EXCLUSIVE: Producer John Martinez O’Felan has secured financing and set his next Project, Barton Creek, a Latino-led and LatinX inclusive feature biopic written and directed by award-winning Cuban-American director Carlos V. Gutierrez.
The feature follows the triumphant life story of Cuban political exile and innocence Project participant Carlos Lavernia, who was wrongfully convicted to life in prison and spent 15 years behind bars before being proven innocent.
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Lavernia is a Havana-born immigrant and former Cuban soldier imprisoned in Fidel Castro’s Cuba before being sent on the Mariel Boatlift of 1980 to live in the U.S in exile. While in his early 30’s, he settled in Austin, Texas, where he began his new life. After hanging out at a local landmark known as the Barton Springs Pool area, an area hot-spot known for day drinking at the time, Lavernia finds himself questioned by authorities for predatory crimes based on his racial identity. Having issues with PTSD from his past life, Lavernia has a manic episode during questioning, leading to greater suspicion. With a police sketch as the only key evidence, Lavernia is arrested and detained. After inadequate representation by a court-appointed attorney, he was convicted to life in prison based on the color of his skin and his lack of proper English.
Throughout his 15-year conviction, Lavernia maintained his innocence and methodically taught himself English and gained knowledge of the legal system in the prison’s law library, self-representing yearly appeals to only meet rejection until 1999, when he eventually wrote Johnny Cochran, which led to an introduction to Barry Scheck, Lavernia’s case was finally reopened for DNA evidence review, new technology at the time, and overseen by Barry Scheck and the Innocence Project. During the review process, his legal team discovered that the evidence used in Lavernia’s case, which was supposed to be destroyed, was somehow lodged in a file cabinet and preserved — a miracle that led to Lavernia’s exoneration, making national and international headlines, only for Lavernia to later wait in holding for five more years while the U.S Immigration office cleared his green card status, to avoid being sent back to Cuba.
O’Felan, under his Mankind Entertainment banner, and Gutierrez will produce through Rite of Passage Pictures LLC, a new Austin, Texas-based shingle set up with local entrepreneur Jay Lamy, to develop stories based on human struggles that are inspiring, enlightening, or encouraging through their central characters.
O’Felan says, “Beyond the wrongful conviction based on racial profiling, Mr. Lavernia’s life journey represents a greater humility and perseverance which leads to good overpowering evil. Coming from a Latin American country, His story offers a crucial representation of the struggles of Latino history in 1980s America, and stories like these are inspiring and essential and need to be heard.”
Casting on Barton Creek is now underway with an eye toward fast-tracking production in Austin and Colombia in early 2023.
Gutierrez is a Miami-born Cuban-American filmmaker who attended film school at Tufts University, where he was awarded a Graduate Fellowship to New York University’s Master Film Program. While at NYU, he won the DGA Student Film Awards for Best Latino Filmmaker and the Grand Prize in the HBO Latino Film Festival Short Film Contest. He was honored by the AMPTP with a Student Academy Award nomination for his short film Wet Foot, Dry Foot, leading his work to become selected and win the Showtime Network’s Latino Filmmaker’s showcase. Gutierrez’s feature indie film debut Locked In starred Mena Suvari and was released by Saban Films / Paramount, and recently wrapped his second feature Stay Safe, which is currently in post-production.
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