A screenshot from the original documentary “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story,” which focused on Cyntoia Brown, a 16-year-old arrested for murder in 2004, by USC Annenberg professor Dan Birman.

USC Annenberg Professor Dan Birman’s “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story” inspires digital series by PBS “Independent Lens” and The Tennessean

The PBS series Independent Lens is partnering with USC Annenberg’s Dan Birman and Nashville media company The Tennessean to produce a digital series exploring juvenile sentencing laws in Tennessee.

Scheduled to appear over the next few months, “Sentencing Children” features video pieces produced by Birman, USC Annenberg alumna Megan Chao and Susy Garciasalas Barkley – paired with stories written by Tennessean investigative reporter Anita Wadhwani.

The first two episodes can be viewed here:

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The series was inspired by Birman’s original documentary, “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story,” which focused on Cyntoia Brown, a 16-year-old arrested for murder in 2004. Filmed over six years, the film took an in-depth look at Brown’s family background and followed her case through the judicial system, where she was tried as an adult, convicted and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of release for 51 years.

When the film premiered on Independent Lens in 2011, it sparked a global conversation on the issue, and Birman continued to follow her case.

“‘Me Facing Life’ was an attempt to understand Cyntoia’s back story so that we might bring some broader social discussions to light,” said Birman, professor at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. “What we did not anticipate was just how far the documentary would reach, or the amount of feedback it would receive, even many years later. Nor did we consider the possibility that Tennessee lawmakers would take a hard look at juvenile sentencing laws as a result of the documentary.

“Thanks to Independent Lens — specifically Lois Vossen and Stephen Talbot —‘Sentencing Children’ takes this conversation to a new level.”

Lois Vossen, Independent Lens executive producer, said: “Dan and I have had a shared desire to follow Cyntoia’s story since before the documentary even aired. ITVS [the Independent Television Series] developed this initiative to pair independent filmmakers with journalists to deepen the conversation. Dan’s extraordinary access to both Cyntoia in prison and many others working at the forefront of juvenile justice reform means this unique collaboration will explore the topic from multiple perspectives and continue to spark conversations that resonate in Tennessee and across our country.”

The new digital series reflects USC Annenberg’s commitment to innovative instruction and collaborative delivery, Birman said.

“We’re teaching students to explore different ways of working on multiple platforms. This is a series that’s rooted in video and text, presented on a digital platform, and is shared through social media. Students can see this is the world they are moving into when they graduate."

ITVS and Independent Lens, funded by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Park Foundation to pioneer innovative collaborations between journalists and independent filmmakers, approached Anita Wadhwani, an investigative reporter at The Tennessean, to partner on the project.

Wadhwani, whose investigative reporting has been honored by The Associated Press, the Tennessee Press Association, and the South Asian Journalists Association, was familiar with Cyntoia Brown’s case although she hadn’t previously reported on it. Intrigued by the idea of collaboration around the issues of juvenile sentencing, she agreed to be part of “Sentencing Children.”

“We are pleased to be collaborating with ITVS on the series and to be shedding a light on incarcerating children in America with life sentences,” said Maria De Varenne, news director of The Tennessean.

Additional video pieces scheduled for “Sentencing Children” include a look at Cyntoia’s appeal in 2013, proposed legislation that would overhaul juvenile sentencing and offer the possibility of early release for juveniles, and how sometimes the rights of juvenile offenders — which are the same as adults — are violated by the system.


“Sentencing Children”

A Digital Series by

Daniel H Birman Productions

Daniel H. Birman     Producer

Megan E. Chao     Producer and Editor

Susy Garciasalas Barkley     Associate Producer and Assistant Editor

Independent Lens Digital

   Producer     Stephen Talbot

     Editor          Sowjanya Kudva

    Project Manager   Ingrid Lee

About Independent Lens
Independent Lens is an Emmy® Award-winning weekly series airing on PBS Monday nights at 10:00 PM. The acclaimed series features documentaries united by the creative freedom, artistic achievement, and unflinching visions of independent filmmakers. Presented by Independent Television Service, the series is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people, with additional funding from PBS, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Wyncote Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. For more visit pbs.org/independentlens. Join the conversation: facebook.com/independentlens and on Twitter @IndependentLens

About the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
Located in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California, the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is a national leader in education and scholarship in the fields of communication, journalism, public diplomacy and public relations. With an enrollment of more than 2,200 students, USC Annenberg offers doctoral, master's and bachelor's degree programs, as well as continuing development programs for working professionals across a broad scope of academic inquiry. The school's comprehensive curriculum emphasizes the core skills of leadership, innovation, service and entrepreneurship and draws upon the resources of a networked university located in the media capital of the world.