Jia Wertz is an award-winning independent documentary filmmaker focusing on stories that shine a powerful light on wrongful convictions and the shortcomings of the American Criminal Justice system.
At 16 years old, Jeffrey Deskovic fell victim to a serious miscarriage of justice when he was convicted of the rape and murder of Angela Correa – a 15-year-old high school classmate. His journey, courage and fight for freedom is documented by Jia Wertz in her short documentary Conviction (2020). In this fascinating interview, the Canadian-born New York-based storyteller opens up about her passion for making documentaries, on writing for prestigious publications like Forbes, and provides advice for the next generation of indie filmmakers.
Conviction (2020) on Amazon Prime – watch the true crime short documentary by Jia Wertz!
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FF: Could you briefly introduce yourself, please?
JW: Sure, yeah, and thanks for having me, Richard. My name is Jia Wertz as you said. I’m a documentary filmmaker and I focus on films about true crime, and specifically wrongful convictions.
Before going into filmmaking last year, I had a 20-year career in the fashion industry on the business side of things. And I left that career with a goal in mind to make films about wrongful convictions, so that I could shed light on the cause, and hopefully help amplify voices of people who’ve been wrongfully convicted, and who might be stuck in the justice system, who could use the help and the awareness.
From female entrepreneur to Forbes writer
FF: You are a contributor for one of the biggest names in publishing, Forbes, and the owner of a fashion brand (Studio 15) as well as being a filmmaker. Can you explain in some detail how you arrived at that point?
JW: Yeah, for sure. I started working in retail when I was 17 or 18 years old, really young. And I moved up very quickly onto the corporate side of the fashion world into the corporate offices. I did that for a really long time, for 15 years. Then, for the last five years of that career, I started my own fashion company called Studio 15. I did that because I wanted to one, work for myself and two, I wanted to give back and help other women.
So, I partnered with a nonprofit organisation and we donated 5% of our sales to help female entrepreneurs in Uganda. We worked with a nonprofit organisation and they would give microfinance loans to these women to help them start their own businesses. And so, I worked in the fashion industry for 20 years overall.
As a result, Forbes did an article about Studio 15, and about the nonprofit that we worked with. That’s how I ended up meeting the Forbes editors. We spoke and built a relationship, talking about what we do at my company. They ended up offering me a Forbes column because I had a lot of experience – not only in the bricks and mortar side of the industry, but also in e-commerce.
So that’s what I write about in Forbes. I’ve done that for a few years now.
FF: Wow. Awesome. That must give you such a kick, still, writing for such a big publication.
JW: I really enjoy it. It’s nice to have. It’s funny now because I switched to filmmaking last year, but I still write about e-commerce growth. So, it’s kind of in this transition period where I’m debating what I should do going forward, because that’s kind of my old career now. But I do really, really enjoy it and it’s really nice to have that outlet. And also, in this day and age, to be able to work from home and have a side gig where I can write. Yeah, absolutely!
FF: Do you see yourself venturing into writing about filmmaking? Is there scope for that?
JW: Yes. So, I’m going to talk to them about that. It’s on my long to-do list to talk to them about. Ideally, yes, so that everything is kind of aligned, you know?
Criminal injustice: the Jeff Deskovic story
FF: Yes. Well, that would make sense for your career and benefit them as well.
After you reached out to me on social media, we briefly discussed our mutual interest in criminal injustice. Can you tell us why you’ve taken such an interest in the subject, and then talk a bit more about your short documentary Conviction (2020)? What it’s about, etc.?
JW: Yeah, absolutely. So, I had no background in any advocacy work or anything like that around criminal justice. Much like you, Richard, I was just a real big fan of true crime documentaries and true crime stories.
When I was like 20 years old I read this book by Rubin Carter. It’s called The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472. It was my favourite book back then – and, you know, 20 years later, it’s still my absolute favourite book!
It was such a heart wrenching read because, for anyone who’s not familiar with Rubin Carter, he was a famous boxer in the 60s. He was an African American wrongfully convicted of a murder that he didn’t commit.
