The question at the center of the thought provoking documentary film, “They Call Us Monsters,” is whether or not violent juvenile offenders, between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, should be given life in prison without the possibility of parole. At the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, located in Sylmar, California, high-risk, juvenile offenders facing the possibility of lengthy prison terms, or incarceration until their dying day, are housed while they await sentencing. Directed by Benjamin Lear (The Ordinary World), the documentary which premiered on June 6, 2016 at the Los Angeles Film Festival, focuses on three specific individuals awaiting sentencing: Antonio, who is fourteen, has been charged with two attempted murders; Seventeen year old, Jared, is accused of the attempted murders of four individuals whom he fired upon during a drive by shooting, which resulted in the paralysis of one female victim, who speaks on camera during the documentary; Sixteen year old Juan, a former honor roll student, is incarcerated for murdering a rival gang member by shooting him at point blank range. If he eventually does gain his freedom, he will be immediately deported to El Salvador, leaving behind the son, he has fathered. Instead of spending their time day dreaming, watching television or sleeping in their cells, the trio of inmates enroll in a ten week, screenwriting class, given by producer / director, Gabriel Cowan (Just Before I Go). Cowan’s goal for the teens is to write a screenplay for a short film, using their collective experiences as a basis for the story. (As an aside: There were originally four offenders who wanted to take part in the classes, but one was sentenced, and transferred to prison, shortly after the classes began. Additionally, the screenplay that the teenagers worked on with Cowan was turned into the twenty-five minute, short, crime drama “Los,” which came out in 2015.)
Lear’s original objective was to spend time at the high security compound in Sylmar, in order to gather information for a screenplay he was working on. He wanted his writing to be as authentic as possible. After spending time with the incarcerated youth, Lear felt he could do more than just create another fictional film. Lear teamed up with InsideOUT Writers, a non-profit organization based in Los Angeles, that was founded in 1996. The non-profit’s goal is to reduce the recidivism rate of juvenile offenders. Part of what they do, is offer classes, which allow the offenders to channel creative energy through writing. If participants in the program are released from prison, InsideOut Writers has an alumni association that will help to support them to aid them in staying on a positive life track.
Throughout the documentary’s 82 minute runtime, the candid footage presented to the viewer offers insight into the teen participants. During the classes, they engage in self-reflection, as the film delves into the factors which led them to a life of a crime, such as the influences, or lack thereof, that each of them had growing up. Jared’s step-father blames his attempted suicide for putting his step-son on a dark path. The step-father relays the story of how when Jared was a child, he witnessed his attempt to end his life as he was stabbing himself in the chest. Juan regrets not telling a female classmate, who he used to be very close with, about his true feelings. He admits that he was afraid of opening himself up to making himself vulnerable, and facing rejection, as he felt that she would not reciprocate. While working on the screenplay, Juan plays with the idea of what might have happened had he expressed himself to his friend. The emotions that he feels while writing, gives him the courage to call his childhood friend, and open up to her, even though chances are nothing will ever come of it; nevertheless, it is a cathartic moment for him. While filming, Antonio is unexpectedly set free, with a chance to start over. Will he make the most of the opportunity? Was the time he spent incarcerated a wakeup call as to what life will be like for him for decades to come if he reverts back to his old ways?
There is a secondary story to the film that Lear focuses on, and that is the debate that was taking place at the time, in the California Legislature, over Senate Bill 260. Summarizing: The bill holds juvenile offenders responsible for their crimes. It does, however, recognize that young offenders are not yet adults, therefore it allows them to demonstrate that they have been rehabilitated, by offering them an opportunity to eventually be paroled, after serving a minimum of fifteen years.
Recent Supreme Court cases, such as Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama, have ruled that juveniles who are given life sentences without the possibility of parole is a violation of the constitution. Additionally, in California, Senate Bill 260 was passed; the law went into effect on January 1, 2014. Furthermore, in 2015, Senate Bill 261 was passed by the California state legislature, which expanded the age range of youthful offenders from seventeen years of age to twenty-two years of age. The questions that some of you might be asking are: What about the victims’ families? Are they not entitled to make sure, especially in the case of murder, that the person who took the life of their loved one, be denied their freedom?
The documentary never sugarcoats what the three offenders did, and the lasting damage their actions caused the victims, and the victims’ families, as well as the emotional turmoil they brought upon their own loved ones. In “They Call Us Monsters,” which is currently streaming on Netflix, Lear never tells the viewer how they should feel about the issue. In my opinion, at no time did the film appear to suggest that there were easy answers as to how the law should deal with such an emotionally charged issue. What Lear does, is present the facts, so that each individual can come to his or her own conclusion.