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Film Review: ‘The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest’

A bizarre story gets an absorbing telling in Gabriel London's documentary.

Mark DeFriest, Ron McAndrew, John Middleton, Bonnie DeFriest, Barbie Taylor, Robert Berland. (Voices: Scoot McNairy, Shea Whigham.)

The crimes committed by Mark DeFriest have kept him behind bars since 1979, most of that time spent in solitary confinement. Yet it’s highly questionable that he poses any serious danger to society, and none of his individual misdeeds is of a type that ordinarily rates significant hard time. Indeed, the real problem seems to be that he’s simply been too ingenious at escaping, improvising contraband and embarrassing prison officials, all while possibly suffering from undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. It’s a bizarre story not entirely clear in the telling — partly because we can’t be entirely sure when the subject is telling the truth — but absorbing nonetheless. With careful handling, Gabriel London’s documentary could break out of the festival circuit into limited theatrical release, picking up some traction for broadcast and download sales.

Sometimes dubbed “the Houdini of Florida” — among, no doubt, many worse things — DeFriest was a newly married 19-year-old with a somewhat rocky upbringing when he first entered that state’s Apalachee Prison. His crime was a dubious one, according to many: A mechanical whiz like his beloved father, he’d inherited the latter’s tools, taking them without waiting for the recently deceased parent’s will to be probated. His stepmother called the police, and by the time the goods were deemed legally his, he’d already gotten a four-year sentence for theft complicated by felony firearms possession and fleeing arrest.

A month after incarceration, he escaped, hot-wired a friend’s car, and was caught again. Thus was established a pattern of subversive actions — abetted by not just DeFriest’s Mr. Fix-It talents, but also the survival tactics his ex-Marine dad taught him — which enraged officials and kept extending his prison term to near-infinity over coming decades.

Among his stunts were putting LSD (how did that get into the prison pharmacy, anyway?) in a staff coffee pot, and creating zipguns from hospital arts-and-crafts materials. “Nobody’s got a sense of humor … they can’t take a joke,” he shrugs in retrospect. Indeed, the authorities weren’t laughing. And DeFriest laid himself open to some pretty horrendous experiences as a result, purportedly including being tortured by guards (with mace, fire hoses, etc.), being gang-raped by inmates, and spending 27 of his 34 years to date behind bars in solitary. It’s rather shocking, then, that in London’s jailhouse interview footage, he appears healthy, relaxed and fairly upbeat.

That itself may be an aspect of his mental illness, according to the very same psychiatric expert, Robert Berland, who once testified that DeFriest was only faking signs of psychological damage. Now Berland thinks that assessment was inaccurate, and believes Mark may be “genuinely psychotic,” perhaps as a result of Shaken Baby Syndrome. That might partly explain his seemingly congenital inability to obey or even humor authority, as well as numerous actions any saner personality with his high intelligence would realize could only lengthen and worsen his life behind bars.

Other interviewees include his first wife, his older-looking current one (whom he met online), his lawyer and a former warden. Of course the most dramatic chapters of this story couldn’t be filmed, so London has them illustrated by Thought Cafe animation studio in a simple, effective graphic-novel style that lends considerable color, while also suggesting a delusional narcissism that might be one way the tricky, restless “mind of Mark DeFriest” works.

Plenty of questions remain, some because the film takes its protagonist’s side as a victim and downplays his keepers’ legitimate gripes. (Closing onscreen stats about various widespread injustices in the U.S. prison feel a bit irrelevant here, as the subject’s case is so exceptional and eccentric.) While at present things don’t look good, it’s just possible DeFriest may one day be paroled. In that case, a follow-up docu relating his further adventures and clarifying details about his past would be welcome.

Tech aspects are polished.

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Film Review: 'The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, April 21, 2014. (In Hot Docs Film Festival — International Spectrum.) Running time: 100 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Found Objects and Naked Edge Films presentation in association with Mighty Pictures and Thoughtmakers. Produced by Daniel J. Chalfen, Gabriel London, Charlie Sadoff. Executive producers, Peter Brusikiewicz, Jim Butterworth, David Menschel.


Directed by Gabriel London. Camera (color, HD), Eric Koretz, William Charles Moss, Andreas Wagner; editor, Nick Clark; music, Ronan Coleman; music supervisors, Joseph Rudge, Kyle McKeveny; animation, Jonathon Corbiere, Thought Cafe; sound recordist, Susan Bryant; re-recording mixer/sound designer, Eli Cohn.

With: Mark DeFriest, Ron McAndrew, John Middleton, Bonnie DeFriest, Barbie Taylor, Robert Berland. (Voices: Scoot McNairy, Shea Whigham.)

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