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Ex-pro wrestler and A-list actor Dwayne Johnson got the idea for his 2017 doccie HBO’s Rock and a Hard Place (now on Showmax) when he went home to Miami, Florida and was told about the Miami-Dade County Boot Camp Program. The 38 imprisoned troubled teens reminded Dwayne of his youth, and his star power gave him the perfect footing to help the group reshape, improve and press the reset button on their lives. “You’re probably thinking what I got myself into,” says Dwayne to the young adults when he walks in to meet them. “When I was your age, I was getting in and out of trouble. I was getting arrested and I know what it’s like [to be like you].”
In just four months, Dwayne, with the help of the prison wardens, teach the inmates to get their lives on track by identifying the root of their personal issues and helping them with career training, financial literacy, skills training and changing their attitude towards life.
The going gets tough
While four months doesn’t sound like a lot of time, it works for The Rock (Dwayne’s WWE moniker) and the teens. They’re handed a rule book on how to stay out of jail which they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives – more so because they’re now marked as criminals who’ll be looked at differently from here on out. The wardens’ first task is to break down the teenage inmates’ emotional walls to strengthen them and help them recover from their past, explains director Jon Alpert. “It looks cruel, but everybody is an equal opportunity victim of that kind of cruelty. It’s part of their rebuilding philosophy.” He adds that “one of the ways the boot camp operates is through a form of bullying, which is needed to identify the weakness and vulnerability of the inmates – whether it’s a language weakness or physical weakness. They put the inmates in a situation where their weakness is exposed, then they work together to resolve it.”
Back to the drawing board
The wardens scream at the inmates, force them to do push-ups and other physical exercises, as well as being ordered to shower and sleep at a set time to give them discipline. “We were reluctant to like the boot camp as there’s a lot of screaming in the inmates’ faces,” says Jon, but it is for the inmates’ benefit. The ones who’re open to change and stick to the programme show a marked change in attitude and their graduation affirms that they’ve made the choices themselves. The event is hosted by The Rock, who reminds the graduates to follow the lessons they’ve learnt in just four months, both on a physical and mental level. The reformed youths’ hardened criminal ways help them transform their lives and become better men.
It didn’t work out for all of the youths though – two fled the facility during filming and were tracked down by police and arrested as they’re still criminals. “The facility staff were shocked,” explains Jon. “It was the first escape in the history of the programme and we were all rooting for the inmates [to grow and better themselves], so it was devastating when any one of them for any reason had to drop out.”
Crossing the bridge
Filming the documentary required The Rock and his crew to act as flies-on-the-wall, which isn’t always easy when you’re as famous as the actor. “We are always striving for the camera to disappear and become part of the environment,” says producer Matt O’Neill. “The young men were suffering so badly whether through physical exertion or terror because a drill instructor was in their face, the camera wasn’t there. They were just trying to get through one more push-up or survive another day. We were able to live with them until they really forgot we were around,” adds the producer. While filming, The Rock would regularly visit as “we would not have gotten a true picture of the way in which boot camp works. The kids and wardens would’ve been looking at him,” laughs Jon.
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