Filmmaker Robert May reflects on movie’s reception at home and abroad

Last updated: July 19. 2014 10:54PM - 3145 Views
By - rdupuis@timesleader.com

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Director Robert May talks with The Times Leader about his non-fictional film, "Kids for Cash," during a January 2014 interview at the Luzerne County Courthouse.

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See Robert May talk with reporter Roger DuPuis about “Kids for Cash” in a video interview at www.timesleader.com.

The story of Luzerne County’s judicial scandal has gone international — again.

Director Robert May’s 102-minute non-fiction film, “Kids for Cash,” recently was shown at film festivals thousands of miles from Wilkes-Barre, in New Zealand and Ireland.

The movie by May’s New York-based SenArt Films examines the scandal which toppled two county judges after federal prosecutors accused them of accepting kickbacks in connection with the construction of private juvenile detention facilities used by the county.

“Kids” juxtaposes the experiences of several teens and their families in the wake of juvenile sentences handed down by disgraced former Luzerne County Judge Mark A. Ciavarella, against interviews with the judge and his one-time friend and fellow fallen jurist, Michael T. Conahan, as the their legal cases were proceeding through federal court.

Ciavarella, incidentally, has steadfastly objected to using the term “Kids for Cash” to describe the scandal, maintaining his financial misdeeds and the way he ran his courtroom were separate and distinct.

As May has said, he was inspired to look deeper at Ciavarella’s long history of imposing harsh sentences on youths for even minor offenses — well before the for-profit detention centers came into play — and for operating a courtroom in which young offenders and their parents often were rushed through proceedings without lawyers.

We caught up with May via e-mail last week, following the movie’s Irish presentation, to talk about how international audiences have reacted to the movie, how it has been received across America and what’s next for the film. Below are highlights from those conversations, edited for presentation in this format.

I understand you have just been in Ireland for the European premiere of “Kids for Cash” at the Galway Film Fleadh (festival).

In fact I’m just headed back to the states from Ireland now. Over the last month, Kids For Cash made its international debut in Ireland and New Zealand.

(Editor: The picture took “Best Human Rights” honors at New Zealand’s Documentary Edge Film Festival. Visit http://documentaryedge.org.nz/ to learn more.)

What was the reception like? Were there any new insights to be gleaned from the international perspectives?

Internationally the film was as shocking to audiences as it was to Americans. But what is particularly notable is the discussion about the hypocrisy of the way we here in America think we are treating our school age kids as compared to the reality of what’s going on.

I’ve learned from screenings all across the U.S., and now internationally, that there are so-called kids-at-risk in every community around the world, with about 25 million (ages 12-17) right here in the U.S.

I used to think that our children here in the U.S. were treated better than any other nation in the world. I no longer believe that. The bottom line is that all kids are at-risk to lose their adolescence if they misbehave in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Schools are one the largest contributors in getting kids arrested. In America, we live in a post-Columbine world where we have learned to fear kids. We think that by demanding “Zero Tolerance” for what we call “unacceptable behavior” a kid will simply straighten up and act like an adult.

As shown in our film, a brain is not fully developed until a person reaches their mid-twenties. And most people seemed rather shocked by that unless they recall their own transgressions when they were growing up. Of the 2 million kids that are arrested each year in the U.S., 95 percent are for non-violent offenses (another little known fact prior to the film). We here in the U.S. incarcerate five times more kids than another nation in the world. And furthermore, we spend an average per year of $10,000 educating a child but $88,000 on incarcerating them.

There is also a great deal of discussion on the disproportionality of kids of color arrested and detained at much higher rates than white kids. All of these little known facts are not lost on international audiences and spur spirited discussion.

What’s so interesting is that all of this attention and conversation now spreading around the U.S. and the world began in large part because of our “hometown scandal.” During our years of filming, we began to learn of larger issues in the juvenile justice system and I even asked Mark Ciavarella about the fact that his taking millions of dollars might actually expose a different problem.

I’m not sure if he understood what I was saying to him at that time, however his response was simply, “well maybe then I’ve done some good.” Many audience members have also said, in one form or another, “if not for the judge taking all that money, we would never be talking about what we are doing to kids everywhere.” There is something ironic about that.

How widely was “Kids” distributed in America — number of screens, total viewers?

“Kids For Cash” entered theaters in February of this year and went on to play in every major theatrical market within the U.S. It garnered considerable critical acclaim and is still playing in a few cities nationwide.

The film has been well received not just by regular moviegoers, but by both state and federal government officials as well. The film screened multiple times in Washington, D.C., for the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Education, and for Congress. Other D.C. screenings are planned for later this year.

In addition, various groups, including universities, legal and bar associations, public advocacy groups and schools have taken advantage of the Group License program, which allows the film to be screened for public and private groups throughout the U.S. These special screenings are scheduled through the end of the year and are expected to continue for some time thereafter. I, along with kids and family members from the film, have attended and spoke with audiences after many of these screenings. It’s clear that the film is now becoming more than just a movie, it’s becoming a movement.

Tell me a little about your own travels promoting the film. How many screenings have you spoken at thus far? Where?

In addition to Ireland and New Zealand, I’ve spoken personally at about 50 screenings all around the country: Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Omaha, Albuquerque, Boston, New York and Miami just to name a few.

It’s been exhilarating to have the opportunity to have a real conversation with audiences who are extremely emotionally affected after seeing the film and suddenly conflicted about their own belief in justice. And audiences are especially shocked at what they did not know about how we treat kids, not just in Luzerne County, Pa., but all across the country.

Have you encountered any questions or comments from an audience member that particularly stand out in your mind as unique, insightful, emotional?

Audiences tend to be stunned by their own feelings after seeing the film. Just like our reviews, they’ve called it “riveting” and “a punch in the gut.”

Many are also surprised at how they feel about former Judge Ciavarella after the film. While they still view him as a villain, they also see that our community got what it wanted: a “Zero Tolerance” judge that everyone applauded (unless you were one of the unfortunate kids or families that went before him).

Audiences are struck by the hypocrisy that no one was really paying attention to how the kids and families were treated until we found out that there had been an exchange of money. And they’re shocked by how most of what happened in Luzerne County, Pa. (in terms of how kids in the justice system are treated) is likely happening within their own communities as well.

Have you noticed any difference in the reaction from region to region?

No, that’s one of the most fascinating things about this film. No matter where we screen the film (including internationally), audiences react the same way.

Even juvenile court judges and juvenile justice advocates comment on how emotionally affected they are by what they’ve seen in the film. After a screening, I had one judge in D.C. confide to me that he had done everything depicted in the film — short hearings, zero tolerance, etc. — except that he never took any money.

What are the next steps for the film? I understand it is now available in various on-demand formats?

The film was released on iTunes, Amazon, Comcast and other major Video On Demand services in May. The DVD is slated to come out this Fall.

Will you be doing any more traveling? Is it going to premiere anywhere else in Europe or overseas? Any foreign-language translations yet?

In terms of international screenings, just this week the film was profiled in China after a Chinese TV crew interviewed me and a few others from the film.

It seems that even China is shocked by what happened here — not just Luzerne County, but within the U.S. I think the film makes everyone ask a very personal question: “just how are we treating our own kids here in (fill in the name of your community, state or country)?”

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