For 30 years Mark DeFriest has only had one goal on his mind: freedom. Unjustly sent to prison at age 19 for “stealing” tools that were allegedly willed to him by his father, DeFriest has watched his four-year stint turn into a life sentence. What heinous act did DeFriest do to warrant such punishment? He simply embarrassed the Florida penal system by exposing its flaws. An act that is seemingly worse than murder. DeFriest may joke about his sentence being punishment for assassinating Lincoln, but the fact remains that his sentence seems rather severe considering he has never physically harmed anyone.
Called the “Houdini of Florida”, DeFriest gained notoriety for repeatedly breaking out of various jails in Florida. A real life MacGyver of sorts, DeFriest used whatever scraps he could find to make working keys, double barrel zip guns and various other escape related items from scratch. Like a clockmaker intricately deconstructing the components of a wristwatch, DeFriest used his brilliantly inquisitive mind to breakdown a seemingly impenetrable prison system. Despite the fact that five out of six court appointed psychiatrists questioned his mental competency, citing symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, it was the testimony of Dr. Berland, along with a guilty plea on a 3rd felony charge, that ultimately sealed DeFriest’s fate.
Believing that DeFriest was faking the traits of mental illness, Dr. Berland’s assessment aided in sending DeFriest down the dark and disturbing rabbit hole that is the American penal system. Winding up in some of the toughest prisons in Florida, DeFriest was subjected to physical abuse and has spent years in a custom made isolation cell. Clearly those in charge were trying to break DeFriest’s fiery anti-authority spirit. However, after years of abuse, DeFriest finds himself once again in the presence of Dr. Berland. This time though, Dr. Berland makes a startling admission about his original diagnosis that could change the fate of DeFriest latest parole hearing.
Talking to numerous individuals including DeFriest’s lawyer John Middleton, Dr. Berland and Mark DeFriest himself, director Gabriel London paints a compelling portrait of the injustice and brutality within the Florida penal system. Using animation to bring many of DeFriest’s journal entries to life, London is able to document the unimaginable hardships that DeFriest has endured over the years. Although the film crackles with energy, especially when recounting his numerous breakouts, The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest always ensures that DeFriest’s mental state always remains at the forefront.
London weaves a magnetic tale of an unethical system that lets its collective pride blind them from the true nature of DeFriest’s mental state. The film raises important questions regarding the ways in which mental illness is both diagnosed and treated within the legal system. DeFriest may jokingly ask the audience “do I look crazy to you?”, but what we really see in front of us is a man that the system has repeatedly failed. The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest is a riveting and tragic film that should not be missed.
Wednesday, April 30, 7:00 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Thursday, May 1, 12:30 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Friday, May 2, 10:00 PM, The Royal Cinema