“I’m not into sex. I’m into freedom,” Barry Gibbs tells Zoe Potkin’s camera, turning to look back from the wheel of his car. His partner, Myrna, had interjected while Gibbs explained his several medical conditions to Potkin. Prison, he says, brought him more health problems than most people could understand.
In 1988, Barry Gibbs was arrested for a murder in Brooklyn that had occurred two years earlier. The US Postman and Vietnam Vet served almost two decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit—he had been framed by his arresting officer, Louis Eppolito. Eppolito, it turned out, was working for an organized crime family and committed and covered up several murders before he was caught and arrested in 2005. He had hidden the files that proved Gibbs’ innocence in the basement of his home.
Four months later, Barry Gibbs walked out of prison, exonerated by The Innocence Project. He relied heavily on his attorney, Vanessa Potkin, while re-assimilating into society and attempting to rebuild relationships and find peace. He frequented her apartment and spent countless hours there—he had nowhere else to go. Zoe was living with her sister Vanessa at the time, and was an NYU film student. For a short project, she followed Gibbs’s early attempt at reintegration with a video camera, presenting it to her class.
When she realized the short project wasn’t enough to tell a complete story, she continued to follow Gibbs around, documenting the most intimate moments of his post-incarceration life. “It’s a story that needs to be told over time,” Potkin says. “You can’t really tell the lifelong effects of wrongful incarceration in such a short period of time. So I continued to follow him.” She spent the next decade by Gibbs’ side. “For ten years, it was just me and Barry,” she said.
Potkin followed Gibbs around as he crossed the country searching for the graves of his parents, rebuilt his relationship with his son, and faced near-fatal cancer as a result of his time in prison. He was exonerated in 2005, but his battle was far from over. As he readjusted to freedom after seventeen years of incarceration, he brings Potkin and his partner Myrna through the highs and lows, and shares his experience selling lunch meat sandwiches on the prison yard and petitioning for better food. She documented his life until Gibbs passed away on March 23, 2018.
The result of over 300 hours of footage is Chains, the documentary detailing Gibbs’ brutal honesty about his successes, his struggles and his time in prison. “He’s just so filtered, he really holds nothing back. He’s so open with how he’s feeling and he wants to talk about his story so much,” Potkin said. “There was nothing he wouldn’t say and nothing he wouldn’t let me film, and he would kind of bring me around everywhere and tell everyone, ‘This is my photographer!’ He was very adamant about having me around to let me see everything.”
Katie Couric, director Sanaa Hamri and Tony Goldwyn have also signed on to produce the documentary, which is currently in the editing phase. To fund the process of whittling down the 300 hours to a more manageable 90 minutes, Potkin and her team have put together a Kickstarter campaign. To commemorate the beginning of the project, Potkin held an event at the Kickstarter office in Greenpoint. Barry Scheck, Vanessa Potkin, high-profile attorney Aida Leisenring, and members of the wrongful conviction community attended. After 15 minutes of footage were screened, the floor was opened to a Q&A with Potkin herself.
With Chains, Potkin hopes that the public will realize that incarceration leads to post-traumatic stress disorder, and that leaving prison doesn’t mean all problems are gone. When visiting one of Gibbs’s friends in prison, Allan Stern, Potkin also realized the freedoms most people take for granted. “You’re talking to somebody you can’t imagine would be able to survive in that kind of a scenario,” she says. “It’s so restrictive. You can’t imagine the restrictions on your freedom. And it becomes so conditioned. I went to go buy something from the vending machine and he’s just three feet behind me. I’m like, ‘What do you want, Al? What should we get?’ And I’m not realizing that there are certain lines on the floor that he can’t cross. He’s not chained to anything at this point, but it’s conditioned into him as a prisoner that he shouldn’t cross these lines. And that’s what I was trying to capture with the film. The things that don’t change after you leave prison.”