It began with a letter, and a simple gesture of kindness, and ended in a film that may have helped exonerate a wrongly convicted man.

The documentary David & Me tells the story of the unlikely friendship between Toronto filmmaker Ray Klonsky, 30, and David McCallum, 46, who was sent to prison for almost 30 years for a crime he did not commit.

The film, directed by Klonsky and Montreal-based filmmaker Marc Lamy, screens for the first time in Vancouver at the Vancity Theatre on Sunday.

David & Me follows the filmmakers as they work with a lawyer and a private investigator to find evidence to exonerate McCallum, who explains in the movie that he was forced to confess to the murder of a man in New York in 1985, when he was just 16 years old.

McCallum — who was finally exonerated in October 2014 — and Klonsky will be at the Vancouver screening to take questions from the audience.

It began with a letter

Klonsky and McCallum have now been friends for over a decade.

McCallum had first contacted Klonsky's father Ken, after reading a magazine article Ken had written about Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, a former boxer and renowned advocate for wrongly convicted prisoners (Carter later came to advocate for McCallum).

FPR51202RUBIN20SPEAKS.jpg

Rubin (Hurricane) Carter was on his deathbed when he penned an article demanding justice for David McCallum. (Getty Images)

Ray Klonsky and McCallum then came into contact when Klonsky's father, who felt like he wasn't getting through to his troubled teenaged son, asked McCallum to write to him.

"Like some teenagers who are a little hard-headed, when I first saw the letter my guard was definitely up, because I knew my dad had probably asked him to write to me," Klonsky said.

"But as soon as I read the words on the paper and saw how kind and sensitive they were, it just tore down my teenage guard. What really affected me was he said, 'I want the opportunity to become your friend.' I was like, 'whoa'...it broke down my wall and really got through to me."

The two began exchanging letters back and forth — and McCallum said that he gave Klonsky life advice through the letters.

"I simply laid out my heart to this guy," McCallum said.

"I think I knew some of the things that he was experiencing...I just said, 'Look, start paying attention and start being more responsible for your actions, and I think you'll be okay.'"

Freedom at last

After studying film at Concordia University Klonsky went on to make David & Me, which presented new evidence that aimed to prove McCallum was not guilty for the crime he was charged for.

The documentary was submitted to the district attorney's office in Brooklyn, New York, and finally, in October 2014, McCallum was exonerated and released from prison.

mom

David McCallum embraces his mother Ernestine McCallum after his exoneration Wednesday Oct. 15, 2014 in New York. McCallum and Willie Stuckey, who died in prison, were 16 years old when they were convicted of murder. A judge exonerated both men for wrongful conviction. (The Associated Press)

When asked what role the documentary may have had in McCallum's freedom, Klonsky said there were a number of crucial events that took place in 2014.

He said a new district attorney was elected in Brooklyn and made reforms to the justice system.

Then, advocate Rubin Carter, who was suffering from terminal prostate cancer and whose organization was helping McCallum pro bono, wrote an article in the New York Daily News that said his dying wish was for the district attorney to grant a full hearing for McCallum.

Carter passed away in Toronto in April 2014 — before he could see McCallum walk out of prison a free man — but McCallum said all that support made a huge difference

"During the course of my incarceration I experienced a lot of hardship and a lot of disappointment," he said.

"Me being inside [the prison] and knowing there were a lot of individuals on the outside fighting on my behalf, it strengthened me up...it reminded me of the goal, the goal was to get me out of there, and I knew I had to do my part."

McCallum now has a data entry job at a legal aid society in New York, and is adjusting to life outside prison.

He said his new freedom has been "fantastic", and is confident for the future, despite the fact that what others may take for granted can be unknown and frustrating for him — such as deciphering a menu at a restaurant.

"Having spent so much time incarcerated, there's still some wear and tear, some residual effects. That's not uncommon, and that's O.K. I understand that."

As for Klonsky? He went back and cut a new, happy ending to his film.


To hear the full interview with McCallum and Klonsky click on the audio labelled: David & Me documentary tells story of friendship and freedom