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The documentary includes interviews with Sammy Gladden, his family and Philadelphia officials. Photo courtesy of Mackenzie Robertson
The Montclarion

Last spring, the Montclair Film Festival was forced to postpone its annual May event due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Now taking place in both virtual and drive-in formats, the festival has made its way to our home screens, from Oct. 16 to Oct. 25.

Former Montclair State University student and managing editor of The Montclarion, Mackenzie Robertson is one of the few people selected to premiere their film in the Montclair shorts category for virtual screenings.

Her film, “Life Without Parole: The Sammy Gladden Story,” is a short documentary that follows Sammy Gladden, a man who, at age 16, received a life imprisonment sentence for a murder he did not commit. The documentary enlightens viewers on the harsh juvenile crime policies of the early 1990s.

“When I was in high school, we had a club called Students Against Modern Slavery. They brought in this organization that screened a short documentary on human trafficking, that really impacted me,” Robertson said. “I think that’s what really sparked my interest in filmmaking: the ability to change one’s thinking on a social issue through film.”

Robertson, who graduated in spring 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in television and digital media, and a concentration in documentary production, also minored in justice and family studies. She says that learning about the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Miller v. Alabama, in a juvenile delinquency course at Montclair State initially inspired her film. The ruling declared it unconstitutional to give minors life sentences without the possibility of parole.

“I couldn’t get juvenile justice out of my head for months, until I decided the best way to teach others about juvenile justice policy and reform was through making a documentary about it, and that’s what led me to meeting Samuel Gladden,” Robertson said.

Robertson’s father, who formerly worked as a parole board commissioner, put her in contact with Gladden’s sister ,who connected her to her future subject. According to Robertson, Gladden immediately agreed to the project.

“I’ve made a few mini documentaries during my time at Montclair State, but nothing like this one,” Robertson said. “Professor Steve McCarthy, my executive producer, really took me under his wing the entirety of my senior year and pushed me hard to make the film I really wanted to make.”

Along with McCarthy, Robertson also had help from Associate Producer Alexa Spear, a January 2020 Montclair State graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication and media arts, and a former Montclarion feature editor.

“When I first met Sammy, it was clear how much he had reflected on his actions,” Spear said. “His perspective had changed as he grew up and became an adult behind bars. He understood how his choices had affected his community and wanted to make amends.”

According to Spear, everyday was a new adventure. She says that one of…