When we first read Nick Kulish’s June 2020 community bails funds story in The New York Times, Colorado Freedom Fund founder Elisabeth Epps leapt off the page. We could feel her energy and her power in just a few lines:
She made the 30-mile trip to sit in the reception area at the Boulder jail — or, as she called it, the “Boulder County cage” — to bail out three men she had never met.
“I’m here to pay ransom,” Ms. Epps told her followers as she livestreamed herself on Twitter.
— Bail Funds, Flush With Cash, Learn to ‘Grind Through This Horrible Process’ by Nicholas Kulish
This feeling only deepened when we facetimed Elisabeth and witnessed her deep passion for the work of freeing people and her commitment to educate others about the injustice of cash bail. It was also clear to us that cash bail was only the tip of the iceberg; Elisabeth saw the end of it as a step towards creating a world that did not rely on prisons or police.
As documentary filmmakers, we often grapple with covering issues around our criminal justice system — a system that is so complicated and large and isn’t always easy to capture on screen. So our films look at movements, and we aim to do it in a way that puts the people first. In our work, we’ve followed leaders of the Black and Missing Foundation (HBO’s BLACK AND MISSING) and documented the stories of SNCC activists with local organizers (LOWNDES COUNTY AND THE ROAD TO BLACK POWER). To us, Elisabeth embodied a movement that resonated acutely at the time we met her — the stark racial disparities of the pandemic and policing in the summer of 2020 made her story and activism feel urgent and connected to the broader conversations we were having nationally.
HOW WE GET FREE is first and foremost a personal story — an intimate portrait of a deeply dedicated abolitionist over the course of two formative years through which we examine the byzantine cash bail system.
She was a vehicle for us to learn about the cash bail system; it is one of the most complex and bureaucratic legal systems, and that’s why it is so hard to eradicate. People who have not been convicted of any crime and who sit in jail pretrial comprise the majority of people in jail. And they are then further entrenched into cycles of poverty and incarceration. How is this justice? Through Elisabeth’s story, and the people she allows us to meet, we hope the audience will feel just how convoluted and abusive the system is — and make us all think about what it will take from us to dismantle it.