The Return

When California amends one of the harshest criminal sentencing laws in the US, thousands of "lifers" are unexpectedly freed from prison.

Film Signature Image
Premiere Date
May 23, 2016
60 minutes
Funding Initiative
Open Call
  • Nominated laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2016 News and Documentary Emmy Awards-Outstanding Current Affairs Documentary
  • Nominated laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2016 Peabody Awards-George Foster Peabody Award
  • Award laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2016 Tribeca Film Festival-Audience Award for Documentary
  • Producer/Director

    Kelly Duane de la Vega

    Kelly Duane de la Vega is an award-winning filmmaker whose work has screened at film festivals worldwide, opened theatrically across the country and broadcast nationally on PBS and the Documentary Channel. Since founding Loteria Films in 2001, Duane de la Vega has directed and produced three documentary features, multiple documentary series, and Show more hundreds of short format pieces for television and the web. Duane de la Vega won the Writer’s Guild of America’s Best Documentary Screenplay Award, Gotham Independent Film's Best Documentary Award and an IDA Creative Achievement award for her filmBetter This World (POV 2011 & 2012), the story of two young friends from Texas accused of domestic terrorism and their relationship with an older, radical-militant mentor and undercover FBI informant. The film premiered at SXSW, was selected for New York MoMA’s documentary fortnight and is being developed as a fiction film. Duane de la Vega's groundbreaking, Emmy-nominated Monumental: David Brower's Fight for Wild America opened theatrically across the United States, broadcast on The Documentary Channel, and was acquired by the Smithsonian for its permanent collection. A recent Sundance, HBO, and Film Independent Fellow, Duane de la Vega began her career in Fine Arts Photography before moving into film, where her early work (See How They Run and Monumental) was shaped by close collaborations with renowned experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky. With her latest feature docs (El Poeta, The Return and Voting Wars), Duane de la Vega continues to generate innovative short format work for The New York Times Op-Docs, Mother Jones, IFC and others. With Katie Galloway, she teaches Documentary Forms at the University of California at Berkeley. Show less

    Other ITVS Films
    Better This World

    Katie Galloway

    Katie Galloway is a documentary director, producer and writer whose films explore the intersections of institutional power, civil and human rights, and political activism. Galloway, who joined Loteria as co-head in 2009, won the 2012 Writer’s Guild of America’s Best Documentary Screenplay Award for Better This World, which, after premiering at SXSW, Show more also went on to win Best Documentary at San Francisco International and Sarasota Film Festivals, the Gotham Independent Film Award’s Best Documentary Prize, and an International Documentary Association Creative Recognition Award, among others. It is currently being developed as a narrative feature. Galloway’s feature documentary Prison Town, USA broadcast nationally on POV/PBS and was developed as a fiction television series by IFC, for which Galloway co-wrote the first three episodes. Galloway produced and reported an award-winning trio of films on the American criminal justice system for PBS FRONTLINE: Snitch, Requiem for Frank Lee Smith and The Case for Innocence. A two-time Sundance Fellow and recent HBO/Film Independent Documentary Fellow, Galloway taught documentary production at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and now teaches Documentary History and Theory at UC Berkeley. In addition to teaching in Media Studies at Berkeley, she was recently made “Filmmaker in Residence” at the Graduate School of Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program. A Ph.D. in Political Science (UC Berkeley, 2012) with specialties in Political Psychology and Public Law, Galloway’s films in production include a look at the U.S. roots of the Mexican Drug War, an examination of an unprecedented experiment in criminal justice reform unfolding in California with profound national implications, and an investigation of the ongoing battle over who gets to vote in America and why, timed for release at the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act in 2015. Show less


    Ariella Ben-Dov

    Ariella Ben-Dov is a documentary producer who has worked on a range of award winning social justice issue documentaries including Academy Award-winning director Debra Chasnoff’s That’s a Family and the Respect for All series. She is an internationally recognized film curator who specializes in independent cinema across genres, including Show more avant-garde, animation, documentary, and essay films. As director of the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History, Ben-Dov inaugurated the Margaret Mead Filmmaker Award highlighting excellence in documentary filmmaking and grew the annual documentary festival to include installations, multimedia performances, and educational programs for schools across New York. Ben-Dov co-founded MadCat Women’s International Film Festival where she served as executive director and curator from 1996–2012. Her programs screened at Brown University, the Harn Museum of Art, Harvard Film Archive, UC Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive, RISD Museum of Art, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and many others. Ben-Dov has served as a juror at the San Francisco International Film Festival, New York Asian American Film Festival, Croatia’s Etno Film Festival, and others, and she has been invited to speak on and moderate panels at Sundance, Toronto, and elsewhere on topics ranging from experimental short-form work to alternative methods of exhibition to boundary pushing/blurring innovations in documentary. She is a member of the board of directors of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC), has acted as nominator for the Creative Capital and Rockefeller Foundations and sits on the board of Flaherty, where she recently co-curated the 51st Robert Flaherty Film Seminar Creative Demolition: Reconstructing Culture Through Innovations in Film and Video. Show less

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    The Film

    In 2012, California voters amended the state’s Three Strikes Law, one of the harshest criminal sentencing laws in the nation. The landmark passage of Proposition 36 constituted the first time in history that U.S. citizens voted to shorten sentences of the currently incarcerated. Within days, the reintegration of thousands of “lifers” – men and women once expecting to die in prison – was underway.

    Shot in immersive verité, The Return weaves together narratives of characters on the front lines of this unprecedented shift: prisoners suddenly freed, families turned upside down, attorneys and judges wrestling with an untested law, and reentry providers negotiating unfathomable transitions. Taken together, these stories yield an illuminating meta-narrative of an unfolding and historic reform, exploring what it can teach a nation reckoning with mass incarceration.