What really stuck out to me were two things about that book and they really just left a mark. One was that he was a celebrity back then and even he was able to be wrongfully convicted of a murder. I mean, if you think about that, today, if there was some famous celebrity, they got wrongfully convicted of a murder, I feel like they would have every resource, all the money, to not allow that to happen. And the fact that it could have happened to him back then, that it did happen to him, was so alarming to me.
The other thing was that he wrote this book when he was in prison. He had a life sentence and he had exhausted all his appeals. So, he had no real options, no avenues for getting out. And he wrote this as this last plea to humankind, you know, ‘Will anybody listen to me? Will anybody help me?’ And because he wrote it so honestly it was a gut-wrenching book to read.
I remember being 20 and just thinking, ‘How can this happen? How can this happen to somebody?’ And if I remember correctly – I haven’t read this book in 20 years – but the last few pages of the book said something like ‘I don’t have any hatred towards people that put me in here because their hate is what put me in here. And I know that hate won’t get me out.’
That was just so profound to me because, if I were in his position, I think I would have so much hate and anger inside. I found that fascinating.
That was my introduction to criminal injustice and wrongful convictions. And that really hooked me, because I can’t imagine not only the physical health effects of living in a prison, but just the mental health of everybody, you know, and law enforcement and the general public, believing you did something so horrific and thinking that you are a monster when you’re absolutely not that person. And so, it just really stuck with me. And then I always had a passion for it.
But I didn’t really know what to do. Like most people, when you’re passionate about a cause you can volunteer, or you can donate some money. But other than that, I wasn’t sure what I could do.
Inspired by a true crime podcast
And then, fast forward to 2014… I was at home one day, and my husband came home from work. And he was like, ‘You’ve got to hear this podcast!’ This is before podcasts were popular. I’m a real visual person and so I literally didn’t want to hear it but my husband insisted: ‘You have to, it’s a true crime story and you like those..it’s about a Pakistani family.’ My family is also Pakistani and so that really got me interested.
So, we were eating dinner, he played the first episode, and I just had to listen to the next one. And then next. He played four episodes and I said, ‘Play the next one!’ and he was like, ‘There’s no more. It comes out every Thursday and this is all that’s been released.’
I was completely hooked. It was the Serial podcast. Series 1: the Adnan Syed case – he’s wrongfully convicted of a murder that he didn’t commit. He was about the same age as my brother; I have two brothers and their life is mapped out. They are one year apart; they’re all in the same age group.
While I listened to Adnan’s story, all the things they said about him that made the cops think that he was guilty: that he was living a double life, because he wouldn’t tell his parents he was going out drinking and stuff like that… I thought ‘What are you talking about?’ We’ve all done that, so does that mean we’re all murderers? That’s an insane way to think and especially coming from an East Indian background.
Our parents came to this country and they’re very strict. They don’t drink so, if you’re going to go out and drink, to kind of fit into North American culture and whatnot, you hide it from your parents. And so, it was just very alarming to me what happened to Adnan and resonated with me personally.
So, I decided I wanted to do something to help him. They organised a fundraiser out here in New York and that was my first introduction to doing any kind of work to help people who have been wrongfully convicted.
Conviction (2020): a short documentary (for now!)
FF: Your documentary Conviction (2020), which is on Amazon Prime right now, is about 20 minutes long. I was actually really disappointed when I was watching it because I thought it was just amazing and it left me wanting more. I’ve since discovered that you’re making a feature length version of it?
JW: Yes, thank you so much. I am in post-production on the feature length film [November 2020]. And actually, it’s almost finished because once quarantine started, we couldn’t do anything. And so, I spent my time editing the film, which was kind of nice, but we have two shoots left and, because of COVID, we couldn’t do those. One of them is in a prison and they’re not letting anybody in right now.
So, I’m kind of just waiting to see how that goes. But I am excited to finish the feature length version.
I think most people believe in the justice system, and most people trust law enforcement, and if someone gets convicted of something, the majority of people automatically think, ‘Oh, they did it, they must have done something wrong, or they must have committed this crime.’
