Culture

New film traces wrongly convicted ex-con’s return to society

Photo courtesy of "Welcome Home Pictures"

Angel Cordero shows a cellphone image with his daughter.

Documentary tracks a Hunts Point native as he tries to readjust to life on the outside

He spent 13 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, the stabbing of a college student on the streets of Hunts Point. He was released early, thanks to a jailhouse confession and good behavior. He came back to a loving family, and a wife who wanted nothing more than for him to feel at home. But the work to rebuild a life after more than a decade behind bars has just begun for Angel Cordero.

His story will be told on the big screen this week when a documentary about Cordero, a Hunts Point native, premieres on Oct. 30 at Village East Cinema in Manhattan.

“I’m still fighting,” says Cordero in the film. “I’m still fighting for my justice. When you say it’s over, no man. It’s just beginning.”

“Coming Home,” directed by Brooklyn filmmaker Viko Nikci, is a story of rediscovery, from texting for the first time to seeing a teenage daughter he last hugged as a 7-year-old to finally sharing a life with the social worker he married while in prison.

But it’s also a story of the limbo that prison can make of a life once fully lived. His daughter barely knows him. After 13 years, he’s forced to confront responsibilities that were stripped from him in prison. And while he is free on parole, Cordero can’t truly move on. He needs his named cleared. He is still waiting for exoneration.

“They stole my life,” says Cordero, now 41. He entered prison at age 27. “They stole my life. The pieces that fell into place have helped me establish myself again in society. But they can never give back that time taken away from my daughter. They can never give back that time taken from me.”

Cordero’s life unraveled in a single moment in May 1999. It was 2 a.m. as he and his brother, Tony Rivas, left a party in the neighborhood to get some cigarettes at the 24-hour bodega near the corner of Lafayette and Hunts Point Avenue. Just then a scuffle started on the far side of the street, near Coster. The two brothers went to check it out.

Within minutes, a man lay bleeding on the sidewalk and police officers had pinned Cordero to the ground, smashing his head on the pavement. Both brothers were soon cuffed at the 41st Precinct, charged with attempted murder for the stabbing of Jason Mercado. The trial didn’t last long, but long enough to sentence both Cordero and Rivas to 15 years for attempted murder. The man who later would admit to stabbing Mercado, Dario Rodriguez, testified against Cordero in his trial.

The film includes interviews with Cordero in prison, after “12 years, nine months, two weeks and many hours and minutes and seconds,” he recounts, or what “felt like a lifetime.” (Rivas was released after six years on a technicality.) The camera then follows him from the teary reunion on the sidewalks outside the Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanock, N.Y., to a backyard barbecue at his mother’s home in Soundview. The filmmakers also delve into his desperate attempt to reignite a relationship with his 16-year-old daughter, moments that are often so painful and awkward the viewer is forced to look away.

He wrestles out loud with his feelings for his daughter, the destruction of his life as he knew it, and the “battles to come” to put it all together again.

“How can I break in, break through?” he asks himself after his daughter starts to push away from a father she blames for abandoning her. “That’s the little girl I miss. I don’t want to be a stranger to her.”

For the filmmaker, it was these daily battles that he wanted to capture in the movie. Born in Kosovo and raised in Brooklyn, Nikci heard about Cordero’s case from a neighborhood acquaintance, who suggested he read more about it in Cordero’s lawyer’s memoir, “Hard Time & Nursery Rhymes.” It wasn’t the legal case that attracted him, Nikci says, but Cordero’s charisma and character – and the universal themes of loss that all prisoners experience.

“I went into the movie to show what gets taken away from you when you’re incarcerated, whether you’re guilty or not,” Nikci says. “His punishment is lifelong. That is part of the culture of incarceration. Your punishment never stops – it keeps going.”

After receiving permission to film from Cordero and his family – his brother, sister, mother, daughter, and even his daughter’s mother and stepfather now living in Florida – Nikci captured hundreds of poignant moments, including a visit to the crime scene on Lafayette and Hunts Point Avenue and many hours of Cordero trying to make sense of things while pacing the empty bleachers of park near Coop City. Nikci and his cinematographer shot 5,000 minutes of film over 25 days, whittling that down to 85 minutes for the final cut.

The camera, he says, served as therapist. It forced Cordero and his daughter, Sarah, to talk about their feelings, and it displayed their reactions in real time, in real talk. It recorded Cordero’s decision to break parole and visit his daughter in Florida, and his wife’s desperate fear of that choice. And it showed, in unflinching technicolor, a mother’s tearful forgiveness for the man who sent her son to prison, a man so tortured, he says on film, “it ate my mind up.”

“Audiences judge character differently than the legal system,” Nikci says. “The camera will find the truth.”

The film will show for a week downtown, and then the filmmakers hope it will make the short list of contenders for an Oscar nomination. Cordero and his family have even higher hopes for the movie: a path to exoneration for a man who lost 13 years of his life.

“It’s a chance to tell my story,” Cordero says of the movie. “And it’s my right to be exonerated. It’s the right thing to do. Add a thousand exclamation points to that.”

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