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Vermont filmmaker chronicles life in prison at film festival

August 27, 2018

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. (AP) — He used to project “Star Wars” onto a prison wall. Now, he is a George Lucas scholar at the University of Southern California.

“It’s a twist I didn’t expect,” Vermont-native Jeremy Lee MacKenzie said.

Though MacKenzie, who goes by JLee, left for Los Angles the week after sitting for an interview with the Free Press in July, his latest film, “Hidden Blueprints: The Story of Mikey,” will screen at the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival at the end of this month. One of the film’s producers is Julie Pacino, the daughter of Al. Yes, that Al.

The short film details the history of wood scrollwork MacKenzie crafted to tell the story of his life. He kept the blueprints for the project hidden while serving time in prison. The first story he inscribed was that of Mikey, a praying mantis he befriended while behind bars.

MacKenzie was incarcerated at the age of 17 after participating in a bank robbery. In 2004, as part of eight intermittent years spent in prison, he entered the Lee Adjustment Center, a for-profit prison in Beattyville, Kentucky. It was there he met Mikey.

At the prison, the inmates would train praying mantises to fight one another, often betting commissary food on the outcome. Mikey was the best fighter of them all.

MacKenzie attributes the success to the way he and his friends treated Mikey. They fed him human food and let him roam around their cell rather than keep him in a shoe box. Mikey and the men were equals, and their friendship became so great the men stopped fighting mantises altogether.

“Mikey made everybody realize they weren’t just stupid insects in boxes,” MacKenzie, who acts as the film’s narrator, says as the camera dollies out to reveal three inmates sitting in their cell.

Fourteen years ago next month, MacKenzie and other inmates planned and participated in a prison riot to fight back against poor conditions, segregation and abuse. There were no human casualties and the media attention led to the warden being fired. But, Mikey perished in the melee.

Their memories of him had a profound effect on MacKenzie and the other prisoners. When fights would break out, they would break them up and ask those involved, What would Mikey do?

MacKenzie took a job in prison as a projectionist, screening movies for inmates. This led to an interest in filmmaking. He began borrowing screenwriting manuals from the library and teaching himself the craft. After he served his time, he began making films as a student at Champlain College.

His first professional film is “Flicker.” He wrote the screenplay by hand, and submitted it to competitions full of typos. To his surprise, it won Gold in the 2015 PAGE International Screenwriting Awards in Los Angeles.

That recognition caught the attention of Pacino. She offered to produce the film, but MacKenzie had already completed the project. So, he pitched her “Hidden Blueprints: The Story of Mikey” and they got to work.

The film was shot in 14 days at 15 locations mostly in Vermont, including an inactive detention center in St. Albans.

MacKenzie plays himself, and many of the prisoners are played by former inmates he befriended in prison. He described bringing these friends back into a prison to reenact scenes from the riot as a cathartic experience.

He had already told Mikey’s story through wooden scrollwork, but the collaborative nature of filmmaking allowed for MacKenzie, and the men and women who lived it, to artistically engage with the past in a completely new way.

“This was an opportunity to take people who were apart of stories that I was a part of and bring them into the storytelling,” he said. “I think it was empowering.”

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Online: https://bfpne.ws/2Ml65Ip

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Information from: The Burlington Free Press, http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com

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