I also felt, when I was making the short, there were so many things that I wanted to include. When you’re making a short film, it’s got to be really focused on one aspect of the story otherwise viewers will get too little information about too many aspects. Jeff’s story, as you know, is so complex because he went through so much.
He went into prison at 17 years old as a high school student. He didn’t get to graduate. There’s so much to talk about and so I really really wanted to make the feature. So, once I finished the short, I just continued filming and we’re almost done. I’m hoping to release in mid-2021. That might be too ambitious but I’m hoping so!
The limitations of budget on your first documentary
FF: As your debut film, what do you think you did particularly well? And what, if anything, do you think you could improve on next time?
JW: So, I made this film with a really small team. There were just four of us and it was a lot of work. Everybody wore a lot of hats!
I think what we could definitely improve on in the future, when we have more budget and things like that, is to work with a bigger team. I think if I had a bigger editing team, we could have more creative minds in there, and that would make for a better end product and a better film. So, what I’m hoping to do in the future is hire some editors so that we can work together and bounce ideas off each other.
What I did well, I think… the one thing that comes really naturally to me is interviewing people. And for some reason, ever since I was young, I’ve had people I meet for the very first time and, shockingly, they’ll tell me secrets, or tell me things that they wouldn’t just tell anybody, especially a stranger!
People will just kind of open up. And so that lends itself really really well to doing interviews for documentaries, because people get really candid, as Jeff Deskovic did, and that really made for great dialogue and a great film.
I always joke around that Jeff Deskovic is like a filmmaker’s dream, though, because he’s very very open about everything. And he can almost – not even almost – he really can talk about things that most people would feel uncomfortable saying, but he can talk about it very matter-of-factly. I found that to be very interesting.
Jeffrey Deskovic: a remarkable life story
FF: I was going to ask you if you were surprised at how apparently measured and relatively calm Jeff Deskovic was?
It seems to me that he provided a very clear and balanced reflection of his experiences inside. I think I would have just crumbled after six months, frankly, after what he went through…
JW: Yes, I was. I was very, very surprised at that. It’s funny, because I asked Jeff a similar question in one of our interviews, about how he stays so even-keel talking about all this stuff.
Jeff said to me that he stays so even-keeled because he almost compartmentalises it; he feels like it almost didn’t happen to him, like he’s talking about somebody else. And he does that as a coping mechanism. I think that’s one of the reasons why. The other thing, which is just my own observation, but I think the reason he can be that way, is because Jeff has just had a remarkable life story. I won’t spoil the end of the film, but as you know, he’s done a lot of advocacy work ever since he got out of prison in 2006.
And so, he’s told his story so many times that I feel like maybe that’s been therapeutic for him. He’s become more and more comfortable with it over time but he’s very very singular-focused about helping other people; using his story to help other people who’ve been wrongfully convicted. So, I think that’s also why he can be that way.
I will share with you that, behind the scenes, Jeff made really funny jokes about his time and his experience in prison. And the first time he did that, I was very quiet. I thought: did I hear that right? Because you don’t want to laugh in these situations, because it’s so horrific, but Jeff has a dark sense of humor, and he can laugh about it now, which is so awesome. I’m so happy that he’s at that place but, from a filmmaker’s perspective, and somebody who didn’t know Jeff really well, when I started this, I was like, ‘Wait a minute, did he just say that?’
FF: It’s just an amazing reflection of how he’s managed to mentally process what’s happened to him, cope with it, and come out a better person and not, as he alludes to in the documentary, let it affect his life any more than it had to. It is such a reflection on him as a person, isn’t it?
JW: It really is. Jeff is such a great giving person for sure. And it’s really tough to see the after-effects of Jeff being in prison. Loud noises really shake him up, like if the phone rings or if there’s a loud car.
He said that in prison you’re always listening, but you can’t see the rest of the space because you’re locked up in one cell. Loud noises are kind of your indication of when something is wrong, whether there’s violence or the keys, like the guard’s keys shaking. Those are all signs of danger, almost. For 16 years, that was his indication for something being wrong.
Jeff is a really giving and wonderful person and then he has these after-effects he has to deal with all the time. It’s a real juxtaposition and it’s very interesting to see from the outside looking in, and it’s also very, very sad at times.
