One aspect of the COVID shift for film festivals that I hope will continue is the virtual element. As delightful as it is to gather in person for screenings, having a virtual platform allows more people to access it. Not everyone is fully vaccinated or, in the case of Telluride, it’s not a quick trip to a theater. The 44th Denver Film Festival is Nov. 3-14, and there’s a small selection of films available for anyone in Colorado to stream.
Fortunately, one of my favorite 2021 documentaries, “Krimes,” can be seen in person, Nov. 6-7, and on the Eventive Denver Film platform, beginning Nov. 4. Director Alysa Nahmias and artist Jesse Krimes will be there in person for a question-and-answer session. I had the chance to sit down with Nahmias in Philadelphia, where the film is currently screening at the Philadelphia Film Festival.
Crafting the documentary over eight years, Nahmias worked with artists and production crews to collaborate with Krimes. The film shadows him in Pennsylvania as he tries to reconnect with his son and find work in Philly. She also captures the excitement of art shows in New York, L.A. and Paris. There’s evocative animation by Molly Schwartz and a soundtrack (Amanda Jones) that utilizes formerly incarcerated singers in a subtle way.
A story of one man’s redemption through art, the film emerged in a similar fashion to the artwork showcased in the film. It was often a painstaking process funded as it proceeded and only finished with the collaboration of others. The trauma of incarceration and harsh reality of life after prison are integral to Krimes’ work. Yet both the film and the art have a lightness and joy that belie the years of struggle.
“Krimes” follows the trajectory of a small boy crafting dioramas in his family’s machine shop to the troubled youth now incarcerated to the confident man going to see his art featured at the MoMA. It’s astounding to learn what Krimes was able to create while incarcerated. As a young man who suffered the tragic loss of his father figure, the film traces his troubles with the law growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Sentenced to five years in prison, he fought depression and suicidal thoughts by dedicating all his time to making art.
In soul-crushing solitary confinement, Krimes utilized soap, playing cards and newspaper. He mailed his small art pieces out to save them from confiscation. Then during his tenure in another jail, as he feared the racial strife and violence within the prison, he again focused on creating art. This time a massive 30-foot mural was crafted in sections. Created on purloined prison bed sheets adorned with images made with materials he had access to, like hair gel and newsprint, Krimes often worked 12 hours a day. Each piece was mailed off as he waited to be released.
The documentary highlights the larger story of racial injustice in the criminal justice system in America and the tribulations of trying to establish a life on the outside. In prison, Krimes could use his art to establish links to mentors, but also to connect with other inmates. As a fellow formerly incarcerated artist comments in the film, in prison you have a skill that gives you power. Once you’re released, you have no power and you’re no one.
The camaraderie of fellow artists and the connections that Jesse Krimes established in the New York art world were crucial to securing his way forward. He’s a Guggenheim-winning artist who has shown work in New York’s MoMA and is a founder of the Right of Return Fellowship. He has become a vocal activist for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals. The film doesn’t sugar coat the struggle it takes to not fall back into bad habits. There’s a constant terror of one false move. There is no shortage of people who have spent time in prison in Philadelphia, a city that has had one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation.
The Philadelphia Reentry Coalition estimates that approximately 25,000 people are released from jail or prison and return to Philadelphia each year. Of that number, about a third are rearrested within a year, with young people most likely to be locked up again.
“Krimes” is an inspiring documentary that celebrates one man’s triumph of spirit and makes you want to see his work in person. Fortunately for us, there’s a traveling show of his art (follow him on Instagram at Jesse_Krimes) and he’s represented by the Malin Gallery in New York. In addition to his independent practice, Krimes successfully led a class-action lawsuit against JPMorgan Chase for their predatory practice of charging people released from federal prison exorbitant fees.
Don’t miss this moving documentary. Purchase your streaming pass at denverfilm.org, under the “Virtual Cinema” tab.
There’s so much to offer at this year’s Denver Film Festival from screenings at the Botanic Garden to tributes to actress Annabelle Sciorra (30th anniversary of “Jungle Fever”) and Irish actor James Dornan (“Belfast”). The documentary section is particularly strong this year, and I also recommend the not-to-be-missed “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America.”