Film and Video Artists and Offender Reentry


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Len Sipes:  From the nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety.  I’m your host Leonard Sipes.  Today’s topic, ladies and gentlemen, is film and video on offender reentry.  We have three people in the studio today, three experts, in terms of doing videos on the topic of offender reentry.  We have Gabriela Bulisova.  We have Greg Upwall, and Yavar Moghimi.  Gabriela is an independent photographer and instructor in Corcoran College of Art and Design.  Her website is And Greg and Yavar, they’re graduates of the George Washington University Institute of Documentary Filmmaking.  They produced a film called Released to Life that’s gotten a lot of acclaim.  It’s currently under and you can also go to  And to Gabriela, Greg and Yavar, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Greg Upwall:  All right.  Thanks for having us.

Gabriela Bulisova:  Thank you.  Pleasure.

Len Sipes:  All Gabriele, how badly did I screw up the name?

Gabriela Bulisova:  You did great.

Len Sipes:  Did I get it?  Was I in the ballpark even?

Gabriela Bulisova:  Absolutely right.

Len Sipes:  All three of you … I’ve had a lot of fun with talking with all three of you over the course of the last couple months.  And Greg and Yavar, we put together Released a Life.  I had a small part in terms of advising you.  That video won a slew of awards.  It won number one in the first place award in the Washington, DC Film Festival.  It’s won first place awards for a lot of film festivals.  That’s an interesting concept, Released to Life.  Tell me a little bit about the film.

Greg Upwall:  Well the film is basically a short documentary that we produced as students in the Documentary Filmmaking Center.  And it’s a composite character of different folks, basically, going through the reentry process in different stages and having served a different amount of time.  And kind of looking at the challenges that they’re facing coming back into society.  And having some experts kind of also weighing in on what the challenges that they see are.

Len Sipes:  Gabriela, you’ve done video, you’ve done still photography, you’ve worked this concept in a variety of mediums.  Why did you chose offender reentries?  I can think of puppies, I can think of children, I can think of older people, I can think of veterans coming home from war, I can think of a lot of other topics that are probably easier to do than people coming out of the prison system.  Why did you choose that topic?

Gabriela Bulisova:  I actually was introduced to the topic indirectly.  I was in process seeking to work on incarceration and reentry.  I was invited to speak at a [PH] colloquium at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.  And the topic was Women and War.  And I worked with refugees, primarily Iraqi refugees for quite some time.  I worked with them in Syria, in Middle East, and in Washington, DC.  So my first thought was I have to go to Iraq and document women in the war zone.  And then because I teach, my schedule, especially travel schedule, is quite limited.  I thought I might look the word war through a deeper or wider prism.  And I looked at war as conflict, as injustice, as violence.  And connected then conflict and women.  And did some research locally and found an organization called Our Place DC.

Len Sipes:  Oh yes.  A fabulous, fabulous place.

Gabriela Bulisova:  Absolutely.  Wonderful, small, underfunded organization –

Len Sipes:  Yes.

Gabriela Bulisova:  – that deals with gender-specific issues and does tremendous work helping women who are coming out of prison to readjust to society.

Len Sipes:  Okay.  So you like the easy topics of life.

Gabriela Bulisova:  Yes.

Len Sipes:  War in Iraq, women returning from the prison system.  Greg, let me go over to you.  You were involved; you and I have been talking more than anybody within this room about this concept of offenders coming out of the prison system.  Look, you guys are filmmakers, I’m part of government.  I’m stodgy, I’ve been around for a long time, I’m jaded, the system gets on my nerves.  You’re filmmakers, you’re artists, you have a fresh perspective, you have that artist soul.  You’re taking a look at the concept of people coming out of the prison system, why?  Greg, I’m going to start with you.