FF: It would be impossible for anyone to go through that and deal with it as well as he has without having some sort of effect on you mentally, long term. It’s absolutely impossible. You wouldn’t be human otherwise. So, yes, it’s unsettling and sad to hear, but not surprising, unfortunately.
Documentary filmmaking with a goal in mind
What’s the main takeaway you’d like people to get from the film?
JW: It’s funny, because my goal has changed a little bit. I would have told you even a couple of weeks ago, that if the film could just raise a little bit of awareness, that would make other people realise that this is a serious issue… That would, I think, go a long way in making change in the future. But because I think most people believe in the justice system, and most people trust law enforcement, and if someone gets convicted of something, the majority of people automatically think, ‘Oh, they did it, they must have done something wrong, or they must have committed this crime.’ Most people don’t think that there are some prosecutors and some police officers, who are committing crimes themselves, by falsely accusing people of things they didn’t do. And so, if I could just raise awareness towards that, I think that would be great.
Now in the past month, we’ve been invited to three different schools to screen the film and do Q and A’s with criminal justice students and law students. And so that’s been amazing. That’s more than I could have even hoped for. So, my goal has changed a little bit. I would love to do more of that and hopefully impact these people who will be future lawyers or future jurors and things like that. So, I hope down the line with future films, we can make an even bigger impact.
Most people don’t think that there are some prosecutors and some police officers, who are committing crimes themselves, by falsely accusing people of things they didn’t do.
Jia Wertz: an award-winning filmmaker
FF: Am I right in saying that Conviction (2020) has won one or two awards in the last few weeks?
JW: That’s right! In the last three weeks we won three awards. We won Best Picture, and Best Cinematography at the Georgia Shorts Film Festival and Georgia Documentary Film Festival. And then we won an award of distinction at Canada Shorts Film Festival.
FF: Oh, congratulations, fantastic. You’re getting the recognition and further exposure that I feel that you deserve for this.
JW: Thank you.
FF: Do you think that you’ll continue with documentary filmmaking or do you think you might explore narrative filmmaking at some point in the future?
JW: You know, I don’t think I’ll do narrative. You never know what the future holds but I left my career and my salary with the clear intention of working on something that helps this cause. And I’m in my 40s now, and that’s when I realised that…how I spend every day is what is most meaningful to me. And so, I don’t have a desire to do that because I don’t think it’s going to lead to my personal end goals. But who knows, down the line?
Advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers
FF: Finally, what’s the best advice you’ve been given as a filmmaker that you could pass on to other budding documentary filmmakers?
JW: I got some great advice from our professors when I went to New York Film Academy.
It’s funny, because you’re shooting movies and so, you would think that video quality is the most important thing… I asked a professor what camera I should buy, because I was looking to invest in a better camera once I finished school. She said that it doesn’t matter. If you have to shoot it with your iPhone, it doesn’t even really matter.
What matters is the story, how you craft it and how compelling it is. If your story is so compelling that people forget to even think about what camera you used, or what quality of the video is, then you have a really great film.
The second thing they said was that audio is the most important thing, and not the video, because if there’s bad audio, viewers will turn off the movie because they can’t hear what’s going on and they’ll get frustrated. If the audio is crystal clear you can always shoot B roll or other footage to go with that audio. So, audio is really the key when you’re filmmaking.
That was shocking to me because, having a photography background and loving being behind the camera, that was a big learning moment for me. I had always had the naive belief that video was the most important thing.
FF: A lot of work goes into getting the sound perfect, not just equipment, but post production as well. So I think that’s a really good point and something that maybe not all filmmakers think about initially, as you didn’t.
Again, I’d really encourage people to watch Conviction (2020) on Prime now – it’s just 20 minutes long, a really long teaser, and then catch the feature length version in 2021!
JW: Thank you so much, Richard!
Interviewer/Video Editor/Visual Effects/Artwork/Editor: Richard Williams
Conviction (2020) trailer footage and stills: Jia Wertz
Film lover. Coffee hater. Raising a newborn during a global pandemic and interviewing indie filmmakers in between nappy changes.