Producer-director Margaret Byrne is developing an eight-part docuseries, “Fighting Time,” following a retired homicide detective and dozens of Latino and Black men who allege they were framed for murder, Variety has learned exclusively. Byrne’s latest feature, “Any Given Day,” screens this week in the International Spectrum competition at Hot Docs.
The Chicago-born multi-hyphenate has spent the past three years following court cases in her hometown, where dozens of murder convictions have been overturned amid revelations of corruption and misconduct within the Chicago Police Department. “It’s a series that takes place in the court system, but also follows the active investigation of one of the cases,” Byrne told Variety.
The series will offer a behind-the-scenes look at efforts to exonerate dozens of men who were wrongfully convicted, often with little more evidence than eyewitness testimonies, while also highlighting a pattern of wrongdoing throughout the ranks of the police force. “It is an egregious act that so many people were allegedly framed with these murders,” Byrne said. “Some of them have 100-year sentences. They’re not coming home.”
For “Any Given Day,” the filmmaker tells a more personal story, in which she follows three defendants through a specialized mental health probation program while battling her own mental illness. Sharing their struggles as she faces her own challenges, Byrne demonstrates how precarious the ties between people with mental illness, their families and society can be.
When she began filming in 2015, “I had just come out of a recent hospitalization,” she said. “I was looking for something to do to sort of connect me to the world again.” Her search led to Chicago’s Cook County Jail, which in the midst of widespread defunding of community mental health care programs across the country has become a default treatment center for people living with mental illness.
The jail system offers a probation program that allows participants to receive treatment for their illnesses and avoid incarceration. “This program, in some ways, is positive,” said Byrne. “The people are getting treatment, they’re in their community. They’re not incarcerated, they have an opportunity to expunge their record. At the same time I questioned should the criminal justice system be the place where people are getting treatment?”
“Any Given Day” follows three participants navigating the probation program and attempting to get their lives back on track, capturing the hard-fought triumphs and struggles of living at the intersection of mental illness, poverty, and addiction. Byrne shot most of the footage herself, “which is why the film I think is so intimate,” she said. “It really becomes a conversation between all of us.”
Turning the camera on herself was not a choice the filmmaker took lightly, but she decided that she needed to be an active participant if “Any Given Day” were going to make the impact she wanted. “If I really want to make a film that is going to help to de-stigmatize mental illness,” she reasoned, “then I need to be transparent about why I’m doing it, what I’ve struggled with, and why we’re connecting how we’re connecting.”
Byrne said she hoped “Any Given Day” will give audiences a better understanding of “what a mental illness looks like,” especially at a time when many people have been pushed to a breaking point. “With this pandemic…it’s kind of hit home in a way,” she said. “We’re all isolated, and that’s sort of the root of depression—not connecting with anything or anyone.
“I think that’s one of the important messages in the film,” she continued. “It doesn’t even take that much to really reach out to people. But this little thing of just being…accountable, being present with people in their lives.”