Greg Upwall:  Well it’s a good question, Len.  The group that made the film at GW, none of us really had a strong, personal history with the subject except for one student who was a DC native.  The others of us had a lot to learn.  We chose the topic because we felt that it was an important one, clearly.  But I don’t think any of us really understood what we were getting into.  We quickly realized that the situation is quite bleak when you look at the numbers coming out and the statistics of recidivism, and the lack of funding that exists.  And so as we began to conceptualize what this salient message of our film should be, we realized that our interest was to make a personal story out of the film. And we realized that many people can quickly get desensitized when you look at statistics and numbers, but sort of reflecting our own personal discovery was that these are human beings.  And I remember coming to this realization.  And a lot of the listeners out there might think well of course that’s the case, but we really connected with people.  We met people with real lives that clearly we could empathize with, that clearly had gotten on the wrong side of a situation.  And that was really where our passion and our interests kind of grounded itself.

Len Sipes:  And that was apparent in the film.  If you look at Released to Life and SnagFilms, or if you go to, you see that.  You can see the power of the filmmaking.  You can see the power of the stories. But Gabriela, I’ve seen your photography.  The question is more this, you’re bringing a fresh perspective to it.  You’re bringing the artist soul to it.  What you’ve just said all of us within the correctional or criminological community we know.  What is it that the artist sees that we’re not seeing, in terms of telling that story, anybody.  Gabriela, go ahead.

Gabriela Bulisova:  Exactly right.  As I said, I was new to the issue of incarceration and reentry.  And working with the women, I produced a combination of audio and still images.  I produced a project called Convictions where the women directly tell their own stories in their own voices.  And then I moved on to … then I started doing more research and I learned, as Greg said, the overwhelming statistics of the number of people just in DC, ten percent of DC population being incarcerated or having a criminal record and so on.  But still those are numbers, statistics.

Len Sipes:  What did you feel in your heart?

Gabriela Bulisova:  Right.

Len Sipes:  What was going through your heart, your mind, your soul when you were dealing with this topic?  That’s what I’m interested in.

Gabriela Bulisova:  Right.  As a documentary photographer, as a photo journalist, you want to learn more.  You ask questions why.  And when I … I moved from working with women to working with men.  And when I started working on a new project called Inside Outside, I was reminded of what an Iraqi friend of mine told me when the War on Iraq began.  He said, “I wish I can tattoo faces onto Iraqi people.”  And what he really meant was I wish that people here can see the real people, the real faces of the Iraqis, and thus we can connect with real people, so we can turn them from mass numbers or from news headlines into real people.

Len Sipes:  So you felt that the people that you were dealing with were rather anonymous, they lived anonymous lives.  And somehow, some way through your artistry you would try to capture who they are as human beings.

Gabriela Bulisova:  Absolutely right.

Len Sipes:  Yavar, you have to weigh in on this subject.

Yavar Moghimi:  Yeah.  I think the whole process of documentary filmmaking is about storytelling in the end.  And so especially making social documentaries, you want to tell the story that most people don’t know.  Or if they know, they don’t know why they should care about it.  So that’s … it doesn’t take much to listen to these people’s stories and realize the struggles that they’re facing and the limitations in a lot of the services that are out there to really help people transition back into society.  And then when you sort of look at it from even a financial perspective, too, you kind of wonder what are we doing in terms of all the money that’s being poured into this, and people are being sent back.  So it’s not only affecting the people themselves, but the tax payers as well.  And so we try to craft the message that was geared towards this is an issue that you should care about whether you know somebody who’s gone through the criminal system or not.

