WorldScene Film Festival proves that incarcerated people are More Than a Uniform

“Art can be a powerful ‘leveler’ of difference,” says Nicole Dreiske, founder of the WorldScene Film Residency, a program designed to provide detainees at Cook County Jail with a voice to share their experiences and confront the damaging stereotypes perpetuated by popular media. This week, the WorldScene Film Residency culminates in a film festival curated to illuminate the struggles of young men entangled in the justice system, giving the detainees a voice to share their experiences with their community. 

The WorldScene Film Festival was developed by the International Children’s Media Center (ICMC) and Sheriff’s Anti-Violence Effort (S.A.V.E.) at Cook County Jail to promote empathy toward detainees and help improve rehabilitation efforts for the court-involved young men. The festival is curated by inmates ages 18 to 25. This year, WorldScene’s participants created the Through My Eyesprogram to encourage audiences to not discredit young men trapped in the justice system’s cyclical patterns.

The film festival features six award-winning films from four countries, including Academy Award-nominated short Feeling Through. The participants spent six months watching, discussing, and selecting the films chosen for the festival, highlighting the topics and emotional experiences that influenced them during the program. 

During the residency, the participants produced their own short film, More Than a Uniform, which will premiere to the public this weekend. More Than a Uniform engages with themes of empowerment, judicial obstacles, and diversity, intending to further destigmatize incarceration and separate the individual from the dangerous stereotypes. 

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“We want our guests to see the men on camera and think, ‘Hey, this guy sounds like my son, or my neighbor, or my grandson,’” Dreiske says. “Just seeing the human potential of individuals in custody would be a win-win for our society. Countries with correctional systems focused on rehabilitation, not just retribution, have far, far lower rates of recidivism than the U.S.  

“WorldScene wants to be part of that movement here,” she continues. “We want to ignite the idea that individuals in custody deserve a pathway to meaningful and productive lives that will bring real value to our communities.”

WorldScene Film FestivalFinal screening September 10; opening reception at 6 PM, festival at 7 PM, virtual Q&A session with directors immediately following; ICMC headquarters, 625 N. Kingsbury; free, with a $10 suggested donation

Before the festival, the Cook County detainees participated in the 16-week WorldScene Film Residency. The residency included a two-day filmmaking workshop, professional development classes, daily film viewings, and discussions. By encouraging the detainees to engage in difficult conversations, the residency intends to help foster a productive dialogue that will improve reentry and reduce recidivism later on. 

Young adults, ages 18-24, represent 9.5 percent of the United States population, but account for 23 percent of all arrests, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. This program seeks to reduce these numbers by providing young people with better tools for conflict resolution, anger management, self-reflection, and personal agency. So far, WorldScene’s impact has reached over 300 detainees in the Cook County Jail system and 220 “at-risk” youth.

“WorldScene was created to support marginalized youth and young adults who are homeless, abused, and often justice-involved,” Dreiske says. “These young people face challenges and traumas which are hard to discuss, including media filled with damaging racial, gender, and other stereotypes. WorldScene provides a safe, intentional space where films become springboards for youth to engage in honest, peer-to-peer discussions about many ‘hot button’ topics and about themselves. As far as we know, no one has used film in this way or in these kinds of venues before.”

WorldScene’s first Through My Eyes showing opened for detainees in the Division 11 Chapel at Cook County Jail on Wednesday, August 31. On Saturday, September 10, the film festival will host its second showing for the general public at the ICMC headquarters (625 N. Kingsbury). The encore event will begin with an opening reception at 6 PM before the film screenings at 7 PM.

Participants in the WorldScene Film Residency are granted Certificates of Achievement with the ICMC phone number and email. Once released, the men can mark the ICMC as a reference to better reenter the job market. Some participants return to the program as facilitators as well. 

“We’d love to see WorldScene brought to scale across the country because it’s so much more than a festival,” Dreiske says. “If the broader filmmaking community embraces WorldScene, there could be real filmmaking programs, mentoring, and even boundary-breaking films from directors who never imagined they could become professional filmmakers.”

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