A film chronicling the experiences of women who were sentenced to life in prison earned Political Science Professor Renford Reese Best Documentary Feature honors at the Los Angeles Film Awards (LAFA).
For his winning film, “Tomorrow: Women| Murder| Redemption,” Reese interviewed 10 women who were a part of his Reintegration Academy, a program he founded in 2009 that exposes parolees to life skills, career development, and vocational education modules. The program provides participants with laptops and enrolls them at Cal Poly Pomona’s neighboring Mt. San Antonio College.
He developed the idea for the film, his sixth documentary, while interviewing prospective program participants.
“All of them had these riveting, empowering, inspirational stories,” Reese said. “The more I spoke to them, the more I was inspired by their stories.”
By the end of the eight-week academy, Reese decided he would follow up and film a documentary featuring five participants in the spring 2021 class and five previous members.
This win marks the second consecutive year Reese has won Best Documentary Feature at LAFA. In 2020, he earned to top prize for “PEP-Uganda,” a film about the Prison Education Project he founded locally in 2011 that has since expanded to the African country. In 2019, he earned honorable mention in the documentary short film category for “RA: A Lifer Cohort,” which chronicled the Reintegration Academy’s efforts to get parolees acclimated to college life.
“My passion now is documentary filmmaking,” Reese said. “After I wrote my tenth book, I said I want to transition into making films. The documentary space is just a different platform for teaching.”
Two of the participants interviewed in the film served 30 years with the women linked to Charles Manson, providing an intimate perspective previously unseen of these women who were a part of one of the most infamous murder cases in America, he said.
Reese said he also was shocked by the extent of the physical, emotional and sexual abuse the women he interviewed had endured. The documentary examines how the criminal justice system has failed these women, he added.
One woman was forced at gunpoint to bury her son’s body after her husband killed the child, and when she reported the murder two days later, she was arrested and eventually sentenced to life in prison. Another woman who was in the car with a friend’s cousin was convicted of an armed robbery she was unaware was happening, and one academy participant shared how she was kept in solitary confinement in the County jail while awaiting her trial for 23 hours a day for four and a half years.
“The stories are riveting and my philosophy as a doc filmmaker is to try to step back as far as I can and let the stories tell themselves,” Reese said. “Don’t do too much. Don’t try to be too sophisticated with the process. Don’t tamper with the candor and the power of the stories. I think this documentary won this award because of the way in which the 10 women who were featured told their stories.”