As “The Mind of Mark DeFriest” opens, the camera pans to a sign reading, “Do not pick up hitchhikers — prison facilities.” The opening frame is eerie, setting up the feel of the rest of the film.
The 100-minute documentary “The Mind of Mark DeFriest” chronicles the tale of its often misunderstood namesake. The film works to uncover the truth behind DeFriest’s persona. Is he one of over 500,000 incarcerated that have a history of mental illness? Or is he a teen gone rogue?
“If you turn on the television and try to watch news, you see a severe deficit of factual storytelling,” director Gabriel London said in phone interview.
That’s the gap he aimed to fill with DeFriest’s story.
For those who are not familiar with his infamous name, DeFriest was dubbed the “Houdini ofFlorida." A notorious escape artist, DeFriest was a master of mechanics from a young age. He was skilled in taking apart and reassembling various household items, such as clocks, telephones and radios, as well as bugging rooms. One notable prank he played was rewiring his sister’s telephone line so that her conversations blared on loudspeaker in the streets. Maybe the way he spent his leisure time in adolescence was an indicator of turmoil to come.
At the age of 17, after his father’s sudden passing, DeFriest walks into his stepmother’s home and attempts to steal his father’s tools that were originally left to him. The two argue and DeFriest is put into prison for four years. Instead of keeping to himself and waiting out his sentence quietly, he escapes.
The film pushes the audience into DeFriest’s mind and life. Clips of DeFriest today are interwoven with snippets of his past: pictures, videos of interrogations, interviews with people in his life and, the most dramatically entertaining, animations of his various escape attempts.
These animations bring to life a few of the 13 escape attempts DeFriest has made (seven of which were successful). Based on illustrations that he drew while in solitary confinement for 27 years, these parts of the film make the viewer feel as if they are inside a video game. The graphics are computer-designed and help depict the chaos – both physical and mental - of the escape failures and successes. DeFriest narrates over the clips giving the audience extra information about each escape attempt.
By including characters such as his lawyer, parole officers, psychologist, interrogation officers, prison guards and family members, the directors give viewers an insight into DeFriest’s social abilities. Being in prison, specifically solitary confinement, for almost three decades can hinder one’s interpersonal skills.
Watching the film, one would not think this was the case with DeFriest. DeFriest is humorous and talkative, not anything like one would picture him to be. Despite being skinny and sleep-deprived when he first enters the screen, he is energetic. He constantly makes jokes and carries on a witty banter (also dropping “f” bombs left and right) with whomever he is conversing with. Weirdly, he also bears an eerie physical resemblance to John Green, author of “The Fault in Our Stars.”
It is also obvious that DeFriest is not acting or putting on a show for the sake of the cameras. The audience sees him as he really is, no alterations. Through his eyes and words, the brutal reality of prisons is exposed.
“I knew he was special from the beginning, but only as I made the film, I realized that there were huge injustices in his name. And that’s where the audience comes in,” London said.
The film builds a courtroom for DeFriest, letting the viewers be the jurors. During the film, they collect evidence: DeFriest’s testimony, the psychologist’s evaluation, prison guards’ observations, various test results and visual representations of escapes. At the end, the audience is able to decide for themselves whether DeFriest is the psychotic escape artist he was made out to be or a victim of the prison system.
“If I was just a rapist or a murderer, they’d let me out. But I’m the idiot that made them look like idiots,” DeFriest said in the film.
After several audiences first screened the movie in 2014, people began to rally behind DeFriest’s cause and compelled the Parole Commission to review his parole once again. A final decision will be made in March 2015.
“Mark put himself in as deep a hole as you can,” John Middleton, his attorney, said.
The movie ends on a hopeful note, with “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan playing while DeFriest’s picture fades and the end credits roll.