Ostensibly, Found Object Films’ new documentary The Mind of Mark Defriest concerns itself with exposing the deep-rooted corruption and bureaucratic malfeasances of the American prison system. The film tells the story of Mark Defriest, who was convicted of a petty crime in 1980 and who, through a convoluted series of Kafkaesque events, wound up with an expected release date of 2035 and a parole date of 2085. The lynchpin in all this is that Mark Defriest is mentally ill. He was declared by five out of six psychiatrists to be incompetent to stand trial but regardless found himself thrust into a handful of nightmarish Florida penitentiaries over the next thirty four years. And during those thirty four years he racked up an astounding thirteen escape attempts (seven of which were successful) earning him the title “Houdini” in the local press. Director Gabriel London first encountered Defriest’s story in 2001 while filming a documentary about prison rape in America and spent eight years navigating the bureaucracy of Florida’s prison system so that he could finally meet, interview and begin filming Defriest starting in 2009.
The film’s central conceit is that Mark Defriest is but one of countless mentally ill people unjustly incarcerated—a story of one that should shed light on the rest. This, however, proves to be the first of many contradictions that The Mind of Mark Defriest creates as its filmmakers go out of their way to highlight how Defriest is not exemplary but rather a uniquely scintillating case. Over the documentary’s hour and forty-five minute run, London paints a confusing portrait of Defriest as any and every archetype that might inspire sympathy from an audience and, in the process, relies on pathos at the expense of actually investigating how the injustices committed against Defriest might affect a larger segment of our prison population.
Onscreen, however, Defriest is bright, jovial and charmingly puerile. Frequently he digresses from any given story to make a dick joke or brag about how he beat Apple to the punch by fashioning a transistor radio small enough to fit up his ass. He is certainly not humble about his own skills and considers himself above his fellow inmates. A rotating cast of other interviewees including Defriest’s ex- and current wife (his second he met via a prison pen pal program and didn’t meet until a week after they had been married), his step-sister, an ex-warden of the Florida State Prison, Defriest’s lawyer and Dr. Robert Berland—the same psychiatrist whose evaluation of Defriest as having faked his mental illness convinced a judge to send him to trial—all seem to more or less agree with Defriest that he doesn’t belong in there with those people.
Most of the documentary’s best moments are found in its first half. Instead of the painfully bad animated flashbacks the film’s second half relies on (more on those later), we see several film clips and photographs of a young, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Defriest being raised by his burly father and nervous-looking mother. Interviews with his first wife Brenda paint him as an affable child with a zest for life and a remarkably prodigious skill with mechanics, engineering and drawing. His father, a mechanic himself, was in the OSS during World War II and trained his son from a young age in military strategy and intelligence all in order to fight back against an imminent Russian invasion. Defriest recalls his own childhood with an understandable fondness and nostalgia (he has now spent more of his life in prison than out of it). While discussing Defriest’s first few years in prison, footage of the specific institutions at which Defriest stayed are edited together to great contextual effect. However, past the second half, things start to drag and more and more animations of Defriest’s past abuses (committed both by him and against him) are used to break up the monotony of his present day court appeals. Personally, I’d prefer to stay in the present than have to suffer through said animations.
About one half of the film is dedicated either to Defriest recounting his past or recreations of past events from his letters and journals. Apparently just watching Defriest (who happens to be a uniquely impassioned and vital interview subject) as he tells his story was deemed too dull. The solution? Animate the anecdotes. Simply put, the animations are atrocious. The comic book style characters tend to move one limb at a time against static backgrounds while the designs themselves feature grossly exaggerated features and proportions (for a good reference point, watch the Canadian youth drama Dark Oracle). At their best, the animations are awkward and unintentionally funny and at their worst they’re outright salacious. These poorly rendered recreations of frequently violent events seem like an odd choice if you’re trying to portray those events and Defriest himself as anything other than—well, comic. But then again, it’s rather unclear how exactly the animations are supposed to make us feel about Defriest and his story.
Take for instance a scene in which Defriest recounts his first escape attempt from the Florida State Hospital back in 1981. While awaiting his psychological evaluation from Dr. Berland, Defriest decides to make a break for it. He sneaks into the nurses’ station between shifts, breaks into the medical cabinet, and empties a bottle of LSD 25 (Defriest estmates about 75-100 tabs worth) into a fresh pot of coffee. Once the nurses and security staff have all had a fresh cuppa, Defriest assumes that everyone will be so stoned that he can waltz out the doors. However, another patient has a panic attack in the washroom in response to the repetitive motions of the dryer and security locks down the ward. Here, the animation goes through a baffling transition as the coffee/acid brew starts spinning and clothes begin falling into it; eventually the pot of coffee morphs into the dryer that triggered the patient’s aforementioned breakdown. While Defriest mourns his lost opportunity, a female psychologist drinks a cup of the poisoned coffee and starts running up and down the ward screaming, “My pussy’s hot! My pussy’s hot!” The psychologist is drawn with one hand shoved between her legs and the other hand high above her head waving in ecstasy while some vaguely psychedelic fireworks explode from her head. If this seems like a strangely comical and exploitative ending to a bizarre scene, keep in mind that it is accompanied by a hokey, MIDI rendering of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg—a piece which has become musical shorthand for “tricksy shenanigans are afoot!”
