Documentary chronicles Harlem teen's life after doing time at NYC's notorious Rikers Island
Michael Martin rebuilds his life after juvenile incarceration as part of a new public TV series from the nonprofit BYkids.
New York City no longer detains minors at Rikers Island, one of the most notoriously violent correctional facilities in the country — but that rule wasn’t yet in effect when Michael Martin of East Harlem couldn’t post his $40,000 bail.
Martin, now 19, spent five months at Rikers when he was 17 years old. In a new documentary that airs on PBS's THIRTEEN in March, Martin details how he rebuilt his life after those months, shedding light on the issue of youth incarceration and the need for criminal justice reform.
“I used to chill outside on the block, I’ve been locked up, I’ve been shot,” Martin says in the open shot of the short documentary, which he directed with the help of BYkids, a nonprofit that mentors teens to tell their stories in order to highlight injustices around the world.
“I think it’s important to tell people your story because...everybody’s got a different point of view and sometimes that point of view could help the next person,” he adds. “It’s a chance to speak about how you feel in life and basically just establish a connection.”
The 27-minute documentary follows Martin after his time in Rikers after he was unable to post bail concerning a felony robbery charge. In the film, he joins Friends of Island Academy, a support group for New York City teens recently released from incarceration, and then gets a job painting murals, records his first song in a studio and takes his GED. Throughout, it features his grandmother, who believes in his ability to turn his life around and notes how much he’s changed since he was locked up.
To help Martin tell his story, BYkids paired him with two seasoned filmmakers, director Chiemi Karasawa and cinematographer Hollis Meminger, who were with Martin through the filming, editing and even screenings of his short, where Karasawa said people applauded him and even asked for pictures.
“He was the author and owner of his own story, and just to see that come alive when we turned on the camera was really exciting,” she said. “I only hope that he continues to express himself and feels comfortable expressing himself in any medium, because there’s a lot to learn from somebody like him.”
Called “I Could Tell You ‘Bout My Life,” Martin’s film is just one in a series of four new films for BYkids’s second season. The films will air every Sunday in March and be used in BYkids educational packages in classrooms around the world.
Holly Carter, executive director of BYkids, said the nonprofit finds these teens by first choosing a list of topics they want to explore, whether immigration, climate change or youth incarceration.
“We often hear these big social justice issues with big statistics,” Carter said. “This upends all of that. We’re not talking about statistics here, we’re talking about one young man’s struggle with the system that most of us are never privy to.”
Those involved in the film hope it shines a light on the nuances of juvenile incarceration.
“There are so many circumstances [Martin] points out in the film that lead up to that kinda inevitably for young people like him,” Karasawa said.
The other Season 2 films follow a 12-year-old in Nicaragua whose family coffee crop is being decimated by climate change, a 17-year-old Syrian refugee making a new life in Berlin and a 13-year-old from Senegal who would have been forced into marriage if not for recent cultural changes. These stories open people's eyes to issues around the world, and, Martin’s fits right in with that effort.
“Mike’s life, [even] for most New Yorkers, is another country,” she said.
Still, it’s relatable, which is the entire point of the program — along with giving voice to an issue and group that has too often been voiceless.
“We need to focus on our shared humanity, not our differences. We need to use personal storytelling as a way to bridge cultural divides,” said Carter. “The primary goal is to have films and activities around the film in the classroom so our next generation of leaders actually have empathy and a sense of global citizenry.”
“I Could Tell You ‘Bout My Life” premiers on NYC’s WNET/THIRTEEN on Sunday, March 3 at 7:30 p.m. The other three films will broadcast each following Sunday in March at 7:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN. Check your local PBS listing for other cities.