The film Mothers of Bedford follows the struggles of five women serving time in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a women’s maximum security prison. Aside from being fellow inmates, the women also share one vital characteristic—they are all mothers. Filmmaker Jenifer McShane spent more than four years working on the film—listening, watching, and questioning. She allows the stories to unfold naturally, without judgment or bias but instead encouraging freedom for the characters to speak and interact in a way that leaves audiences connected. These women become people you feel you already know. McShane provides painful, raw footage of families torn, children aching for their mothers. At times you want to look away, but then you remember its authenticity, its value, and you watch, and you learn. It’s a film that lingers.
Life of Riley: When did you first become interested in filmmaking?
McShane: I was working and living in NYC and took a working holiday in Northern Ireland volunteering at an integrated school there. I was impressed with the grassroots movement and felt it was a story that needed to be told. I met with various people at CBS (where I worked) and realized I had a different vision of the story and decided to make a film myself with a partner.
Life of Riley: Who were role models or icons that you followed for inspiration?
McShane: Specific to Mothers of Bedford, I would have to say Sr. Elaine Roulet was the inspiration for the film. She is a visionary and just stubborn enough to make things happen! The parenting programs at Bedford exist in large part because of her sheer will and, honestly, that is the case with independent documentaries that deal with social change. Most are completed because the filmmaker just won’t give up. Then as I got to know the women better they became my inspiration for finishing it no matter what.
Life of Riley: Tell readers a little about your first film, A Leap of Faith.
McShane: Having grown up in NYC attending diverse public schools, I was intrigued with the notion of integration as it relates to Northern Ireland. I had great respect for the parents who decided they wanted something better for their children than the segregated system they found themselves in.
Life of Riley: Did you expect such overwhelming success?
McShane: No, it was the first film for me and my co-director, Tricia Regan. When we were accepted in to competition at Sundance Film Festival we were still finishing the documentary and did not even have funds available for the film print! After Sundance, it screened at many film festivals and aired on television here and in Europe.
Life of Riley: Before we talk about your most recent film, Mothers of Bedford, I’d like to discuss the actual filmmaking process. I know you spent more than four years visiting Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Does each project dictate the length of time you’ll devote to research and filming?
McShane: It is based very much on the topic and the people you are following. Obviously, I had very limited access compared to following a story on the outside so that required as many visits as possible. Also, I think the more time you spend the greater depth you achieve. As a filmmaker the more time you spend the more clearly you understand the situation you are observing. Also, I think, with more time the women featured knew that my goals were not exploitative.
Life of Riley: Recently I attended Mothers of Bedford at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. The film is powerful—beautiful, sad and raw. What has been the overall reaction to the film?
McShane: Extremely positive. From Hot Docs Festival in Toronto where it premiered to NYC the response has been terrific. I made the film in large part for those who have no experience with prison. I feel strongly many will not care about the topic, sadly, unless they can relate to the women in some meaningful way– this is why it is a character driven piece. I feel blessed that I have such amazing characters in the film and a wonderful editor Toby Shimin who was a joy to work with. Shimin is the editor of the current box office hit and Sundance winner, Buck.
Life of Riley: A key ingredient to any film’s success is the cast. And there’s no exception here. How did you decide on these particular five women?
McShane: My first week filming at prison was a random week of the prison’s “summer program”. There was little notice – so little that I had no time to find a camera person and my brother generously stepped in and spent his vacation shooting for me. I met none of the women in advance. There were about 15 mothers participating with their children. Four of the five women I follow were in that first summer program week I filmed so it was about as close to a random sample (of women in parenting program) that I could get. The nursery mother’s baby was too young to be in the summer program so I met her in the visiting room and she kindly let me follow her experience.
Life of Riley: As a mother, how hard was it to see the effect of incarceration on these women and their families, specifically their children?
McShane: Initially, I was very depressed every time I left the prison. My heart breaks for Tanika Dickson who is still incarcerated at Bedford and recently missed her son’s high school graduation. Overall, it became a positive experience as I was moved by the mothers’ decisions to nurture their children and work to keep the mother-child bond intact.
Life of Riley: What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
McShane: I want to humanize a segment of population that is largely forgotten. Sister Elaine Roulet, the founder of the program, says “bars can not separate a child from their mother’s love”. This really resonated with me. If as a society we claim to be rehabilitating people rather than warehousing them, we must give inmates the opportunity to strengthen family relationships so that they have someone to return home to. A loving relationship of some type is something we all need whether we are incarcerated or not and it is vitally important for someone behind bars.
Tanika Dickson is applying for clemency and I support that and hope it is granted. For information on Tanika’s clemency application and how you can support it please contact her attorney firstname.lastname@example.org. If this film can help in even the smallest way I will be very happy. The program budget for Bedford’s parenting programs has been slashed. Again, my hope is this film will, perhaps, illustrate the vital need for this work in as many prisons (male and female) as possible.
Learn more about the Mothers of Bedford project and film at www.mothersofbedford.com. You can keep up-to-date on upcoming screenings and the latest news by following the Mothers of Bedford on Facebook and Twitter.
Jenifer McShane, director of Mothers of Bedford, was born and raised in New York City. Jeniferʼs first film, A Leap of Faith, about an integrated school in Belfast, Northern Ireland premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996. A Leap of Faith screened at many film festivals, played theatrically in NYC, Boston, and San Francisco and was televised in the US and abroad. During the intervening years, Jenifer was the US Executive Director of the non-profit, Co-operation Ireland. She lives in CT with her husband and two sons, Owen and James.