R.J. Lozada is an award-winning multi-media journalist and filmmaker who explores and engages multiple diasporas. He earned an MFA in Documentary Film and Video from Stanford University, where he produced four short films: Justice is a Warm Cupcake, Andy’s Youth, Distance Between, and Laps, a documentary about the San Quentin 1000 Mile Running Club, whose membership is comprised of inmates who seek peace in long distance running within California’s San Quentin State Prison. He has also been a contributor and host for APEX Express, one of two weekly Asian and Pacific Islander radio magazine shows on Pacifica Foundation’s network, and has served as Multimedia Editor for Hyphen Magazine. More information about his past films and future projects can be found on his website www.rjlozada.net. In this interview, we discuss his film Laps, which I featured on KineSophy last year.
Greg: What was your inspiration for this film?
R.J.: 2009: I was an avid runner, I was also working as a paralegal for a state agency that represented the men on death row in their appeals process. I hadn’t gotten as close to the criminal justice system as I did as a paralegal for the state, so being able to bring both worlds together was a hard to come by concept that only manifested when I was visiting the recreation yard filming another project called Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story. During that production day, I caught sight of three runners running the same lap over and over and over for the two hours that our film crew was out there. Even though I didn’t film the runners at all, the image and my imagination took hold, and I thought, “if I run alone and run all over San Francisco and still find it limiting, how are these guys doing it in prison?”
Fast forward to 2015, I’m approaching my final year as a documentary film grad student at Stanford, and—while no longer a runner and no longer a paralegal—was still deeply interested in this long-held image in my mind. I wanted to understand long distance running in confinement, in their context, when the criminal justice system, and by extension, mainstream society, has already dehumanized you, how can running bring your soul to clarity, to peace? How can I best convey all of this in this incredibly limited form known as documentary film?
Greg: How long did it take you to complete the project? Were there any particular struggles unique to filming in this environment?
R.J.: The entire project took a year to make. Most of the work was spent on the ten months of pre-production, and of that ten months, nine were spent building with the guys inside. Building with them meant making a trip out to San Quentin two to three times a month and either running with them or just hanging out during practice runs. With no cameras, no recording devices, just curiosity and respect.
I had significant struggles with prison bureaucracy—despite the fact that I cleared my background check to enter as an employee for a legal outfit with the state of California, I had to go through a different process as a media producer. Additionally, my status as a film student meant additional hoops to jump through, but I almost didn’t get approved on account of a prison administrator delaying my application to the state office up in Sacramento. If not for running coach Frank Ruona, and his commitment to the project, then I wouldn’t have been able to get my project approved.
When it came time to film, I pitched four consecutive days—which was rejected. Prison administration gave me two days, and because of scheduling issues, spread each shoot date three weeks apart. I definitely had to change this up from how I had been building the project in my mind’s eye and production treatments—I was deeply invested in a look and when that was compromised a week before the first day of shooting, I had to think quickly. Despite my scramble, I still had to adjust my ideas during the shoot as the filming conditions were far more limited than discussed.
Thankfully, I had built up a strong enough relationship with the runners that they were game for anything I needed in the time that I had, no questions asked—even if that meant they had to run three to four hours straight so I can recreate a marathon-like experience on film. For that, I am humbly indebted and really learned the strengths of honesty, sincerity, kindness and respect for my fellow human no matter the context.
Running helped build up their mental endurance and gave them emotional resources that made them feel like they were attaining a goal that would ultimately reshape their world view.
Greg: Can you tell me a little more about your practice runs with the inmates? How did those sessions influence your attitudes toward running and toward the inmates?
R.J.: Frank Ruona is the San Quentin 1000 Mile Running Club coach (www.1000mileclub.com)—he’s one of the main faces out the outside and also one of the mainstays. The men have so much respect for him and his commitment to running. Coach usually goes into San Quentin on Monday evenings and some Friday mornings. Running with them was very humbling for me—they have strong running principles, and also push themselves incredibly hard. I have a tendency to give most people the benefit of the doubt, and these men are no exception—I’m reminded of [lawyer and activist] Bryan Stevenson who often states a well-known and really universal truth that you are not your worst act. Framing my position from that starting point really allowed me to, dare I say, appreciate the opportunity and privilege to learn about who these guys are and what they’re trying to do with their lives, given their circumstances. I understand that they’re in prison for some choices that they made in the past, but they’re making choices now to rectify and be at peace.
Greg: How much did the makeup of the running group change over your year with the runners? Did most individual runners tend to stick with the group throughout your time there?
R.J.: I can’t really answer this accurately, but I will say that the group stayed pretty consistent at around forty to fifty-plus members. They do attract new runners, and I’m guessing they always manage to lose as many (men who are paroled) and gain as much back.
Greg: In the film, prisoners talk about how running helps them work through the problems and confrontations in their daily lives and escape mentally from the harsh realities of prison life. What were some of the other benefits the prisoners felt they gained? Were you able to notice any changes in the prisoners over the course of your filming?
R.J.: A lot of the men felt that running helped build up their mental endurance and gave them emotional resources that when combined with whatever prison programs they were participating in, made them feel like they were attaining a goal that would ultimately reshape (or in some cases, reaffirm) their worldview. Additionally, they all talked about a lot of the health benefits as a result of sustained, regular running, from pulling them from depressive emotional states to major weight loss, a lot of guys were reaping so much. However, they still got injured—messed up knees, rolled ankles, and while this meant runners would have to sit out for a couple of weeks, most of them always showed up for regular running events and some practices to show support.