Len Sipes:  So why … and from a filmmaker’s perspective, from a creative perspective … what are we doing, what are we not doing to spread that message?  Because when I sit and talk … in the past with my dearly departed mother about the subject of reentry, she said, “Leonard, for the love of heavens we’ve got the elderly to take care of, we’ve got … ”  I’ve told this story a dozen times.  The listeners of this radio program have heard this story a dozen times.  “We’ve got the elderly to take care of, we’ve got school kids to take care of.”  My wife who was Vice President of PTA said, “Leonard, the money needs to go to the kids not to the people who have done harm to other human beings.  We’ve got to start with the kids, that’s where the great bulk of the money needs to go.”  We have a society that basically goes, “Ah, they’re not my favorite people.  I’m not quite sure I’m interested in this topic.”  And I’ll throw out a statistic just to consider.  That 80% of people caught up in the criminal justice system have substance abuse histories.  Approximately ten percent when they’re in the prison system get treatment.  So basically what we’re doing is not helping them transform, to cross that bridge from a tax burden to a tax payer.  We’re not doing that.  Why, is the question.  And I want to ask you guys.  Not as criminologists, but as artists.  Why are we not doing that?

Greg Upwall:  Maybe I can jump in there, Len.

Len Sipes:  Yeah, Greg.

Greg Upwall:  I think what we sort of … like I said before … what we really recognized is that a lot of people see the issue as an us and them situation.  It doesn’t affect them.  It’s a situation you can read about in the news; you hear statistics and so forth.  But quickly we were sort of impacted emotionally by the idea that it’s certainly not us and them.  And that families are involved.  And our whole justice system, we’re all … we take our civics classes growing up and we’re led to believe that our constitution provides fair justice and that once you’ve paid the due for your crime that you’re able to move on with your life.  And we realize it’s just not that easy.  Our goal quickly became … as I know myself and several others in our crew … we’re not the type to quickly give the benefit of the doubt to a criminal.  I came at it with my own biases.  But we realized that our goal ought to be to show that you can’t treat it as a black and white situation.  And it’s also become an issue that’s being done a disservice by reality TV programs have tend to portray prisons as violent places, and all criminals as violent people, and it just wasn’t the case.  We couldn’t avoid that fact.

Len Sipes:  Right.  I talked to an employer who watched Hard Time on one of the cable stations.  And basically said, “You want me to hire somebody from there?”  And I said, “Look, I’ve been in and out of prisons hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times.  It’s not like that.”  I said, “You have that that goes on in prisons on a periodic basis, but the overwhelming majority of prisons you go into, they’re some of the safest places on the face of the earth, believe it or not.  I’ve walked through dozens and dozens of prisons totally unescorted, totally without an ounce of fear.”  But that’s what they see.  So if that’s what they see on the six o’clock news, if that’s what they see in Hard Time, if that’s what they read about in the morning paper, that doesn’t create a lot of sympathy for what they call “ex-cons”.

Greg Upwall:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  Gabriela, you want to … the question becomes how do you reach an audience?  How do you … these are extraordinarily powerful stories that all three of you have documented.  How do you convince people to take those very powerful stories seriously?

Gabriela Bulisova:  These are really good questions.  And I think their answers are very … questions are complex and the answers would be complex as well.  So I think you can dissect it to so many different aspects.  But if I may, I agree with what your mother was saying.  I think money should be put towards kids.  I think money should be put towards ward seven and ward eight and should be put towards education and treatment and prevention.  Because I think that’s how we can eliminate the later large rates of incarceration.  And unfortunately majority of the people in Washington, DC who are incarcerated, come from the poorest socially, economically deprived wards. So I certainly agree that that’s –

Len Sipes:  But remember this show goes out all throughout the country and all throughout the world.  And that applies to any city not only in the United States, but any city in the world.

Gabriela Bulisova:  Absolutely right.  But also again, just to use some numbers, we now … we’re so lucky to live in this country, we have so many advantages.  But then you look around the world, and this is the country that has the highest incarceration in the world.

Len Sipes:  Yes, it is.

Gabriela Bulisova:  Why do we incarcerate, what is it, 740 people per 100,000 people?  In Finland, I believe it’s 60 people per 100,000.

Len Sipes:  Huge difference.

Gabriela Bulisova:  So I think we have some homework to do here.

