At CFI, we believe in the power of film to move audiences to action. At the Closing Night program of the DocLands Documentary Film Festival this May, audiences and filmmakers witnessed a heartwarming and unexpected example of this power. 

The film was Sam Bathrick’s 16 Bars, receiving its World Premiere at DocLands. This impressive documentary follows four inmates as they create and record original music behind bars at the city jail in Richmond, Virginia. Supported by Todd “Speech” Thomas of hip-hop group Arrested Development, the four men participate in a unique rehabilitation program and record their own original songs. One of the film’s subjects, Teddy Kane, is shown struggling to adjust to life outside of prison after his release from jail. 

The DocLands audience had the opportunity to meet both Speech and Teddy, as well as Teddy’s mother, Loretta Simmons-Jackson, at the Closing Night screening of 16 Bars. Teddy shared an original poem about the legacy of slavery. More importantly, he shared his ongoing struggles with homelessness and substance abuse. Loretta spoke of a pain that too many mothers can relate to: the helplessness of seeing her adult child suffering. The audience, many in tears, dove into a passionate discussion regarding issues like bias in the criminal justice system, the need for prison reform, and the cycle of addiction and incarceration. Speech shared stories about his work with people in the criminal justice system and raised the positive energy in the room with performances of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song and Arrested Development’s hit song, People Everyday.

That could have been the end of the story, as the audience went home with a newfound awareness and understanding of four lives and the social and institutional barriers they face. But on this particular night, someone in the audience took the opportunity to make a real difference in one of these men’s lives. Responding to Teddy’s plea for help, Lionel Shaw, founder of The EACH Foundation, sprung into immediate action. The Foundation stepped up to offer immediate assistance so that Teddy would not end up back on the streets in the following days. Not only did they support Teddy and Loretta’s accommodation, but they also arranged for Teddy’s admittance into a two month program at Serenity Knolls— a well-respected alcohol and drug recovery center in Marin County.

“It brought so much joy to the volunteers of The EACH Foundation to have the opportunity to support such a worthy individual and his family, and we are proud and honored to step up in this time of need. Teddy has a truly artistic gift which we could not see fall by the wayside.” – Lionel Shaw

Loretta said they were overwhelmed with gratitude, “We’ve never had anyone in our lives express this much support.”

In the coming weeks, Joanny Rivera, DocLands’ Guest Services Manager, was one of the many who went miles above and beyond in her role in supporting Teddy and Loretta. Joanny spent time with the mother and son and helped manage Teddy’s admission to Serenity Knolls and visited him often. She saw him recently and reports that he is doing great (“he’s gained 15 pounds!”), and, most importantly, that he is focused and committed to his recovery. 

“Being at the Rafael that evening was very humbling. Bearing witness to Teddy’s vulnerability moved me greatly, as I realized it couldn’t have been easy to get up on a stage and ask strangers for help. I just wanted to help and be a supportive and positive presence for them during their time here.

I don’t think anyone (including Teddy or Loretta) expected this level of generosity and compassion from the audience. A true testament to the good work DocLands is doing and the amazing community here. Allowing these impactful stories to be told, seen, and heard. What a beautiful opportunity to be a part of.”  – Joanny Rivera

This story illustrates the power of film to educate and motivate audiences and, by so doing, to change lives. “Non-fiction filmmakers lead the charge for truth, change, discovery, and delight, by using their storytelling superpowers,” said Joni Cooper, DocLands Director of Programming. “This year a completely diverse slate of insightful documentaries that may indeed change lives, reminded me of why we created DocLands.”

Photos © Tommy Lau Photography