EXCLUSIVE: Producer John Martinez O’Felan has secured funding and set up his next project, Barton Creekan inclusive Latino and LatinX-led biographical feature film written and directed by award-winning Cuban-American director Carlos V. Gutierrez.
The feature film follows the story of the triumphant life of Cuban political exile and Innocence Project participant Carlos Lavernia, who was wrongfully sentenced to life in prison and spent 15 years behind bars before to be innocent.
Lavernia is a Havana-born immigrant and former Cuban soldier imprisoned in Fidel Castro’s Cuba before being sent on the 1980 Mariel Boatlift to live in the United States in exile. In his early thirties, he moved to Austin, Texas, where he began his new life. After hanging out at a local landmark known as Barton Springs Pool, an area hotspot known for daytime drinking, Lavernia finds herself being questioned by authorities for predatory crimes based on her identity. racial. Having PTSD issues from her past life, Lavernia has a manic episode during the interrogation, leading to greater suspicion. With a police sketch as the only key evidence, Lavernia is arrested and detained. After inadequate representation by a public defender, he was sentenced to life in prison due to the color of his skin and his lack of command of English.
Throughout his 15 years of sentencing, Lavernia maintained his innocence and methodically taught himself English and learned about the legal system in the prison law library, representing himself each year for meeting only rejection until 1999 when he finally wrote Johnny Cochran, which led to an introduction to Barry Scheck, Lavernia’s case was eventually reopened for review of DNA evidence, new technology at the era, and overseen by Barry Scheck and the Innocence Project. During the review process, his legal team discovered that the evidence used in the Lavernia case, which needed to be destroyed, was somehow filed in a filing cabinet and preserved – a miracle that led to Lavernia being exonerated. , making national and international headlines, only for Lavernia then waited five more years while the United States immigration office approved his green card status, to avoid being deported to Cuba.
O’Felan, under his Mankind Entertainment banner, and Gutierrez will produce through Rite of Passage Pictures LLC, a new Austin, Texas-based shingle set up with local entrepreneur Jay Lamy, to develop stories based about human struggles that are inspiring, enlightening, or encouraging through their central characters.
O’Felan says, “Beyond wrongful conviction based on racial profiling, Mr. Lavernia’s life journey represents greater humility and perseverance that leads to good outweighing evil. Coming from a Latin American country, her story offers a crucial depiction of the struggles of Latin American history in the 1980s, and stories like these are inspiring and vital and need to be heard.
Cast on Barton Creek is now underway with a view to ramping up production in Austin and Colombia in early 2023.
Gutierrez is a Miami-born Cuban-American filmmaker who attended Tufts University Film School, where he received a graduate scholarship for New York University’s Masters in Film program. While at NYU, he won the DGA Student Film Awards for Best Latin Filmmaker and the Grand Prize in the HBO Latino Film Festival Short Film Competition. He was honored by the AMPTP with a Student Academy Award nomination for his short film Wet foot, dry foot, leading his work to being selected and winning the Showtime Network’s Latino Filmmaker Showcase. Gutierrez’s first independent feature film Locked in starred Mena Suvari and was released by Saban Films/Paramount, and recently completed her second feature film Be carefulwhich is currently in post-production.