There is a delicate line between childhood and adulthood. For some, the former is filled with sweet memories and coming-of-age tales, but for others, like the young men in the documentary entitled ‘They Call Us Monsters,’ childhood may escape them as quickly as it began.
Director Ben Lear and his team take viewers into The Compound, a Los Angeles facility whose inhabitants are juvenile offenders awaiting trial. What sets their cases apart from other juvenile offenders is these young men are being tried as adults for their crimes.
The film focuses on a screenwriting class led by Gabriel Cowans, a producer for the film, and in particular on three young men – Jarad, Antonio and Juan. As the documentary progresses, issues regarding the juvenile justice system are addressed, including legislation that could potentially give these offenders the second chance they so desperately seek.
In a chat with TCR’s Shannon Nia Alomar, director Ben Lear and co-producer Sasha Alpert discuss why they made the film, how some of their earlier preconceptions about youthful offenders disappeared as filming went on, and why they think the film’s appearance in the post-election climate creates a special opportunity. [The interview has been edited and slightly abridged.]
THE CRIME REPORT: What sparked your interest in making “They Call Us Monsters”?
BEN LEAR: In March of 2013, I was a budding filmmaker. I had no intention of making a documentary [and] knew nothing about the juvenile justice world. But I was invited to sit in on a writing class in a juvenile hall which happened to be in The Compound where the film was shot. ….I started to realize that I had never seen these kids before, either in real life or in a movie or on TV or anything. I never knew that young people could be tried as adults. I started to realize once they were arrested and put away if they were in adult court, you were never going to see them again.
I felt if I could just get access to film these people and let them tell their own story then I’d have something really special. I would be able to show the world a population they would otherwise not get to see. At the same time Senate Bill 260 in California [was giving] would give the exact kids I was meeting an opportunity at a second chance that they would of never had otherwise. That was enough for me.
TCR: No other indie filmmaker has been able to gain access to The Compound before. What gave your team the confidence to pursue this particular location?
LEAR: [These juveniles] were literally caught between the childhood they never got to have and the adulthood they’re most likely never going to have, in this limbo space, awaiting their trials. I knew I had to get into The Compound. It turned out, just by sheer luck and timing, the probation department was open to kind of reframing their narrative and allowing somebody to tell a story that isn’t necessarily going to indict them like everyone is trying to do—and I genuinely wasn’t. Then the real challenge was getting the kids’ individual judges to approve. Some of them said yes; some of them said no. That dictated who we could film and what we could film, but I think we got [what] we needed to make the movie.
TCR: How important were the stories of Jarad, Juan and Antonio to the picture you wanted to present?
LEAR: That was the most important part of the film and I think it happens on two levels: one is within the screenwriting class itself. They made the decision to tell their own story. I [had] the same goal. I didn’t want to waste that opportunity on just crafting my own point of view, as opposed to [giving them] space show us who they really are. I think the intention of the whole project, if you boil it down, was to let them tell [their stories.] That’s why the film’s title is in the first-person.
SASHA ALPERT: And I think one other interesting thing is when they choose to tell a story, the story they tell has a sort of moral code to it. [They would say] that wouldn’t happen or that’s not the right thing to do. They have a lot of thoughts about what’s right and what’s wrong and also realizing that they had a strong moral idea of where they felt they should be and where they hadn’t gotten to in their life yet.
TCR: In terms of their actual screenplay ‘Los’, what was the thought process behind not only conceptualizing this film and bringing it to life but also physically seeing what they created?
LEAR: Initially the class was just a vehicle to get in there and film with them; but once they made the decision to tell an autobiographical story and use that process for their own healing, it became very clear it was going to be a very important part of the film as well. It was a way for us to see into their inner lives and into their past. And the fact that that film actually got shot and we had the footage to use, as filmmakers, it was the making of a great situation. It was another type of footage, another color to add to the film to separate it from what it may have been otherwise.
TCR: Two themes that arose were vulnerability and the loss of innocence. Keeping in mind that these were teenaged boys making these statements, do you feel that reflects the voices of other young men and women who are being tried as adults in the juvenile system?
LEAR: I think it’s even more than that. Everyone experiences adolescence in their own way. The transition from childhood to adulthood, if you boil it down, is the loss of innocence. In a way, it’s because their version of that is so extreme, it’s a really great mirror for all of us to look at that journey. That’s what really hooked me as a filmmaker and what built my relationship with them. It was the amount of insight I was able to gleam about myself from talking to them and learning about their experiences. I think loss of innocence is the core theme of any kid, especially those in the system, who are now suddenly realizing they may never get to live their lives before they get the chance to start.
ALPERT: I think they also lose their innocence a lot earlier than many children. Their childhood was cut very short. Seeing such young kids in prison makes you realize that.
TCR: Ben, in your director’s statement you talk about how your preconceptions changed. You said: “I expected to find stock, steely-eyes gangsters staring me down, wishing to jump me if given the chance…. but I couldn’t have been more wrong.” Did you at any point see them as “monsters” while talking to them?
ALPERT: Personally, I didn’t. From the first moment I laid eyes on them, like I said in the statement, they just instantly formed back into kids for me and with that came a whole other dimension of understanding and compassion. While I was absolutely able to stand back with a certain type of detached fascination and concern [thinking] about their crimes and what they did, I was very much aware of their age and their circumstances. and just their fundamental lack of inherent malice.