Len Sipes:  Want to reintroduce our guests, ladies and gentlemen.  We’re doing a, as you well know, a piece on film and video on the subject of offender reentry.  We have three experts in the studio with us today.  Gabriela Bulisova, Greg Upwall, and Yavar Moghimi.  Gabriela is an independent photographer instructor with the Corcoran College of Art and Design.  The website is  Greg and Yavar are graduates of the George Washington University, the Institute of Documentary Filmmaking.  They did an extraordinary film called Released to Life.  It’s won three first place awards.  You can see it on, go to the website and search Released to Life.  Or you can go directly to their website, Gabriela, so we have the energy behind audio.  We have the energy behind video.  We have the energy behind stills.  These are very powerful stories.  Are they reaching the larger population, or are they just reaching the already converted to the topic?

Gabriela Bulisova:  We are independent filmmakers, photographers, so we can certainly use some help in terms of promoting our work.  But that is my hope.  If we … as you mentioned before, why should a population care about somebody who just came out of prison and is unemployed or homeless and so on?  And to me feel like if I can just engage, even if it’s a small number of people into a dialogue about that people need second chance, that it’s going to actually … that if we give somebody a job or ability to go to school and better their life, we’re going to improve public safety, community safety, create stronger families and so on. So is it reaching all the people?  I would like it, not yet.  I’m hopeful that it’s going to communicate to more people.  But for example just this past Friday an exhibition opened in Anacostia at the Gallery at Vivid Solutions called Inside Outside, where people can come and see photographs, see the video, and hear the stories of the people that I worked with.

Len Sipes:  Greg and Yavar, you and I have sat and talked on a couple different occasions about reaching this mass audience.  It is the contention of some people that unless we reach that mass audience, unless we move way beyond the already converted, the already convinced, unless we reach that audience we’re not going to make much difference.  Again, the idea that 80% of offenders caught up in the prison system have histories of substance abuse, ten percent are getting drug treatment.  There’s a gap that needs to be addressed.  The only way that that’s going to be addressed is through political will and money.  These sort of things cost money.  To do that you’ve got to convince the larger audience.  We’ve talked about public service announcements in terms of reaching a larger audience.  Is that possible, is that doable?  Do you think that we can appeal through art to the unconverted, to the general public, and convince them that this is a topic that they want to take on?

Greg Upwall:  Well I’ll jump in there.  I think that again, the answer would be yes.  And I think it is it in the way that that message, as Yavar said, it’s a question of storytelling.  The real message is not, “Hey, you should care about criminals, and that should be something you think about when you wake up in the morning.”  The message is more that I experienced individuals that were some of the most inspirational and driven individuals I’ve ever met in my life, that I’ve never met just in the general population.  That told me something about the power of rehabilitation and truly … one of the guys in our film says, “I was in the news once for doing something wrong.  I intend to be in the news again for doing something great.”

Len Sipes:  And that’s powerful.

Greg Upwall:  It’s powerful.

Len Sipes:  These stories are powerful, powerful stories.  When you sit … I’ve sat in prisons amongst 20, 30 offenders and we’ve had hour-long conversations about their lives, about their hopes, their dreams and what it is they want to do.  Now statistically speaking, 50% are back in prison within three years.  That’s a real problem.  There’s not enough being done.  So again, the outreach to the average person to convince them that this is something that is in their best interest.  Is it from a standpoint of morality, Yavar?  Is it from the standpoint of political correctness?  Is it the standpoint of religion?  Or is it from the standpoint of just it’s in your self-interest, it’s in your best interest from the standpoint of tax-paid dollars and your own safety, to support these sort of programs?  What’s the message?

Yavar Moghimi:  Right.  Each audience is going to have a different way that you can target them.  But I do think to get the broadest appeal in terms of the message, I think a big part of it does have to come down to you feeling safe in your community.  In one of our … Dwayne Betts, who’s one of the folks in our movie and he’s a Soros Justice Fellow, a previous ex-con who then is a poet and writer now.  In our movie he talks about we know that we lock people away, but we don’t know what the product is that’s coming out of that.  And I think that’s an important piece.  We’re putting people away for crimes that they committed, and the assumption is that somehow they are being rehabilitated in the process.  And if they’re coming out and they’re coming out safe for our communities.