Scenes like these are odd in their own right, but become even stranger when compared to later flashbacks that have an animated Defriest being beaten in his cell by guards in riot gear. Blood spurts from his mouth while the outrageously beefy guards smirk, laugh, and generally revel in their own sadism. All the while, excerpts from Defriest’s disciplinary reports are projected onto his cell walls as a monotone voice reads them aloud: “Hacksaw blade found in shoe…homemade knife in sink…inmate found with 12” icepick and five .22 caliber bullets.” And then there’s the scene in which Defriest is gang raped on his arrival to Florida State Prison. The animation is mostly static but shows Defriest being pinned down and penetrated by while a crowd of other inmates watch. Worth noting is that these scenes, which draw on excerpts from Defriest’s letters, are not narrated by Defriest but rather by a voice actor that sounds (somewhat) like him. Obviously he must have signed a waiver to give the filmmakers the access and permission to create these moments, but there is something repugnant about graphically rendering such a traumatic event all for the purpose of garnering audience sympathy—especially since they’ve had that sympathy since the moment Defriest started talking. And this is ultimately the film’s greatest flaw: it spends all of its time stockpiling sympathy for its subject without ever actually investigating the ways in which abuse is institutionalized in the prison system or why that corruption exists in the first place. The System is run by the Man and it is Evil (and full of Evil People) while Defriest is the Victim (or the Underdog or the Freedom Fighter or the Trickster at different points throughout the film) and is Innocent. But, while he may not culpable, Defriest is most certainly not innocent.
There is no doubt that Defriest was abused by the prison system. He was manipulated into waiving his own rights and pleading guilty to a life sentence just to avoid further torture by his jailers. But the documentarians cannot seem to allow for the more complex reality that Defriest is not merely a harmless victim, but rather a significant threat to others and to himself. Moreover he is definitely not a valiant rebel sticking it to the Man. How anyone could think so is beyond me, especially when he brags about his countless violent infractions by saying “My prison file is two and a half inches thick and reads like a James Bond spy novel.” His response to the administration cracking down after he fashioned two zip guns and fired them into a crowd of inmates? “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.” That Defriest is fundamentally incapable of appreciating the austere consequences of his actions should be proof enough that he’s mentally ill and should never have stood trial in the first place. But another one of the film’s major flaws is how intentionally ambiguous they make his illness. They never give a firm diagnosis (although it is implied that he suffers from psychotic paranoia) and at one point Defriest even asks point blank to his interviewers “Do I seem crazy? Can we have an honest opinion from the peanut gallery?” The silence and scene cut that follow are answer enough that the filmmakers want to establish that Defriest is vaguely mentally ill (enough so that his imprisonment is clearly wrong) but not crazy enough so that an audience couldn’t relate to him.
Moreover, the documentary makes almost no attempt to actually investigate the injustices committed against Defriest. Aside from an oblique comment from the ex-warden about a group of guards he knew to be beating inmates against his orders, no other specific instances of abuse are cited. Of course there is the litany of abuses listed by Defriest, but no names are named and few dates or locations are discussed. Instead, the abuses are spliced together in order to emphasize Defriest’s victimization. No guards or currently working prison administrators are interviewed nor is it made clear that any were ever reached for an interview. As the film devolves into Defriest’s animated abuses, time is blurred and it’s never clear exactly when and from what source any given account of a rape or beating is drawn from. The five other psychologists who evaluated Defriest never appear in the film and neither does the judge who sentenced him to life in prison.
However, perhaps the strangest thing about the film’s tactics—favoring sensationalist and salacious depictions of prison abuse over a factual investigation of how that abuse is perpetrated—is that they worked. In early March of 2015, the Florida Parole Board reduced Defriest’s sentence by 70 years and, after serving another year in Florida and two other out of state sentences, Defriest will be eligible for parole. This turn of events is due much in part by the documentary and the media buzz surrounding its tour. London even showed the film to the Florida Parole Commissioners which most certainly had an effect on the decision. So to come down on the film so hard in light of the obvious good it has done seems awfully curmudgeonly of me, I know. But I can’t help but wonder how much more good the film might have done if it hadn’t attempted to oversimplify the people it claims to be speaking for. However, much like the countless physical constraints placed upon him, Defriest breaks free of such simplistic characterizations and I can only hope his story—and that of the rest of the mentally ill population still in prison—are due for a more investigative and complex evaluation in the near future.
You can currently watch The Mind of Mark Defriest on Showtime or on demand.
Joshua Palmer is a writer, musician, and dilettante-about-town living in San Antonio, Texas. He graduated from Trinity University with a major in Wumbology, a minor in English, and did his Honors Thesis on the effects of listening to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds while crying in bed about stupid boys who don’t even deserve you. He does not have a twitter and apologizes to everyone for this.