Kids for Cash, a documentary about the troubling judicial kickback scandal that rocked a small town in Luzerne County, PA in 2008, opened in theaters nationwide last week. The documentary focuses on the chain of events that lead judges to accept money from juvenile detention centers in exchange for the extended incarceration of juveniles for petty offenses that ranged from mocking a school principle to trespassing. At a recent screening of the film in Philadelphia, Cinedelphia spoke with Robert May, the director and producer of the film, on his ties to the region, his relationship with the project and its subjects, and what he hopes audiences will take away from the film.
Cinedelphia: What attracted you to this project?
Robert May: Well it’s interesting. Even though our offices are in New York City, I’m from Luzerne County in Pennsylvania. My producing partner, Lauren Timmons and I were developing narrative fiction project about greed, kids, and corruption when the scandal broke out in 2009. We dove in from there, and did some initial research, and here we are, five years later.
C: Were you able to develop any personal relationships with any of the kids involved?
RM: Definitely. I honestly feel that I’ll be connected to all of the kids and their families, who did and didn’t appear in the film, for a long time.
C: On the contrary, how were you able to keep your composure with the “villain” of the film, in Mark Ciavarella?
RM: Honestly, I consider myself pretty empathetic. I went into all of the interviews, including the kids, without judging them. It’s not who I am, and I was just really interested in what happened. I was curious as to how these celebrated judges, who were elected by the people, like Judge Mark Ciavarella turned evil. People don’t just flick to evil like that. I think we provided a trusting atmosphere.
C: So do you believe the audience will witness that transition in the film?
RM: There is definitely an arc. Every character has an arc in this film. We refer to it as non-fiction as opposed to documentary. People think that documentaries are about documenting events. That’s not really what this is. These are deep character stories. There’s an arc to every one of them. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. It has plot twists. It has a villain. It has a victim. In this case, it has kids, which is interesting.
C: That’s an interesting perspective to bring to a documentary. Have you always been a documentarian?
RM: No, no. One of the better known narratives that we did was the The Station Agent with Tom McCarthy, which is a fiction film. All of our films have a common theme if you look for it. They’re about character issues. They’re about characters going through life, loss, and tragedy. Those are all things that I think a great story is about.
C: What message do you hope is delivered to the moviegoers?
RM: Well, first it’s entertaining. It’s a scandalous story from beginning to end. It’s small town scandal that rocks a nation. Everyone loves to see what happens in small towns. From all of the screenings that we’ve done, up to the release, people say it’s just one of those movies that you keep thinking about. It’s hard to get it out of your head. People can do things with that.
Kids for Cash is now playing in Philly area theaters.