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, [and] 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 [throughout] 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 [he] wanted to make amends.”
According to Spear, everyday was a new adventure. She says that one of the most unforgettable moments was back in March, when the team was in the middle of interviewing Philadelphia Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., and the first reported COVID-19 case had broken out in the city. Even though they made it home safely and the film was nearly finished, Spear says the entire world had changed after getting home that day.
“I think most seniors in college reserve the weekend for partying,” Spear said. “I never could have predicted I would be traveling to Philadelphia every Saturday during my last semester at Montclair State, practically waking up before the sun was out, so that we could ask someone questions about their experience being sentenced to life in prison.”
Kristoffer Fernandes, a spring 2020 Montclair State graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication and media arts, was the assistant cameraman on set of the film.
“I, like a lot of students, had their last semester kind of cut short [due to the COVID-19 pandemic],” Fernandes said. “I had a tough time celebrating that milestone, but contributing to a project that is featured in the Montclair Film Festival makes me feel grateful.”
Robertson, Spear, Fernandes and everyone else involved in the film have made it their first and foremost priority to educate viewers through the documentary.
“My expectations for this film were originally, and still are, to bring attention to the issue of juvenile justice reform in the United States,” Robertson said. “To use Sam’s words: ‘As long as just one person sees it and it changes their outlook, that’s all that matters.'”
“Life Without Parole: The Sammy Gladden Story” is screening until Oct. 25. Tickets are available on the Montclair Film Festival’s website.