JustUs, the film and the movement, was created by Cedric B. Theus and Maya Ben-Shahar to highlight the grassroots efforts of prisoners, ex-prisoners and activists in reforming the criminal justice system and ending the racial disparity in sending African-Americans to prison. It began as a pitch that prisoner Cedric B. Theus typed up and mailed to his friend and then-student-activist, Maya Ben-Shahar. Ced and Maya had first corresponded through a pen pal program, and after several years of writing, emailing and calling, they had developed deep respect for one another’s voices.

The first leg of production was rough and exploratory. Students at varying levels of production experience were eager to help, and on weekend trips they began collecting the first raw materials. This began in Lakota, IA, in an interview with Donta McKenzie, a man Ced knew who had been incarcerated for 23 years, with his wife Stephanie to whom he was now happily married, at the windmills where they both worked in construction.

Meanwhile, the emerging film crew encountered several dead ends. Cedric’s film treatment called for key shots and interviews with current prisoners, but the Iowa State Penitentiary rejected the proposal to film inside.

After this rejection, the main subjects of the film shifted from current to former prisoners – their successful reentry into society and their unique bonds with guys inside. The experience of being currently incarcerated, however, would remain in the form of Ced’s narration. In the summer of 2019, the team – now comprised mostly of recent college grads and Ced –worked hard to gather over 50 hours of interview footage. Ced’s decades-’ long activism had generated relationships with Iowa activists and many others (lawyers, legislators, journalists, social workers) who were willing and eager to give interviews, invested in the film’s mission.

Come fall, there was enough footage to put together a proper trailer. Maya and assistant producer Nam Nyugen worked to recruit contributors. Freelance animator Baris Alten, Hollywood soundtrack composer Jaimie Pangan, and experienced editor Peter Franco joined the team to complete it. This allowed the team to start fundraising for the major filming and editing periods ahead. Charles Brewton, formerly incarcerated truck driver and Des Moines activist, took the role of Executive Producer to manage the business aspect on a local level. Working now with Cocoa Creative in Des Moines, and sponsored by the Des Moines Film Society, the JustUs production team had come a long way from the motley crew that started out. Throughout, Ced and Maya’s unique partnership kept the team on track with the original goals.

This brings us to the present day. In March 2020 , while protests of George Floyd's murder were filling the streets, we were awarded our first major grant award in the sum of $25,000 from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This allowed us to complete an intensive month of filming in September 2020, with a strong team of Iowa-based cinematographers and sound recordists. With production complete, and a new relationship forming with Iowa PBS, we are set to embark on what may be the most intensive stage yet: editing. And we are trying to get it all done this year, with COVID-19 still in full swing. In the ongoing movement for racial justice, ignited by recent displays of police violence, the majority of Americans are increasingly open to conversations on criminal justice reform and the racial disparity in incarceration. JustUs contributes critical voices to that conversation and we are excited for all that lies ahead.

“Our prisons in Iowa as in this country are a violation of human rights, and we don’t talk about it” .

-- Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, Iowa State Legislature