'The Mind of Mark DeFriest': Film Review

Mind of Mark Defriest Still - H 2015
Courtesy of TCDM Associates

Mind of Mark Defriest Still - H 2015

A Kafaesque tale of the dysfunctional American penal system

Gabriel London's impassioned documentary recounts the tale of young man incarcerated for a relatively minor, non-violent crime who has spent decades in prison

Advocacy in film is demonstrated to powerful effect in Gabriel London's long-gestating documentary about a notorious prison inmate who probably should never have been incarcerated in the first place. Detailing the story of a prisoner dubbed "The Houdini of Florida" because of his repeated ingenious escapes from various penal institutions, The Mind of Mark DeFriest is a powerful and sometimes even darkly comic look at a situation gone disastrously awry. Now receiving a limited theatrical release, it's scheduled to air on Showtime on March 19.

DeFriest was a mere nineteen years old when he first got in trouble, for the dubious crime of taking his recently deceased father's tools that had been bequeathed to him in the will without realizing that probate matters had to be settled first. His stepmother reported him to the authorities, and when the young man resisted arrest and was later found to be in possession of firearms he was given a four-year prison sentence.

This led to a nightmarish, Kafkaesque, decades-long saga exacerbated by the clearly highly intelligent DeFriest's utter inability to accept the rules of authority. He engineered a series of highly publicized escapes—hence his nickname—using his mechanical skills to create keys, fake guns and various other devices to facilitate his schemes. He even, in one the more surreal episodes related, managed to dose a coffee pot with LSD, hoping to simply walk out after all of the guards had been drugged into an incoherent state.

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It would all be funny, if it wasn't so horrifying. Although several prison-appointed psychiatrists declared DeFriest mentally ill, they were overruled by the director of the Forensic Unit, Dr. Robert Berland, who determined that he was faking his symptoms. Ironically, he had a change of heart many years later, deciding that DeFriest did indeed suffer from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, with the film documenting his efforts to correct his mistake. DeFriest eventually wound up pleading guilty to another charge and was sentenced to life imprisonment, with his release date originally set for 2085. It has since been changed--in large part due to a screening of an earlier version of the film--to twenty years from now, although a final decision that may set him free immediately is due to be handed down later this month.

The now 54-year-old prisoner has spent 27 of his 34 years behind bars in solitary confinement. He says that he was routinely brutalized and tortured by the guards, and was also subjected to violent assaults and gang rapes by his fellow prisoners.

The story is related via interviews with the various principals, most notably DeFriest himself, who demonstrates a strangely unflappable, if undeniably off-kilter demeanor despite his years of hardship. Commenting about one of his more outrageous escape attempts, he comments, "Nobody in here has a sense of humor." And when confronted with the testimony about his emotional problems, he asks, "Do I look crazy to you?"

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Besides Dr. Berland, other interview subjects include DeFriest's first wife, who divorced him shortly after he was incarcerated; his decades-older second wife, who began their relationship as a pen pal; his longtime devoted lawyer, and a former warden of one of Florida's more notorious prisons.

Filling in the narrative gaps are jauntily rendered animated sequences that manage to provide some amusing moments in the otherwise disheartening proceedings.

While the film is not always sufficiently clear in its storytelling and the testimony of its principal subject cannot entirely be taken at face value, it nonetheless offers a convincingly disturbing reminder that our penal system is badly in need of dramatic reform.   

Production: Naked Edge Films, Found Object Films
Director/screenwriter: Gabriel London
Producers: Gabriel London, Daniel J. Chalfen, Charlie Sadoff
Executive producers: Peter Brusikiewicz, Jim Butterworth, Daniel E. Catullo III, David Menschel
Director of photography: Jim Butterworth
Editor: Nick Clark
Composer: Ronan Coleman

No rating, 100 min.