely person, very gracious, welcomed us into her home, but not interested in being a public figure. But she loves her husband so much that she really wanted to work through her own struggles about being public and about being on camera in order to support him and tell his story. I think you may be able to see some of her discomfort in the film. She really did this reluctantly, and she did it because she cares about Mark, and she cares about helping families that are affected by this law.

Mark is stuck in prison, and I don’t know the details of his day-to-day existence, but having someone come and talk to him for an hour was probably a break in his day, and he really wanted an opportunity to tell his story. So, he was very gracious on camera, and I don’t think had a problem being interviewed. He’s a very intellectual person, and he came prepared, with documents, and with things that he wanted to say. We had exactly an hour with him, by the rules on the prison, and we just talked.

AX: We mainly hear from Mark and Rose Jones in TWO STRIKES. Were there other people you wanted to interview where it didn’t work out, or did you decide from the beginning that you primarily wanted just the two of them?

LIANG: Creatively, I really wanted it to be fewer subjects in the film. I thought it worked better, especially in short form. This is my first short film. I’ve been making features since I started working as a filmmaker, and in my features, I tend to be very complicated in storytelling, and I have a lot of subjects on camera. This one, because of the short length, I felt like creatively it would be easier for me to focus.

Of course, from a journalistic standpoint, we were working with FRONTLINE, and so, we were checking all the boxes to make sure we had lots of different points of view included in the film. We spoke to a lot of people off-camera, and we included some things that we thought were important counterpoints to Mark. We didn’t shy away from including things that we thought didn’t present Mark in a favorable way. We wanted to make sure that audiences saw all the warts in the story, because I think it’s important for an audience to have the full picture, so they can reach their own conclusions as they watch a film.

We did of course hope to interview the person who Mark tried to carjack in the parking lot, but as a team, we want to make sure not to add trauma to people’s lives. If someone who’s had a traumatic experience, such as being carjacked in a parking lot, doesn’t want to speak, we want to respect that. She’d already spoken to Cary, the reporter, on the record for the article, and she’d also spoken at the trial. So, we wanted to make sure her voice was heard in the film in some way, and so we had some creative ways to do that.

AX: Was there anybody else who you wanted to talk to who either wasn’t available, or didn’t want to speak?

LIANG: I think the prosecutor in the trial has since passed away. This [arrest, conviction, and sentencing] happened a while ago, so some people in the system are no longer available, and of course, there are some folks that declined to speak on record. You see within the film people declining to make comments on things. But we did reach out to all those folks to make sure that we had a comment from them, or an opportunity to speak to them.

AX: What do you think focusing on two individuals does for the film?

LIANG: I think it’s more intimate when you’re able to spend more time with somebody. You’ll see in the film, there’s a lot of listening shots. Mark is a quirky character. And so, we wanted to give you enough space on the screen to see him in a more complete picture. We had a very short time to talk to him. I like to an interview normally that’s two or three hours, and in a film [that did not have to abide by prison-mandated timeframes], I would be following somebody outside and around and walking around, and seeing their homes. You get a sense of somebody from all those things.

But the more time you can give someone like Mark on camera, the better, because people in this piece are judging him. They are judging whether he is worthy of the very tough sentence that he got, or whether he deserves something different. And so, I think we wanted to make sure that he had enough opportunity to be a full and complete human being on screen.

AX: Are you hoping that some activism around the PRR Act will be enhanced in any way by TWO STRIKES?

LIANG: Well, as a filmmaker, all you can hope to do is move audiences. When they have an emotional response to your work, they often will get up off their couch and out from behind their computer and do something. And so, it would be really exciting for me if people were moved enough by the film to do something.

There have been some movements to address PRR. I think the legislator that was behind those has since moved on to other things. Families are still fighting. Each individual is fighting against their own sentence, fighting various appeals. Mark has exhausted pretty much his hope for appeals.

I think it’s always important to keep an eye on these things. If nothing can be done about Mark, and nothing can be done about this law, are we thinking about ways to improve the system so it works better, and so that the laws are operating in the way that we want them to. If we can’t affect this case in particular, can we get engaged in some way to make the system fairer for everybody?

AX: What else are you working on now and/or have coming up?

LIANG: I have JEANETTE LEE VS streaming on ESPN [as part of 30 FOR 30], the one that I filmed in Tampa, about a legendary pool player who was also known as the Black Widow. And I’m developing a few features that I’m pitching around, as well as some short films that are going to be geared towards looking at Asian-Americans in the lead-up to the next big election.

AX: And what do you most hope people get out of TWO STRIKES?

LIANG: I hope people get a nice cinematic experience. I hope that they see that FRONTLINE has many different creative ways of storytelling, and that new voices are important contributors to that. I hope that they feel moved by the story in some way or another that gives them a motivation to step out in the world and try to make it a better place.

Follow us on Twitter at ASSIGNMENT X
Like us on Facebook at ASSIGNMENT X

Article Source: Assignment X
Article: Exclusive Interview:  Filmmaker Ursula Liang on new PBS FRONTLINE documentary TWO STRIKES



Related Posts:

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Comment

Increase your website traffic with

Dr.5z5 Open Feed Directory

bottom round