'Body of Water': A Reflection From Director Ben Lear Of The Feature Documentary 'They Call Us Monsters'

03/03/2017 04:47 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2017

“No diving, no flips.”

Officer Martinez rubs the sunblock into his cheeks and reties his board-shorts. An orange whistle dangles around his neck. At the edge of the pool, a dozen black and brown teenagers, shirtless and muraled in tattoos, nod impatiently.

“You hear me, Gonzalez?” Martinez says, eying a light-skinned kid with devil-horns on his scalp. “None of those flips!” The group laughs, in on the joke.

Martinez works 40 hours a week, 38 of them as a Detention Service Officer for the LA County Probation Department, and the remaining two, as a lifeguard. The boys in his charge are between 14-17, and are being tried as adults for violent crimes. “You see it on the news,” Martinez tells me on a separate occasion, “’a 16-year old kills another 16-year old,’ I know he’s gonna be in my unit that next day.”

His unit is the Compound, a maximum-security wing of Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall. The High Risk Offenders it houses look like any other minors save for two things—they aren’t facing six to nine months in juvenile camp. They’re facing decades to hundreds of years in state prison. And this afternoon, they aren’t wearing county grays. They’re sporting black trunks.

The whistle sounds and the boys jump, one by one, into the crystal water. Another staff tosses a football. Isaiha dives for a catch and shimmies. A flurry of splashes. Carlos shouts a rule. Diego shouts him down. I pan my camera to Martinez, who watches from the sidelines.

“Why do they deserve it?” He repeats my question then squints past the surrounding fence.

“Because what about their victims?” I add.

I can’t tell if he’s straining for the answer or wishing it away. I assume the latter, knowing he’s been trained to leave those judgments at the door.

“Touchdown!” One of the kids shouts from the pool. Martinez and his partner cheer. I refocus the lens. Tattooed forearms chop at the surface. Water sprays, diamond-like, over their shoulders. The chorus of cracking voices clips the volume meter on my audio recorder.

It’s late-October and the pool is freezing. The only reason it’s open after-season is for me to film. But the boys don’t seem to mind.

“The chance to swim is always welcome,” Martinez tells me. Many of these kids will spend the rest of their lives in prison. “They may never feel a body of water again.”

I wonder how many had before going to jail. Juan learned English in the year since he was locked up. Antonio got sober. Most were just now earning their first high school credits. How many might have learned to swim?

I don’t know the exact moment I decided to make this film. Maybe during my first visit to the Compound. The smell of industrial sanitizer. The 60 degree, re-circulated air (a behavioral modifier, I was told, to keep tensions cool). My friend, a volunteer writing teacher, and his students. The ones, who came to write. The others, for the snacks. The soul-bearing magic of Flaming Hot Cheetos.

Or maybe when 16-year old Martin spoke with giddy affection about wanting to become an architect. Then reasoned that he didn’t know what he was good at yet. But also that he was excited to find out. If only he could have the chance. He faced 100-years in prison for stabbing someone to death at a party.

Most likely, though, it came after class, on my way out of the unit. Rounding a corner, passing the basketball court, and noticing, fenced within a fence within a fence, that body of water. It was the last thing I expected to find and yet it nothing made more sense. These are kids. Awkward, pimply, moody kids. Yet they’ve committed the worst possible crimes. Murders. Attempted murders. Armed robberies. They embody two irreconcilable truths: Childhood and adulthood. Innocence and guilt. A swimming pool behind bars.

The boys squeeze towels around their now shivering bodies and line-up for movement. Soon they will head back to the unit, shower, eat dinner and go down for the night. One or two will wake up at 4am and eat cold sandwiches on their way to the superior court building downtown. They will spend twelve hours in a holding tank and five minutes in a courtroom. After months if not years of continuances, they will plead their cases. 15-to life with two strikes. 30-to life with one strike. It will sound like a lot of time. More time than they can fathom. But less time than they would face at trial. They will accept these deals and shake hands with their lawyers. They will go to adult prison. They will tell themselves it’s better there. The next level. Greater independence. Bigger homies. Prison politics.

I ask Martinez if they will miss the swimming pool. He describes to me what “bird bathing” in a prison sink looks like. Then shakes his head. “Of course, they’ll miss it.”

Martinez and I hang back as the boys proceed to the unit. He flashes me a familiar look. “But then again, what about their victims?”

- Ben Lear, director of the feature documentary They Call Us Monsters, which is available now on iTunes and On Demand.

They Call Us Monsters is the first film from director Ben Lear (son of acclaimed producer, writer, and activist Norman Lear) and follows Antonio, Juan, and Jarad, all teenagers between 14 and 16, as they await trial facing decades in adult prison. To pass the time, they sign up for a screenwriting class and collaborate on a short film about their lives. What unfolds is an exploration of difficult questions: what is our responsibility to these kids, do they have the capacity to change, and do they deserve a second chance? You can watch the trailer here.

The film is currently available on iTunes and On Demand: http://radi.al/TheyCallUsMonstersDoc

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