Len Sipes:  Does anybody really believe they’re being rehabilitated in prison?  The surveys that I’ve seen is that most people don’t know and most people don’t care.  That’s part of the problem in terms of communicating.  And we have three communicators who specialize in this topic.  So tell me, is it that the public doesn’t care?  Not that they’re callous human beings, but they have so many other things on their plates.  Greg.

Greg Upwall:  I was going to say I think most people will sort of respond to the issue of their own safety and their family’s safety within their communities.  And also the issue that this is something that their tax-payer dollars are paying for, the prison system.  And we, time and time again, found individuals who had had access to educational training programs, books in prison.  This isn’t to say they were on some sort of a holiday, or being served at luxuries.  But the basic, you’re there, you’re serving time, what are you going to do while you’re there.  And it became for us pretty clear that those who had had access to those things, certainly did better by them.  And so it became a question of how do you use those incarceration dollars most effectively.

Yavar Moghimi:  Or even those that … and one of the centerpieces of our movie is the DC Central Kitchen which is a culinary job training program in the DC area.  A lot of the folks they work with are ex-offenders.  And to just see what they do, not only in terms of job training skills, but life skills, group therapy, substance abuse, they tackle a lot of the issues.  And they have a very high success rate in terms of getting folks employed, keeping folks out of jail, keeping folks out of drug treatments.

Len Sipes:  So all three of us agree they’re very, very powerful stories.  All three of us agree to the ones who are successful, they are very interesting from a human interest point of view.  All of us know that there are certain programs out there that can dramatically cut recidivism.  I’ve got the three of you here.  I’m going to keep hammering away.  Gabriela, what’s the theme?  Okay, now if we all know this, and we all understand this, and we all think wow, what a great topic from a journalistic point of view, from a human interest point of view, from a public safety point of view, from an effectiveness for your tax paid dollars point of view.  What are we missing in terms of communicating that to the larger audience?  There’s got to be a way.  There’s got to be a way.

Greg Upwall:  Yeah.  I will say that while we’ve gotten a lot of awards for our films, they tend to be student film festivals.  I would quickly say that we haven’t reached a mainstream audience.

Len Sipes:  How do you reach the mainstream audience?

Greg Upwall:  And I’m not sure we have the answer for that.  But I do know that the messages that are being portrayed about the violence of prisons and things, that it is important, I think, to find ways to show the other side of that.

Len Sipes:  How do we do that?

Greg Upwall:  And so maybe it is a public service announcement.  Maybe a series of campaigns.  I think it’s finding engaged people, like ourselves, that want to take on these topics in a sensitive manner with … that are looking at more than just the sort of sensationalized way of portraying things.

Len Sipes:  But we all get together and talk to the converted.  That’s my only problem with this issue.  It’s not going out and talking to the person who lives 20 miles outside of the city.  Look, this is an issue that has a profound impact on any city in the United States.  It’s an issue that has a profound impact on any city in the world.  The crime and justice issue.  If we can take 50% of these individuals and provide them with the services and they stay out of the prison system, you’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars saved.  You’re talking about tens of thousands of crimes going uncommitted.  You’re talking about something that is clearly what all of us want, yet … if I say cancer, people go, “How can I help?”  If I say child abuse, people say, “How can I help?”

Gabriela Bulisova:  Right.

Len Sipes:  If I say offender reentry, they go, “Well, what about the children?”

Yavar Moghimi:  This isn’t a problem that’s unique to criminal justice.  I feel like there’s a tendency in general to put money in … and you think about healthcare.  Spending money when people are already sick.  Spending money when people need the emergency room as opposed to putting it up front for their preventative public health visits, you know, those types … this is a common sort of short-sightedness of a lot of bureaucratic processes where the money just isn’t put up front and it’s sort of an out of sight, out of mind mentality until all the people who are coming out of prison from the war on drugs are suddenly all back in society again.  And what do we do with all these folks?  I think there’s just a common problem of short-sightedness in general with a lot of these issues.

