Shortsfest documentary ‘How We Get Free’ tracks activist politician’s battle to end bail |

Shortsfest documentary ‘How We Get Free’ tracks activist politician’s battle to end bail

The founder of The Colorado Freedom Fund and Colorado state Rep. Elisabeth Epps is profiled in "How We Get Free" premiering on Thursday, April 13, as part of Shortsfest.
Courtesy photo

For many who live in this privileged community, the issue of how cash bail affects the less fortunate and the bail funds set up to counteract that system is not top of mind.

A new documentary short having its world premiere at Aspen Film’s Shortsfest next week is hoping to change that.

“How We Get Free” is the latest project from award-winning directors Geeta Gandbhir and Samantha Knowles, which profiles Denver-based, bail-reform-activist-turned-Colorado State Rep. Elisabeth Epps over two years.

Presented by HBO Documentary Films and produced by Brooklyn based Multitude Films with The New York Times, the impetus for the film was a New York Times article, written in June 2020 by enterprise correspondent Nicholas Kulish, entitled “Bail Funds, Flush With Cash, Learn to ‘Grind Through This Horrible Process.‘”

“I want to give Nick Kulish credit for this” said Kathleen Lingo, editorial director of film and television for The New York Times. He saw so much money going to bail funds around the country and spoke to groups from coast to coast, but he really put Elisabeth on the forefront. Amid people being in the streets protesting (the killing of George Floyd) and talking about criminal-justice reform, race, and the prison industrial complex, Nick found a way to tell this very specific story through Elisabeth that brought everyone in.”

The film picks up where Kulish’s article left off, introducing viewers to Epps as the founder of the Colorado Freedom Fund. It opens with her driving around with checks bailing people out of various Colorado jails in the spring and summer of 2020 and follows her throughout her campaign and election to the Colorado House of Representatives for the 6th District.

“In my work in documentary filmmaking, I’ve been deeply interested in issues of policing, of abolition, the prison-industrial complex, safety in our communities as black and brown folks,” said director Geeta Gandbhir. “For me, Elisabeth and the microcosm of the story that was happening in Denver and her work in Colorado really helps to give people a window right into the issue and gives it humanity.”

“How We Get Free” profiles Colorado State Rep. Elisabeth Epps, pictured here, over a two-year period. The film premieres on Thursday, April 13, as part of Shortsfest.
Courtesy photo

As the documentary unfolds, you learn that for Epps, this work is deeply personal.

After graduating with a law degree from the University of Virginia in 2011, she moved to Denver for a job at the Colorado Public Defender’s Office, where she witnessed how the cash bail system impacted the community.

She says many of her clients couldn’t afford bail – “even seemingly small amounts of $5 and $10 dollars” – and were forced to take plea deals or plead guilty to avoid jail time. She understood through her own struggles the toll a few days (or weeks) in jail could take on someone’s life.

A self-proclaimed abolitionist, she intentionally refers to bail as “ransom” and jail as “the cage” and makes no secret that she wants to end the cash bail system in Colorado by 2028.

“It was wildly frustrating to be in a position where clients were making their decision about whether to proceed to trial or not, just based on bail,” she said. “And so, that certainly planted a seed. It is so particularly offensive on the surface when people understand what is happening. Ending cash bail feels achievable. And it’s the perfect mix of something that I have personal and professional experience with, and something that has an end in sight, as opposed to lots of things I support that I’m not going to live to see through.”

As shown in the film, she also had her own brush with the law and spent time in jail in 2019 after being arrested and convicted for obstructing a police officer while trying to assist someone who was having a mental-health crisis.

The incident only strengthened her resolve.

“We named the Colorado Freedom Fund very intentionally,” she said. “We made an intentional choice to not have the word bail or bond in our name because we wanted to name the thing we want, right? Words have power. And it’s also very intentional that even though our first support was very much in the Front Range, we named it Colorado because it’s not the ‘Denver fund’ or ‘The Front Range Fund’; we are doing the work to get all Coloradans free. Sets of policy decisions have gone terribly wrong if we are putting people in cages; but certainly, we in Colorado can be the ones to undo it.”

You can catch the World premiere of “How We Get Free” on Thursday, April 13, at 8 p.m. at The Wheeler Opera House, followed by a Q & A with Epps, Director Samantha Knowles and Producer Sweta Vohra.

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