Filmmaker and VCFA Student Tamara Perkins Discusses Life After Life

compiled by Mike Dunphy

Few people, much less filmmakers, are as willing to dig into the “underbelly” of society as VCFA student Tamara Perkins. And she goes even further, devoting much time and energy to rehabilitation of those that either fall, or dive through, the cracks, be it with yoga and mindfulness training or filmmaking. Her film, Life After Life, which took 10 years to make, will be shown at the Green Mountain Film Festival. It follows the lives of three prisoners at San Quentin as they struggle with the transition from incarceration to freedom. Perkins was kind enough to sit down with The Bridge to discuss her background, career, education at VCFA, and the making of the film.

The Bridge: How did you get into film?

Tamara Perkins: I’ve always loved film and during my young life was involved in theater and writing. However, I started a career in business and high tech. After the 2001 recession, I began to rethink what I wanted to do with my life. I ended up getting involved in a lot of activism work and started a program teaching yoga and mindfulness in schools and juvenile halls, which brought me into San Quentin State Prison and introduced me to the men in my film. Around the same time I met this Taiwanese director who decided I would make a great producer. He asked me to produce a short, and I just fell in love with filmmaking.

How did you come to Vermont to study film at VCFA?

Perkins: I was looking for a place to get my MFA and was referred by a friend to VCFA’s low-residency program. So far it’s been incredible. The great thing about the program is that as a professional filmmaker, I’m already working on a new feature as well as other shorts and things like that. The program allows me to continue to do that work while working on my MFA. Plus, I’m a single mom with a toddler, so this felt like a really great opportunity to move forward with my educational and professional career. And Vermont is beautiful.  Just the drive from Burlington to Montpelier; oh my God, it’s gorgeous. It feels like a retreat.

What specifically have you taken from your courses that has helped?

Perkins: I think all the professors are amazing, especially Till Schauder, my adviser. As a documentary filmmaker, I’m finding the support and resources have been incredible. Also, I love getting the exposure to more experimental film, screenwriting, and other things. It’s been a fantastic amount of support.

How did this film come about?

Perkins: Some of the men in my yoga class at San Quentin found out I was an emerging filmmaker and asked me to tell their stories, and that led me to Life after Life.

What made you want to do the film?

Perkins: I had a gun to my head four times before I turned 18, and I am an assault survivor. That all happened when I was young, and I didn’t start this film until my 30s. However, these experiences definitely drove my activism work. The question I had was how does someone get to a point where they feel desperate enough or that that’s their first response. When I met the men in San Quentin and they asked me, I was ready. The reason I said yes was because it was something I felt pretty close to personally and there were questions I had, and obviously it was a compelling tale.

When you started filming did you know what you were going for or did you just turn on the cameras and let it happen?

Perkins: There was always a mission statement for the film, and that didn’t really change. However, the specific scope of the film definitely changed. When I first started filming, the men we followed serving life sentences were just not being released. Politically it was unfavorable, and even if one of them was found suitable for parole, the governor could and would veto it. In the beginning [the film] was about the activism that the men were leading inside prison. Things shifted with a new governor, and suddenly three men were released within a few months of each other. It quickly became clear that what was going to make a really special film would be following them on their journey home.

How did you get these men and their families to open up their whole lives to you?

Perkins: They had gotten to know me for a year before they even asked me to make the film, so there was some trust that was built.  And we talked really frankly in the beginning about what this means, and that in order to make an authentic film they would have to open up their lives to this process and be committed to that path. There was some time before we started filming to make that decision, but once they decided to do it, they were committed.

When dealing with such difficult and emotional topics at an intimate distance, how do you create a safe space for yourself?

Perkins: It’s really challenging working in a really uncomfortable and potentially unsafe space, such as a prison. But part of doing my grief and trauma work was making sure I had my own practices and support to remain healthy, whether it was yoga, mediation, my therapist, or having space to make sure I was taking care of myself. But there are a lot of us who are wounded healers, so part of my process of healing and taking care of myself is being involved in this kind of work. You would think taking on these stories would be a detriment to that, but really it keeps me grounded. And, by the way, the men I met and followed were also wounded healers.

How have the screenings of the film thus far gone?

Perkins: We started screening it this past year. I’ve been traveling across the country. We’ve done something like 25 screenings in colleges, community groups, prisons, reaching at least 5,000 people in person and using Facebook live to record and post our talks so we can reach more. I am also trying to use Skype when possible. It is a lot, but it’s also wonderful to meet different audiences and hear their stories.

Have there been wildly different reactions along the way?

Perkins: The response has been pretty strong and positive for the film. I personally have family members who are much more conservative, but they’ve responded well because of the transformation, the redemption—there’s a real restorative justice angle.  There are no outside experts trying to tell you how to think or feel. It’s just going on a journey. So that helps it to be more widely accepted.

How did you get involved in the Green Mountain Film Festival?

Perkins: They learned about my film when I was at my VCFA residency in October and reached out. It was not guaranteed at first, but after the programmers saw the film they thought it would be a good fit for the festival. What’s so exciting is that we’ve had other restorative justice organizations getting involved to create programs around the screenings. For example, the Essex Community Justice Center is supporting a screening and talk in Essex and the Montpelier Community Justice Center is involved in supporting the screening and panel on March 18. I was really excited to get involved. It looks like a wonderful festival.

Do you like being in the room watching the film with a live audience?

Perkins: I do. I like seeing the responses to the film, although I have trouble watching it too many times because it’s a really emotional film. For me, it’s mostly about what isn’t on screen, what I experienced during the making of the film.

Looking forward, do you have another film in mind or something you are working on?

Perkins: Yes, I started a new documentary called The Waiting List. It’s about the impact of the lack of affordable, appropriate, and accessible childcare.

Life After Life will be shown March 18 at 6:45 pm, at the Pavilion Auditorium in Montpelier and will be followed by a panel discussion. 

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