Birman's documentary explores juvenile violence through "Cyntoia's Story"

By Jackson DeMos

What would cause a 16-year-old girl to kill someone?

Journalism professor Dan Birman (pictured, above left) explores this question in his latest documentary, "Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story." The film takes an in-depth look at Cyntoia Brown (pictured, below right), beginning the week she was arrested. He spent six years uncovering the answers. Brown becomes a face for many of the vast numbers of youth inmates in the prison system.

"I got into this business to make a difference." Birman said. "With 'Cyntoia's Story,' I had the opportunity to dive into a story that has a social message. It is filled with opportunities to hold up a social mirror and take a look."

The documentary is scheduled to air on PBS' Independent Lens on March 1 and is being featured in more than 98 cities nationwide throughout February as part of the ITVS Community Cinema Program. USC Annenberg hosted a separate Feb. 17 screening in the Annenberg Auditorium.

Cyntoia BrownFive recent USC Annenberg alumni worked on the documentary, including David Eisenberg, who was one of the editors as well as the associate producer. Alexia Loskutoff, Amy Tenowich, Erica Bardin and Megan Chao assisted with research. Chao also handled show delivery and came up with the title.

Birman took a risk on this documentary by financing it on his own.

"I was rolling the dice on this," he said. "I knew I had a good story, but what I couldn't predict was whether or not a network would pick it up. This is not a feel-good piece; it's a heavy social story."

He submitted the film to the documentary series Independent Lens. A few months later he found out -- during a meeting at Annenberg -- that his documentary had been selected.

"When I got the e-mail, I blurted it out at the meeting and turned beet red," he said. "I was blown away to be among the filmmakers chosen by Independent Lens. This sets a new bar for me." Birman remarked that the news came on his late mother's birthday.

In a letter from the filmmaker featured on the ITVS website, Birman said he faced big challenges in completing the documentary, including access to the juvenile justice system, the prison system and Brown's family - all from 2,000 miles away.

Cyntoia's Story"Most important, I had to gain Cyntoia's trust - she needed to be comfortable with being challenged on camera about every aspect of her life," he wrote. "I made only one promise - that I would ask good questions and look for the buried issues that might shed light on youth violence."

He said Brown was at first embarrassed when she read a copy of the final script and realized that millions of people could potentially hear her story.

"She told me that she had made 'some really big mistakes' but that she would suffer the embarrassment if she could prevent one young person from repeating her mistakes."

Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story 
Feb. 17 screening at USC Annenberg
Cyntoia's Story on Facebook
More on Birman

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