Aspen Shortsfest opens with a tale of prison’s toll on family |

Aspen Shortsfest opens with a tale of prison’s toll on family

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
"I, Destini" is among five short films set to play during Aspen Shortsfest's opening night program on Tuesday.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘I, Destini’ at Aspen Shortsfest

Where: Wheeler Opera House, Aspen; Crystal Theatre, Carbondale

When: Tuesday, April 5, 7:30 p.m. program, Aspen; Saturday, April 9, 7:30 p.m. program, Carbondale

How much: $15

Tickets: Wheeler box office;

More info: Tuesday’s five-film, 92-minute opening night program will be preceded by an opening reception in the Wheeler at 6:30 p.m. It will be followed by a filmmaker Q-and-A.

When a son and brother goes away to prison, the family left behind becomes a puzzle with a missing piece — the rest of the family trying to find it.

Such striking visual metaphors fill the 14-minute animated film “I, Destini,” which has its world premiere this evening during the 25th annual Aspen Shortsfest’s opening night program at the Wheeler Opera House.

The film is narrated, written and produced by 16-year-old Destini Riley, who vivdly portrays the toll that her brother’s incarceration has had on her family in Durham, North Carolina. The intensely personal film brings a human touch to the often-abstracted national debate about criminal justice reform and U.S. mass incarceration’s disproportionate effect on African-Americans.

“Not all black men are lions,” she narrates over a section that imagines her brother as a giraffe in a television wildlife show. “Just like not all white men are Australians wearing funny, green outfits.”

Riley collaborated with director Nick Pilarski on the film.

Pilarski, a documentary filmmaking fellow at Duke University, first met Riley at her aunt’s restaurant, J.C.’s Kitchen — a Durham landmark known for its soul food and its rich history as a civil rights movement gathering place. Pilarski had been flirting with making a film about the diner when he saw fliers for a rally for Riley’s brother. Pilarski went to the Riley house to meet Riley’s parents and saw a drawing that the then-12-year-old had made of President Barack Obama.

“He was really impressed by it, and my mom was like, ‘Yeah, she does more stuff.’ I ended up showing him a portfolio of my work, and through that, we ended up working together,” she said.

Pilarski comes from a theater background and used nonverbal acting exercises to encourage Riley to dig into her feelings about her brother’s case and its affect on the family. They worked for more than three years to perfect what would become “I, Destini,” developing its hand-drawn animated aesthetic and the script of Riley’s narration.

“At first I didn’t trust Nick at all,” Riley said. “So it was difficult for him to create a storyline. … We grew closer and closer. Now he’s like another brother of mine.”

As a documentarian, Pilarski is particularly interested in collaboration, citing filmmaker Trinh Min-ha’s credo, “I do not intend to speak about, just nearby,” as his guiding principle. As director and editor, he sought to bring Riley’s story to the screen with her perspective.

“She had already been working toward activism and community organizing at that time,” Pilarski said. “She was the most awesome partner to deal with.”

Its pencil-sketch visual look is based on drawings by Riley, for which Pilarski used rotoscoping over footage of the family. One image in particular is likely to stick with viewers — it shows the Rileys, all alone in separate rooms of a dollhouse, withdrawing from one another: her father worrying about his high blood pressure and losing his job, her other brother zoning out playing video games, her mother immersed in televangelism. To achieve it, Pilarski and his team fed the animation into a virtual-reality-like program, which allowed him and Riley to move within and manipulate it to find the right framing for the shot.

“I, Destini” stays within Riley’s point of view and the chilling effect that her brother’s incarceration has had on the family. It does not go into the specifics of Carlos Antonio Riley’s case, which made national news as a flashpoint in the debate over racial profiling and over-policing. He was acquitted in August of shooting the officer who arrested him, after his defense pointed to evidence that the officer shot himself during an illegal search. He was found guilty of lesser charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

“I knew that if I was to tell an audience what my brother was accused of doing, they’d automatically judge him and judge me as individuals,” Riley said. “I wanted them to have a chance to listen to me without judging. And if I came out and said he’s accused of shooting a cop, they would be like, ‘Oh, no, we don’t want anything to do with that.’”

During her brother’s sentencing, his attorney showed the film to the jury. They screened it for him just before the court proceedings.

“He was so proud of me,” Riley said. “And it was so funny, he was like, ‘All this time you thought I was a giraffe, huh?’ He supports it.”

The film, in its personal and specific style, hits at the root of the problem with America’s mass incarceration, Pilarski said, and the reason prison reform has become a national conversation.

“I think the reason we’re going through this nationally, in much-needed protests, is that families are sad,” he said. “And when we make a decision as a collective to put someone in prison, there are ramifications well beyond the prison.”

Pilarski is currently working through the Center for Court Innovation in New York, making a documentary and a video game about public housing in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York.

While “I, Destini” powerfully illustrates the corrosive effect of America’s mass incarceration on families, Riley believes the film holds a bigger lesson for young people. She wants it to inspire others to use creativity as an outlet, as she did.

“I hope that people can learn to find new ways to express themselves,” she said. “Because you never know who else out there has experienced something similar to your situation.”

Writing, producing and animating a film before age 16 no doubt signals Riley has a bright future in the arts. She’s thought about becoming a civil-rights attorney, she said, but wants to keep art central in her life. Her passion these days is the theater, a field where she also is excelling as her school play’s scenic designer.

“I want to do art, but I’m still working out what I want to do,” she said. “I want to do everything.”