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RISE Film Festival

About the RISE Film Festival

Now in its sixth year, the RISE Film Festival (RFF) is one of the most anticipated events of the conference. Where possible, the RFF screens new films, both documentary and narrative, before or shortly after they become available in wide release. Following each screening, a panel is held with filmmakers, actors, and other experts to discuss the big issues these films raise, the impact they have on viewers, and the lessons we can take away from the stories being told.

Our audience spans the criminal justice and clinical professions—judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation and parole, law enforcement, veterans, substance use and mental health treatment providers, social workers, peer recovery specialists, child and family services, policy experts, and more. Past films screened at RFF have focused on the criminal justice system, addiction recovery, mental health, and military veterans.

The RFF seeks films that take an unflinching look at humanity at its best, worst, and everything in between. Films that tell stories and amplify voices that need a platform. Films that inspire action and drive change.

2021 Films


Based the novel by Nico Walker
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Screenplay by Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg

Cherry (Tom Holland) is a young Cleveland man who, after being spurned by the love of his life Emily (Ciara Bravo), joins the Army before she returns to tell him she has made a mistake and they belong together. He becomes an Army medic in Iraq and sees violence and carnage no one should. Returning with a raging case of undiagnosed PTSD, he is prescribed the opiate Oxycontin. Soon, he and his young wife move from pills to heroin, and he turns to robbing banks to pay their debts and feed their habit.

Post-screening panelists: Ciara Bravo, actor and star of "Cherry"; Hon. Patrick Murphy, 32nd Under Secretary of the Army; Melissa A. Bryant, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, Department of Veterans Affairs; Bonnie Abaunza, social impact producer; and moderated by Melissa Fitzgerald, Director of Advancing Justice

Sky Blossom

Winner, 2021 Best Documentary Feature Award, Yellowstone International Film Festival
Directed by Richard Lui
Executive produced by Montel Williams, David Hyde Pierce, Jean Tsien, Linda Hope, Col. Jack Jacobs

“Sky Blossom” is a raw, inspiring window into 5.4 million students stepping forward as front-line heroes. Caring for family with tough medical conditions, they stay at home doing things often seen only in hospitals. They are cheerleaders, part-time employees, and college students, but they also live double lives, quietly growing up as America’s next greatest generation. The filmmaker, veteran journalist and award-winning news anchor Richard Lui, says the interviews were so honest they genuinely surprised him, as they revealed insights into the lives of young people across America. Military troops used to look up and say, “Here come the sky blossoms”—paratroopers rushing to their aid. Today, there is a new generation answering that call. These are their stories.

Post-screening panelists: Richard Lui, director of "Sky Blossom," NBC news anchor, and award-winning journalist; the Grier family, featured in the film; and moderator Melissa Fitzgerald, Director of Advancing Justice

2019 Films

Clemency (in theaters December 27, 2019)

Winner, 2019 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize
Directed by Chinonye Chukwu
Produced by Bronwyn Cornelius

Years of carrying out death row executions have taken a toll on prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard). As she prepares to execute another inmate, Bernadine must confront the psychological and emotional demons her job creates, ultimately connecting her to the man she is sanctioned to kill. A quietly powerful film directed by Chinonye Chukwu, Clemency forces an unflinching look at capital punishment in America. Starring: Alfre Woodard, Wendell Pierce, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Richard Gunn, Danielle Brooks, Michael O’Neill.

Post-screening panelists: Producer Brownyn Cornelius, actor Michael O’Neill, NDCI Director Vanessa Price, formerly incarcerated person Carlos Gonzales


Directed by Stephanie Soechtig
Produced by Stephanie Soechtig and Kristin Lazure, ATLAS Films

At the height of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, an unprecedented number of injured American soldiers began returning home and looking for ways to cope with their new realities. Alive follows the journeys of a number of veterans who turn to adaptive athletics to help them heal both physically and emotionally from their battle wounds.

Post-screening panelists: EPIX Original Programming Senior Director Jill Burkhart, Army SPC and athlete Stephanie Johnson, former Acting Secretary of the Army Patrick J. Murphy

Those Who Serve

Directed by Jeff Werner
Produced by Jeff Werner and Kenneth A. Carlson

They risked their lives for their country. Now they're on the front lines of a new battlefield: the courtroom. Those Who Serve documents the journeys of three psychologically wounded American combat veterans who’ve committed crimes and are now struggling to find a just outcome in the judicial system. It gives viewers unprecedented access to real-life courtroom dramas that take painful, intimate, sometimes hopeful and sometimes sobering turns.