I made an effort to not explicitly share those views in the film and let the audience decide for themselves, but personally …I don’t think you can tell if a 15-year-old is a sociopath. I don’t think it’s possible to know that until 10 years later.
TCR: There was a moment when one of the Senators calls them “little psychopaths” and that can be seen as very aggressive language to be used for children offenders.
LEAR: There’s no nuance in that language. That [senator] was basically just saying crime is bad and anyone who commits crime is bad. Give me your vote.
TCR: In the film, Jarad, Juan and Antonio serve as the main focal points, but something else that really stands out is your [effort to show] all sides of the system. You include a judge, a lawyer, the family members and even a victim of one of the crimes. Why did you feel the need to add these voices?
ALPERT: I felt strongly that you can’t make a film that just tells one side of the story. I prefer a film that lets the viewer come to a conclusion and it doesn’t feel like you’re shoving your point-of-view down their throat. …I think we’ve come to a point, very much evident in this past election, where the thought that you can just lock up everybody and then have a safer universe (is widespread). The victim had no chance, but neither do these boys.
TCR: Speaking of the election, what effects do you think it will have on criminal justice reform in general, but specifically juvenile justice reform?
ALPERT: I think it’s impossible to know what is going to happen. You can guess but I do think we are rethinking this topic as a nation. I think the film is coming out at an opportune time to help us rethink what has been vastly unsuccessful.
LEAR: I don’t think much is going to change. I think California is going to maintain its trajectory and a number of states are going to also. The amazing thing about criminal justice reform is for the most part it is a bipartisan issue. Republicans see the fiscal incentive to reducing incarceration levels, as well as the compassion angle, but Trump ran an old-school tough-on-crime campaign.
It was like something you would have seen 10 years ago and it definitely worked in a lot of ways. So I wouldn’t expect him to do anything good for the reform movement. It may be all the more important that this film is out there, now that there’s already a backlash.
TCR: And just to circle back to the film, there is a moment when you are filming the boys’ screenplay and Antonio is on set and, without giving too much away, he is not doing too well. How does seeing his journey after leaving The Compound play into this larger issue?
LEAR: I think it definitely complicates the narrative that all young people should be given a second chance. To me, it doesn’t suggest the opposite; it just says it has to be taken case by case. It’s a “Goldilocks” phenomenon. You don’t let someone out right away if they’re not ready and you don’t put someone away for the rest of their lives without an opportunity to get out. You have to create a setting where that person has the [opportunity] to rehabilitate and get the therapy and the treatment that he needs. Antonio obviously didn’t have any of that.
ALPERT: There’s also the great scene where [Antonio] is looking through the pamphlets to be a part of the Navy Seals, but which was going to be closed to him because he was formerly incarcerated.
TCR: Being the director and one of the producers of the film, you are getting to know these boys’ stories on a more intimate level, how did it feel seeing them go through this journey just on a personal level? How do you detach yourself enough to tell the story while making sure you’re getting their voices heard?
LEAR: I think a lot of that balancing act is just kind of intuitive. I think I knew early on the quality of my relationship with the boys was the film, even if I wasn’t in it. My connection with them was kind of the most important thing. If you listen to our unedited interviews, it doesn’t sound very much like an interview; it sounds a lot more like a conversation. I was totally invested but I think I knew, and they knew too, that they were ambassadors for their population and for the cause. They knew that they were going to get into some uncomfortable territory. And they knew ultimately that I had to edit a fair, unbiased thing. I think we were guided by the bigger responsibility of telling the story correctly, which was something that we all shared as a production.
TCR: In the effort to put out an unbiased piece, what is your hope for the message this film sends out?
LEAR: My message would just be: Be open to the fact that young people should have an opportunity to earn a second chance. You really can’t, and this is based in science, you really can’t know what a 14-year-old (or) 15-year-old is going to be like 10 years down the line. You have to give them an opportunity to be that person.
ALPERT: And I would say, similarly, I would say it’s about judging. I have two teenagers and I think but for the grace of God they could have grown up in a different way; they could’ve been very, very different kids. It’s easy to judge these boys and say they’re just bad to the core, but so much is about their environment they grew up in and the opportunities they had and didn’t have. That’s partly our job as a society to provide that; so really it’s just to keep an open mind.
TCR: And in addition to keeping an open mind, are there any other suggestions you would want to give someone who watches this film and wantd to help or learn more about this issue overall?
LEAR: I would say bridge the empathy gap. Go find these kids. Volunteer at your local juvenile hall. Volunteer for your local writing program. Put more faces to the issue and help these kids one at a time as they’re getting out. I think for individual people on a local level, that’s the most active thing you could do. When it comes to volunteering, there’s nothing more fun. The experience of watching these guys slowly open up and figure things out for themselves changes their lives even if it’s an inch at a time, or it doesn’t end up the way you want it to go. Then beyond that you can get involved with legislation and policy advocacy on a bigger level. And then, hey, tell people about the movie too!
ALPERT: There’s pending legislation all over the country. We’re doing a really robust social-impact campaign with this and we would urge people to go to our website because it will list not only when the screenings are, but also how people can get involved. And I think everyone is going to want to get involved on their own level, even if it’s just to talk with other people. Contact your congressman. Read more about it.
I think the most important thing is that there can be rehabilitation programs (even as) there is so much money invested in jails and prisons. And also, see other movies about it. I mean, my God, there are some great, great movies. There’s an endless amount written about it too. You could spend a whole day.
Shannon Nia Alomar is an intern with The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.