Jul 22, 2010

"Doing Time on the Outside": Six Questions with "Hard Straight" Filmmaker Goro Toshima

Director/Producer Goro Toshima is promoting his PBS Award winning documentary, Hard Straight, about "doing time on the outside." In his words, the film “shows
what it's really like to make the radical transition from prison life to society, by following the post-release stories of three people in close and unflinching detail...”

---A gang member, who spent his childhood in foster homes, juvenile detention, and the gang life. Now, he’s a 2-striker and another conviction will land him in prison for the rest of his life..

---A recidivist who has logged more time in prison for parole violations than for his original sentence. "My friends are few, and my world is cold," he confides, waiting on a street corner notorious for drug deals.

---A mother whose oldest daughter has taken in the two younger children during her prison term. Life becomes very complicated very quickly once she gains her freedom and struggles with methamphetamine addiction.

Mr. Toshima filmed for two years, “portraying the ecstatic moment of their release from prison and the inevitable frustrations and setbacks." You can view a 15 minute clip of the film here and purchase the movie here.

I asked Mr. Toshima a few questions about the experience of making the documentary:

What inspired you to make a documentary about individuals on parole?

I heard a radio piece by a guy named Joe Loya, writer and ex-prisoner. I went and talked with him, and he said the hardest part of doing time was after he got out, the difficulties of transitioning and trying to go straight after a lifetime of crime and incarceration. It sounded like the parole process would make for a dramatic and interesting documentary so I started researching and talking to more people. The more I learned, the more I knew it would be a good film.

How did you choose your subjects and what type of relationship did you develop with each as you shared their lives with them?
I visited prisons throughout California and spoke with many, many prisoners about to get out (taking pre-release classes). The three in the film I met through this process. With all three, I knew immediately that they'd be good for the documentary. They were honest, straight-forward, open with me, and had interesting backgrounds: gangmember, mother, recidivist. But the most important thing was just a feeling of connection between me and them and feeling that they would be good subjects on screen.I got close to two of the three (Smiley and Regina). Over the course of the two years, I spent 2-3 days every week with both of them. So we got close. They let me into their lives, for better/worse, and allowed me to document what was happening. So, it was a pretty intimate situation.

How do you think that filming the reentry process affected the lives of your subjects?

I think it was a cathartic process for them. None of them had anybody in their lives that they could open up to and talk about this intense and confusing period. And Smiley and Regina, in particular, really wanted to talk things out. A lot was going on. Also, I think it helped a bit, at least a first, to have some motivation to stay straight. But, of course, after a while, they strayed. But they still let me film and wanted their mistakes to be a part of their story. But, in the end, I think they got something from the film...being able to express what was going on in their lives.

What most surprised you about the experience of individuals on parole?

The biggest surprise was just getting to know the individuals in the film and their personalities. Smiley and Regina, in particular, are complex and interesting people. the good and bad inside them range in a much bigger way than in most people.

How are your subjects doing today?

Regina is doing great...She got a job in downtown San Francisco, working for a homeless organization. She's with her kids, who are all doing well too.Smiley is sort of doing the same [as he was before]...one foot out and one foot in. Shep finished out his sentence and is no longer on parole. He's back on the streets in the Tenderloin. Regina actually works down there and sees him all the time.

As an outsider who observed the reentry process, how do you think the correctional system, the Division of Parole, and the community could better respond to someone returning to the community?

The thing I felt was the lesson of this film was that all three had major problems before entering prison...Smiley was a gang member, who had traumatic childhood. Regina had drug problems. These are the problems that led them to prison in the first place. And when they got out, the same problems existed. I think the correctional system could be improved if it addressed these issues in a more efficient way.