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INDEPENDENT LENS: Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story

Airs Sunday, March 27, 2011 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Cyntoia Brown rides to the courthouse during her criminal trial.

16-year-old Cyntoia Brown during a transfer hearing to determine if she should be tried as an adult.
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Above: 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown during a transfer hearing to determine if she should be tried as an adult.

Ellenette Brown, Cyntoia’s adoptive mother
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Above: Ellenette Brown, Cyntoia’s adoptive mother

Joan Warren (pictured) discusses how being raped impacted her life and those of her daughter, “Gina”, and the granddaughter she knew little about prior to this film, “Cyntoia.” The photograph she’s holding is a 1970s portrait of herself.
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Above: Joan Warren (pictured) discusses how being raped impacted her life and those of her daughter, “Gina”, and the granddaughter she knew little about prior to this film, “Cyntoia.” The photograph she’s holding is a 1970s portrait of herself.

In 2004, Cyntoia Brown was arrested for murder. There was no question that a 43-year-old man is dead and that she killed him. What mystified filmmaker Daniel Birman was just how common violence among youth is, and just how rarely we stop to question our assumptions about it. He wondered in this case what led a girl — who grew up in a reasonable home environment — to this tragic end?

"Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story" explores Cyntoia’s history and her future. Without attempting to excuse her crime as youthful indiscretion nor to vilify her as an example of a generation gone off the rails, Birman simply follows Cyntoia through six years of her life after the crime, and searches for answers to persistent questions.

The camera first glimpses Cyntoia the week of her arrest at age 16 and follows her for nearly six years. Along the way, nationally renowned juvenile forensic psychiatrist, Dr. William Bernet from Vanderbilt University, assesses her situation. We meet Ellenette Brown, Cyntoia’s adoptive mother who talks about the young girl’s early years. Georgina Mitchell, Cyntoia’s biological mother, meets her for the first time since she gave her up for adoption 14 years earlier. When we meet Cyntoia’s maternal grandmother, Joan Warren, some patterns begin to come into sharp focus.

Cyntoia wrestles with her fate. She is stunningly articulate, and spends the time to put the pieces of this puzzle together with us. Cyntoia's pre-prison lifestyle was nearly indistinguishable from her mother's at the same age. History — seemingly predestined by biology and circumstance — repeats itself through each generation in this family.

Cyntoia is tried as an adult, and the cameras are there when she is convicted and sentenced to life at the Tennessee Prison for Women. After the verdict, Cyntoia calls her mom to tell her the news. In the end, we catch up with Cyntoia as she is adjusting to prison, and struggling with her identity and hope for her future.

"Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story" is on Facebook.

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Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story: Pretrial Interview

Above: In a pretrial interview, Dr. William Bernet listens as Cyntonia recounts a painful past. In 2004, Cyntoia Brown was arrested for murder. There was no question that a 43-year-old man is dead and that she killed him. What mystified filmmaker Daniel Birman was just how common violence among youth is, and just how rarely we stop to question our assumptions about it. He wondered in this case what led a girl -- who grew-up in a reasonable home environment -- to this tragic end? Find out more about "Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story."

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Video Excerpt: Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story

Above: In this clip, Cyntoia's adoptive mother struggles to understand why she missed the warning signs. In 2004, Cyntoia Brown was arrested for murder. There was no question that a 43-year-old man is dead and that she killed him. What mystified filmmaker Daniel Birman was just how common violence among youth is, and just how rarely we stop to question our assumptions about it. He wondered in this case what led a girl -- who grew-up in a reasonable home environment -- to this tragic end? Find out more about "Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story."

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Video Extra: Cyntoia Recounts Her Past

Above: Via prison telephone, Cyntoia recounts her past choices and hope for a better future. In 2004, Cyntoia Brown was arrested for murder. There was no question that a 43-year-old man is dead and that she killed him. What mystified filmmaker Daniel Birman was just how common violence among youth is, and just how rarely we stop to question our assumptions about it. He wondered in this case what led a girl -- who grew-up in a reasonable home environment -- to this tragic end? Find out more about "Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story."

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