Len Sipes:  Well here’s a work assignment for six months from now.  Because [Ph] we’re redo this show six months from now by the way.  Because you guys are my guinea pigs.  What is the theme?  What is the central message that we can communicate to citizens in general to really say, “Hey, you know what, it’s probably in my best interest to support these sort of programs for people coming out of the prison system”?  That’s going to be your homework assignment.  So when we reconvene, you’re going to say, “Hey, I came up with successful themes.  This is what we need to say.”  Right?

Greg Upwall:  Sounds good.

Gabriela Bulisova:  Sure.

Yavar Moghimi:  Yeah.

Gabriela Bulisova:  If I may, I would just say that again the topic is so massive, so abstract.  And I think all of us grew up with that notion of incarceration bad, prisoners bad, felons bad.  So I think the topic is so stigmatized and the people are so stigmatized that it’s going to take some time to actually remove that stigma of incarceration.  And I think that’s where we can come in as filmmakers, as artists.  We might not have the answers, but perhaps we can at least start to engage people in a dialogue.

Len Sipes:  People ask me why I was doing this radio show today.  And I said, “Because we in the bureaucracy aren’t going to convince anybody.”  I said, “That’s either going to come from the offenders themselves, or it’s going to come from the artist community.”  They’re the ones who are going to figure this out.  We’re not.  We’re bureaucrats.  We’re government bureaucrats.  We’re not terribly creative, we’re overly cautious, we’re going to be pressed.  And the answers going to come from the offender community itself or from the artist community, because they’re the ones who are going to tell us, “Hey, this is the direction we need to go in.”  Am I being patronizing, or does that have a thread of truth to it?

Yavar Moghimi:  Well as you were talking about what are ways we can have this message heard, I think TV is so powerful in that way.  And whether it is through a public service announcement … or I wonder how we could affect these shows that are sensationalizing being incarcerated.  And realize that they’re having a damaging affect in society.  Because I … there are –

Len Sipes:  But they’re not going to go away.

Yavar Moghimi:  They’re not going away, but there’s got to be a way to at least consult or have some sort of role in having a different message being told, too.  And part of the internet and social media and things like that are also new, powerful tools to really spread that message too.

Len Sipes:  Thirty seconds.  Is it powerful to counteract the cable news shows?  Is social media powerful enough to counteract the bad news that comes out from the morning newspapers or from television coverage or from the cable shows?

Greg Upwall:  Well, whether it is or not, Leonard, my answer would be that that doesn’t mean we don’t keep pushing those messages.  And I think that people do like positive messages at the end of the day.  And we found some positive stories among these individuals.  And those success stories need to be told.

Len Sipes:  Well we’re going to bring you all back at a certain point.  We’re going to talk about those success stories.  Because we’re going to come up with some sort of PSA and it’s going to go national and you’re all going to get awards and it’s going to be powerful and it’s going to be influential.  I know that in my heart.  In any event, ladies and gentlemen, our show today has been on film and video on offender reentry.  We’ve had three guests with us today.  And one I’m going to try for … wants to get her name correctly, Gabriela Bulisova.  Greg Upwall, Yavar Moghimi.  Gabriela is studying portrait photography, journalistic photography the Institute of Documentary … oh, I’m sorry, that’s Greg and Yavar.  She’s an instructor to Corcoran College of Art and Design., it will be in the show notes.  Greg and Yavar, they are graduates of the George Washington University Institute of Documentary Filmmaking.  Again, they did the award-winning film Released to Life, which you can see on  You’d go to SnagFilm and just search Released to Life, or go to  Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety.  We appreciate your interest and comments.  And please have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.