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“I imagined you’ve seen lots of prison everything so it’s a bit intimidating to send you anything for fear I’m just repeating,” said the anonymous tip off in my inbox. The link was to a film entirely new to me. It blew me away and will you too.
Jonathan Borofsky, famous in recent years for a bunch of monstrous sculptures of 2-D men (usually hammering the air), made Prisoners in 1985. It’s one of the best prison films I’ve seen, mainly because Prisoners doesn’t weave too persistently one particular tale or one particular journey. To be reductive, I’d argue that this is the unique artist’s treatment of the subject in stark contrast to the straight documentarian’s treatment.
Generally, prison documentaries are often about trial and adversity; they necessarily have to depict struggle and hope from all angles. In other words, documentaries are often part-advocacy and answers. Borofsky just had questions. The answers the 32 California prisoners had for him in interviews will stay with you.
Part horror testimony, part philosophy, part confession, part therapy, Borofsky’s Prisoners is a tour de force. It was made in the mid-eighties just as the era of mass incarceration took hold. Back then prisoners had the same issues – poverty, drug addiction, histories of childhood abuse and adulthoods of transgression, bad circumstance and bad choices – there were just fewer of them.
The opening of the film includes atmospheric music and cuts of the more bizarre statements. It jolts. But don’t think Borofsky is setting these men and women up for a fall. Yes, his artistic hand is all over this, but he gives each of the prisoners plenty of time to pierce through our bullshit and take us right to their reality. If it seems weird, it is probably because Borofsky’s subject live weirdness every day. Borofsky let’s them speak. He shows their common institutionalisation but does not pity them.