Met While Incarcerated: This new documentary profiles women who sought love with imprisoned men
'I do know you don't understand mercy until you have to give it or need it yourself'
Catherine Legge acknowledges that the inspiration for her latest documentary came from an entirely unlikely place. The film, Met While Incarcerated, profiles three different women and the men they love — men who were imprisoned convicts when they struck up relationships. But the idea came to her in a very roundabout way.
"I was casting and pitching a home reno show, and I wanted to find different kinds of people, not the usual ones we see on so many shows," says the Toronto-based filmmaker. "I typed a search into Google for 'Sexy carpenter with good sense of humour,' and suddenly I saw links to a number of inmate hookup sites. There were profiles on these sites that included pictures of rough-looking guys with tattoos on their faces, and beside their photos were their charges, like 'Murder x 3.' It was really odd."
But Legge acknowledges that the sheer strangeness of it all became an obsession. "Some of the guys were cocky and brash in their profiles, but others said they liked photography and walks on the beach. I Googled their names and found that some of them were what many would consider the worst people on earth — some were convicted rapists and murderers."
Legge realized that delving into the lives of some of these convicts and the women who loved them would make for a compelling documentary. But she also had her initial reservations. "I know what a long-term commitment making a documentary is. And I thought, 'Do I really want to get into this?' I mean, I knew it was going to be really heavy."
Previously, Legge had produced Still Standing, a comedy-reality series about Canadian small towns. "That was fun and easy to get into. This was going to be different." It was a meeting she had with one close friend that made her realize she should proceed. "When I told this friend that I was thinking of making a documentary about women who meet convicts online, he actually physically recoiled. It made me realize how far we are from really understanding who people in prison are, and how they got there."
After reaching out to various people and asking about their situations, Legge found herself learning more about how these relationships begin — and why. "The three women I ended up profiling in the film do not fit any easy stereotypes. They were not desperate. They are educated and middle-class and come from what we would think of as good backgrounds. They don't have self-esteem issues. They are compassionate, and thus saw something worthwhile in people who had been thought of as beyond repair by most people."
If there was a common trait, Legge says it was empathy. "These women were not judgmental at all. They were level-headed, but wanted to see the best in people." The result is a touching documentary that opens up the mysterious connection these women and men have. Even if we don't fully understand why someone would go to a website to find romance with convicts, the love between the couples is undeniably sincere and we are reminded that romance can begin in highly unusual circumstances.
Legge says that she felt the men she met in prison indicated to her the "idea of accountability."
"We're not talking about people who refuse to admit they did anything wrong," she says. "They have apologized and are doing time or have done time for their crimes. That said, it wasn't like I wasn't conflicted as we were making the film. Most of my crew were women, and one said to me, 'I'm not over what this guy did,' which was domestic violence. And I told her I wasn't over it either."
Legge said she also didn't want psychologist experts opining about the mental states of the couples. "I wanted the couples to tell their love stories in their own words. I know it's provocative, but I feel like we've heard the other side. This film is about the totality of the conversation. This documentary is ambiguous in that I don't have the answer. I do know you don't understand mercy until you have to give it or need it yourself."
"I just want to make this conversation a little bit more complex."
Met While Incarcerated airs Sunday, March 31 at 9pm ET/PT on CBC's documentary Channel.