The documentary, Free Men, follows the tragic story of Kenneth Reams, a man unjustly imprisoned and put on death row due to racial discrimination in the justice system. Kenneth has spent the last 26 years in solitary confinement. Free Men shows that despite being behind bars and the injustices he has faced, Kenneth has an unwavering free spirit, and has had an impact beyond the walls of his cell. Kenneth refused to give up his freedom of expression and has proven himself to be a talented poet, artist, activist, and the founder of Who Decides, Inc., a non-profit organization that aims to raise awareness about the history and practice of capital punishment. Below is an exclusive interview with the director of Free Men, Anne-Frédérique Widmann, a Swiss investigative reporter, and documentary film-maker. Anne co-founded the art exhibition, Windows on Death Row, which showcases the artwork of death row inmates, including the works of Kenneth Reams. The interview gives insight into what inspired Anne to raise awareness about Kenneth’s story and what went into making the film.
What prompted you to investigate Kenneth Reams story?
The moment I met Kenneth Reams and heard his story, I felt it had to be told. At 43 years old, he has been on Arkansas death row for 25 years without firing a bullet and without killing anyone. This was due to racism and also because his family didn’t have the financial means to hire a good lawyer. All these years, Kenneth has been living in solitary confinement on Arkansas death row, but his mind is amazingly free. Love and art have freed him from his chains. Kenneth Reams teaches us a striking lesson about the power of the human will.
What does freedom mean to you?
It’s the first question Kenneth Reams asked me when we met for the first time at Varner Supermax. It’s a very profound and important question I wanted to pass on. Myself, I’m still thinking about it.
Why did you decide to create a film documentary for his story?
Despite his desperate circumstances, Kenneth has pushed back the walls of his cell to become a painter, a poet, the founder of a non-profit, and an art event organizer – while fighting at the same time for justice.
I would like Kenneth’s story to be widely known, because, first and foremost, I hope that this film can help him regain his freedom. I also feel like we can all learn a lot – about ourselves and others – listening to his journey. I would like for the people to be moved and questioned by the film. I would like them to feel Kenneth’s positive energy and to reflect on some of the injustices of our legal system and societies, whether due to racism and /or social inequalities. Listening to Kenneth’s story will make you reflect on your own life. How can I push back the walls of my own prisons, real or imaginary?
Free Men is a story of hope, love, and resilience. It’s as universal as it can get. This film is for all those who have thought, one day, of giving up.
What makes Kenneth Reams story different from the other stories you have investigated?
I have always been interested in human destinies and human rights. I have investigated the deadly journey of migrants to Europe; the stories of people taken as hostages in Gadhafi’s Libya and lately by ISIS fighters. But this story is different. I approached it more as a cinematographer than as an investigative journalist. It is not an investigation about a crime and an inmate: it is a journey that highlights the power of human beings.
Which of Kenneth’s pieces of artwork and poetry, do you think is the most powerful from Windows on Death Row?
I love Kenneth’s artwork titled “The Last Mile. “ Kenneth’s dream and project are to create a museum about the history of the death penalty in America. He sees it as a way to educate the people about the realities of capital punishment and I think it is a brilliant idea. The ‘last mile’ is a term coined in Sing Sing prison. It refers to the perceived distance that a condemned prisoner must walk from his cell to the death chamber on the day of his execution. The journey from cell to the door is short in steps, but the distance is psychologically vast. At the end of this hallway is an imposing and ominous door. On the other side of that door lies oblivion and eternity. Prisoners call it the last mile.
Kenneth is also a marvelous writer and poet despite the fact that he walked out of school at age 12. My two favorites are “Strange Fruit” and “Solitary confinement”.
To the naive,
Just because they cannot see
Strange fruits literally dangling from the tree
Many have written off lynchings
As they if no longer exist in our society.
But I am the new era of strange fruit
“Minus the sycamore tree”
And if you open your eyes
This really you will see.
Kenneth Reams (2013)
These isolation walls…
and they crawl.
that single moment of
mental weakness to befall.
If you become hopeless,
or spiritually fall,
your soul will become
for these solitary walls.
Death Row Inmate,
Kenneth Reams, Arkansas 2012
As an investigative journalist, why is it so important to you to uncover the truth?
Transparency and truth should be at the core of our political system. The work of the media is essential to democracy.
How long did it take to make the film?
It took me 4 years. Making a film is always a long journey, even more so when the main protagonist is a death row inmate. The Arkansas authorities did everything they could to prevent this film from existing. They didn’t want Kenneth Reams to have a voice and Free Men gives him just that. That is why I’m particularly proud of this film.
Take me through the process of filming?
Making a 90’ film about someone that cannot be filmed was quite a challenge but a beautiful one. Along the way, many people told me I was crazy! Kenneth found the strength and the resources to build a life of his own outside of his small cell. This is what I wanted the people to see and feel. I taped hours and hours of phone conversations with him. I used various cameras (FS7, Osmo, etc) to give the footage a unique texture able to carry his voice outside of his SuperMax prison. I worked very hard on the narration – the issues at stake are high: will he be able to organize art exhibits from his cell? Will he be allowed to get married and succeed in his fight for justice? Will he be executed? In spite of all the preparation for the shooting months ahead, and of all the work I put on the narration, we didn’t know how things would turn out for Kenneth, and if Free Men would have a happy or a sad ending. You will find out for yourself…
Obviously, you weren’t allowed to film Kenneth, do you think the phone call recordings changed the experience of making and watching the film?
I think it is the first documentary film where a death row inmate tells his own story from his cell. Free Men is entirely told through the charismatic voice of inmate Kenneth Reams. The audience meets him through his voice, his mood, his energy without being able to see him. And this changes everything. A voice is so intimate: it tells everything. Most importantly, it allows us to meet a man and not “just” a death row inmate behind a glass wall. The device I choose frees us from some of our prejudices. This is essential to me.
How do you think this film will help in the journey to end racial discrimination?
I’m not naive and know that very much is needed, much more than a film, to put an end to racial discrimination in our societies. But I dearly hope that Kenneth’s story and voice will blow people’s minds and touch hearts. And also encourage them to take action: what can we all do to help Kenneth regain his freedom? What can we do to end racial discrimination? If Kenneth can do all the things he is doing from solitary confinement, I bet all of us can also do some positive and constructive things to make our world a better one.
If you want to help Kenneth Reams:
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FREE MEN http://www.freemen.ch/en/ is out now on multiple mainstream digital platforms:
Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/movies/details/Free_Men…
All Platforms: https://www.journeyman.tv/film/7490/free-men