An inmate running at the San Quentin state prison in California.

Inmates at San Quentin State Prison find Solace and Liberation in Running

R.J. Lozada was once a devoted, even obsessive, runner. While working as the cinematographer for a documentary at the San Quentin State Prison, he noticed a group of runners continuously circling a small track for hours on end. The image of these inmates running — in constant forward motion yet going nowhere — left a profound impression on Lozada . . . so much so that these runners, part of the San Quentin 1000 Mile Running Club, would soon become the subject of his thesis film, Laps, which he made while working towards an MFA in Documentary Film and Video at Stanford.

(Watch the full film below.)

Alexandra Mangum: What lead you to this subject matter in the first place?

R.J. Lozada: I was the DP on another documentary that filmed at San Quentin State Prison. At this time, around 2009, I was also an avid runner. Anything that involved that kind of motion and mobility caught my eye very quickly.

There were two or three men running laps around this small yard over and over. At the end of the two hour block, I asked what they were doing, and someone said, “Oh, that’s the marathon club.” I thought about how sobering it was as an image. You have men running these vast distances but at the same time not really getting anywhere. That image stayed with me until 2013 when I entered grad school and knew I was going to do my thesis film on it.

AM: How did your own personal experience as a runner influence the film?

RJL: I knew what my experiences of running marathons on the outside were. When you’re doing that training, it’s often very lonely but at least you have anything and everything to look at. You observe random moments and get a sense of different geographies, narratives, histories and communities. To flip that and to think about these guys that don’t get that change of scenery was interesting. They see the same thing over and over and over again. But in the film, I think you see how somewhat liberating it could be for them in the same way that in can be liberating for a runner on the outside.

AM: You asked the inmates about their perception of time. Why was this question important to you?

RJL: When you’re in prison, I think your relationship with time changes dramatically. It becomes your enemy. It continues to persist and be present in an almost oppressive way, especially if you’re trying to fight it. In this space of time the inmates have the opportunity to revisit their crimes and memories.

Additionally, I think running for extended amounts of time amplifies your relationship with it. In a really poetic way, it truncates the entirety of one’s existence in prison. As runners, you’re very directly engaging with time. In the act of running you could be challenging your body, your memory, your experiences — but you can also be looking forward. Whether that’s forward to the moment you get to shower after the run, or forward to the chance of getting parole with the parole board. That all happens within this very physical exchange with time in the form of running.

AM: Did you go into this hoping to be able to convey a certain message about prison life or about running? Or was it really just allowing the story to unfold in front of the camera?

RJL: This is a great question and it’s always the most difficult thing for me to grapple with. As a filmmaker of color, I made it my utmost priority to do projects that speak to my experiences and infuse it with a greater degree of responsibility, just because of the lack of documentary filmmakers of color in the industry, mindfulness of representation matters. That was one aspect of why I wanted to to do prisons. I really wanted to challenge the sense, the possibility and the risk of othering your subjects.

I will say this, and maybe it will allow me to pivot back to the original question. I often get the question of why black and white. I chose black and white because San Quentin looks like this surreal country club for men. It’s in Marin County and the prison is mostly surrounded by water. It’s really scenic. You can imagine that it’s like a really old school sanitarium for the wealthy. The air is crisp, it’s always fresh. The sun is out 90% of the time. You get great views of the bay and amazing skylines, but you’re kind of stuck there.

The men wear denim blue jeans and lighter denim tops. They wear lots of heather grey sweats and plain white tees. Their shoes are often all white or all black. Really simple colors, but they really shine in the sun.

I’m capturing all of this and then later, when I’m back in my editing suite, it became so difficult to edit because what’s screaming at me in every frame is “This looks great!” These guys are getting their exercise, they’re getting healthier. And I’m like I can’t edit this because I feel I would run the risk of making the prison seem not so bad. And it is bad.

The black and white allowed not only me, but also the audience, to become one more step removed—and this might be problematic for some readers—rather than fully immersed with the runners and their experience. If I had saturated the visual space with all that color, I think it would have been too distracting for the audience and they would have othered the prisoners. It would have made the film more ironic, but not in a good way.

AM: So linking that back to my original question about the message you were hoping to convey, two things stand out to me. One is not wanting to other these inmates and the other is creating a sense of empathy for them.

RJL: Yeah definitely. I also wanted to remind folks that these men and their experience is not ever necessarily going to be the audience’s experience. Yes, I wanted the audience to feel their humanity but I wanted that humanity couched in this very real environment. Much like getting access to the prison, it was a really difficult tightrope walk to achieve.

AM: I noticed that you didn’t ask about the crimes these inmates had committed. I assume that was a very conscious decision. Is that a correct assumption?

RJL: Yes that’s absolutely correct. Had I front loaded the film with their crimes, part of me feels it would scream so loudly in the audience’s minds that they would not be able to watch or appreciate what these men had to say. And some of the inmates’ crimes are really, really difficult for me to deal with, even to this day.

As a larger philosophy, you do one thing and you fuck up, but perhaps save for mass murder, I don’t think one experience should define the entirety of your existence. There’s a narrative to each crime. That’s something I learned in my work as a paralegal. There are a lot of events and a lot of structural things that happen to an individual within their community that lead them to the choices they make. I don’t trust a lot of audiences to hold that idea — that moments are created through long narratives and experiences that we can’t unpack, even for ourselves. That’s what drove this need for me to keep their crimes away from the audience. It was very intentional.

AM: Speak to me about the end of the film. I love the moment when the Spanish speaking inmate begins to sing and brings the film to its conclusion. How did that come about?

RJL: That was the god and goddesses of documentary filmmaking blessing my film. My Spanish sucks, I don’t speak or understand it. At the end of the second day of shooting, day two of two, we were at the end of this long line of men we wanted to interview and this particular inmate was just in the corner observing us. His friends said “RJ! RJ! RJ! Have him sing for the camera, he can sing!”

So I asked if he wanted to and he said yes. During the edit, I had some friends do a rough translation and one of my classmates said, “RJ did you tell him to sing that?” and I said no, I didn’t even know what he was saying at the time. When I saw the translation I was like holy fuck! It only made sense to end with that moment. I was so lucky.

AM: What advice would you give to other documentary filmmakers who, like you, have to persevere day in and day out in order to see their projects realized?

RJL: It’s an honor and a privilege to be doing this work in any way shape or form. I feel incredibly blessed that I’ve been brought up in a community, several communities in fact, that have allowed me, and spoken to my strong need to do this. So I guess one of the first pieces of advice I would impart is to find your folks. You always need one or two people to reflect back on the value of the work that you’re doing. Because your work is valuable. So if anything, find your people that reflect your values, that maybe challenge them a bit, but that believe in you. Because it’s lonely ass work and you’ll probably be a curmudgeon by the end of it if you think you can do it alone.

Laps by R.J. Lozada