Post-screening panelists: Director Jeff Werner, forensic neuropsychologist Dr. Cynthia Boyd, Veterans Defense Project President Brock Hunter

2018 Films

Holden On

Winner, 2017 Best Director Award, Orlando Film Festival | 2017 Audience Award, Atlanta Film Festival | Best Director & Best Actor Awards, Breck Film Fest
Directed by Tamlin Hall
Produced by James Cooney, Tamlin Hall, Jamie Roberts
Granger Pictures

No longer your average boy-next-door, Holden Layfield weaves audiences through his harrowing tale in this film set in the early 1990s. After succumbing to his secret mental illness, Holden evolves from a beloved football player to a self-medicating prophet. Holden On is based on a true story. Starring Matthew Fahey, Steve Ellis, Kelly Finley, Greg Thompson, Ross Thomas.

Post-screening panelists: Director Tamlin Hall, actors Matthew Fahey and Steve Ellis, Bob Layfield (Holden’s father)

The Work

Winner, 2017 SXSW Grand Jury Award
Directed by Jarius McLeary and Gethin Aldous
The Orchard and Topic

Set entirely inside Folsom State Prison, The Work follows three men during four days of intensive group therapy with prison residents, revealing an intimate and powerful portrait of authentic human transformation that transcends what we think of as rehabilitation. Sometimes change can only come from the inside.

Post-screening panelists: Director Jarius McLeary, program founder James McLeary, one of the featured men who has since been paroled

2017 Films

Served Like A Girl

Directed by Lysa Heslov
A Pop Smoke Production

Female veterans create a shared sisterhood to help the rising number of homeless women veterans by entering into a competition that unexpectedly catalyzes moving events in their own lives to bring them full circle in a quest for healing and hope.

Post-screening panelists: Director Lysa Heslov, Ms. Veteran America founder Major Jaspen Boothe

A New High

Directed by Samuel Miron and Stephen Scott Scarpulla
Red River Rising Entertainment and Other | Side Pictures

In the heart of downtown Seattle is the Union Gospel Mission—a homeless shelter catering to the addicted and the abused. For these men and women, hope is a novelty, self-esteem a luxury and recovery a faraway ideal. But within the UGM is one man, an ex-Army Ranger named Mike Johnson, who believes in them. And he will attempt to use one of the most treacherous peaks in North America, 14,400-foot Mt. Rainier, to give them hope again. Will their personal mountains be too steep to overcome, or will they find A New High?

Post-screening panelists: Directors Samuel Miron and Stephen Scott Scarpulla, Mike Johnson

Beyond the Wall poster

Beyond the Wall

Produced and Directed by Jenny Phillips and Bestor Cram
Northern Light Productions

Five formerly incarcerated men attempt to rebuild their lives on the outside with little support from our criminal justice system. Former prisoner Louie Diaz works with each man to help him maintain his sobriety and his freedom. Beyond the Wall puts a human face on the social, economic and emotional barriers encountered by returning citizens.

Post-screening panelists: Director Jenny Phillips, Louie Diaz

2016 Films

Thank You for Your Service

Winner, 2016 Best Feature Documentary, GI Film Festival | 2016 Impact Award, Illuminate Film Festival
Directed by Tom Donahue
A Creative Chaos VMG Production

The U.S. military faces a mental health crisis of historic proportions. Thank You for Your Service takes aim at our superficial understanding of war trauma and the failed policies that result. Director Tom Donahue interweaves the stories of four struggling Iraq War veterans with candid interviews of top military and civilian leaders. Observing the systemic neglect, the film argues for significant internal change and offers a road map of hope. Interviews include Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Admiral Mike Mullen, Generals David Petraeus and Loree Sutton, Nicholas Kristof, Dexter Filkins, Senator Patty Murray, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson.

Hollywood Beauty Salon

Directed by Glenn Holstein

A colorful and inspiring documentary about surviving mental illness and violence, struggling with loss, finding courage for recovery and discovering the beauty inside each one of us.

The Seventh Fire

Executive produced by Terrence Malick, Natalie Portman, Chris Eyre
Directed by Jack Pettibone Riccobono

When gang leader Rob Brown is sentenced to prison for a fifth time, he must confront his role in bringing violent drug culture into his beloved Ojibwe community in northern Minnesota. As Rob reckons with his past, his seventeen-year-old protégé, Kevin, dreams of the future: becoming the most powerful and feared Native gangster on the reservation.