ISLAMABAD: The Swiss embassy hosted a screening of Free Men at the Centaurus Cineplex as part of the Human Rights through Cinematography Festival.
The film directed by Anne-Frédérique Widmann draws a portrait of Kenneth Reams, an inmate on death row who spends 25 years in solitary confinement and retains his dignity.
The embassy also arranged for Karim Amin, director of photography of the documentary, to fly in from Switzerland and to make a phone call to Kenneth while he is in solitary confinement.
Chargé d’ Affaires of Switzerland Bernhard Furger warmly welcomed everyone saying, “Switzerland is one of the oldest democracies in Europe and human rights are central to our values.
“This year is also the 70th anniversary of the Declaration of Universal Human Rights. Together with the United Nations, Switzerland has been promoting this Declaration.”
The film takes the audience out of their comfort zone demonstrating both the ignominy of the flawed criminal justice system and its penalties and the indomitable human spirit.
As Kenneth Reams, subject and narrator of the documentary, says, “Just because you are behind bars it doesn’t mean you can’t have dreams and accomplish them.”
The prison system did not give permission for the filmmakers to record videos of Kenneth so he became instead the voice of the film, having in fact more of a presence because of his absence.
The story itself is powerful – a young 18-year-old African American man in Arkansas is convicted of a crime he did not commit and is sentenced to death row, where he spends the subsequent 25 years becoming an artist, a poet and the founder of ‘Who Decides’, a not for profit that is devoted to educating people about capital punishment.
At no point during the film does Kenneth claim to be innocent, the night of the crime he and his friend Alford were robbing an ATM to get enough money for Alford to pay for the cap and gown he needs to receive his diploma.
The irony of course is stark. Alford had a gun and he did shoot someone, he accepted the plea bargain offered and was sentenced to a life sentence without parole; Kenneth chose not accept as he wasn’t holding the gun.
Kenneth Reams grew up in a city in Arkansas called Crime Bluff, a community that was at the time of his sentencing 75pc African American.
He talks about how growing up they didn’t have enough food, he talks about how when they couldn’t pay the bills and had to move, he would get beatings for things he hadn’t done because his mother was venting.
In a particular significant realisation, Kenneth shares that he knows fully that those 30 seconds changed their lives forever.
Then he was too young to realise what this one act would do to his own family, the victim’s family and the victim’s children.
Now he is an inmate at Varner Unit and he has spent longer in solitary confinement than he has outside it.
In a phone call to a beloved aunt he talks about how they got doughnuts and he hadn’t eaten a simple doughnut in 23 years. In Varner Unit, breakfast is at 2am and lunch at 9:30am.
Kenneth has become an extraordinary person while in prison.
He says: “I’m not trying to get comfortable in this prison” and to that end he got rid of the mattress in his cell and has slept on concrete these many years.
“He reads and paints and with his wife Isabella, whom he met through correspondence and married while in prison, he has exhibited his art in London and elsewhere.
Karim Amin said: “The first time Anne met Kenny was through a cartoon submission which they had asked inmates to submit for a project they had with The New York Times.
“Getting to know many inmates, she got in touch with Kenneth and she was very amazed by his energy, will and dynamism. That drove her to start shooting this movie about three years ago. I had worked with Anne in Switzerland and she brought me on board as the cameraman.”
Kenneth Reams joined the screening via a phone call and said: “I would like to thank the powers that be in Islamabad that allowed the film to be shown in Islamabad and the audience for seeing the film. It is a wonderful opportunity for me to be able to speak to you. I haven’t had the opportunity to see the film but I’ve had people tell me that it is a powerful film.”
Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2018