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Later today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces the nominations for the 2017 Oscars. Ava DuVernay’s doc 13th is on the longlist and tipped to make the shortlist for Best Documentary*. 13th has, deservedly, got a lot of praise since its release in October, but there’s another documentary about the Prison Industrial Complex that came out in 2016 that I’d like to champion here.
The Prison In Twelve Landscapes, directed by Brett Story, is a film that, in many ways, retools the documentary format. It is a film about prison without ever going inside one (although the film closes with a monumental, slow-motion approach to the car-park of the citadel-like Attica Prison). It’s not up for a gong, which is a shame because everyone can benefit from its radical politics and creative verve.
Forcefully, The Prison In Twelve Landscapes rejects the common format of prison documentaries. You know, meet a character; set the broader context of incarceration; chart the character’s life; establish a moment in which fortunes changed for the worst; define the injustice; imagine a different future for the main character and possibly thousands or millions of others locked up for whom she/he serves as representative.
“I’ve watched a lot of prison films, documentaries and non-doc’s, and they kind of all take the same shape,” Story told Guernica recently. “You go inside a prison, you point the camera at a black man in a cell and the narrative, especially if it is a progressive or liberal film, will expose what’s going on. You expose the violence, you expose the injustice of this person’s incarceration, or you tell a redemption story, or transformation or an innocence story. It seemed to me that these narratives have their place, but there are limitations to them.”
In her deliberate refusal of orthodoxy, Story comes up with a structure that leaps across geographies, communities and themes: an unnamed female prisoner talks about fighting fire in Marin County with the California Department of Corrections (she is proud of the work but knows she won’t be a fire-fighter after release because of her conviction); a resident of a post-coal Kentucky town thankful for “recession proof” prison jobs; poor Missouri residents kept down by over-policing and rampant ticketing; an overly eager spokesperson for Quicken Loans who has drunk the corporate-Koolaid and extols the virtues of wholesale regeneration, rising rents and private security firms in downtown Detroit; an entrepreneur who negotiates the byzantine NYDOC mailroom rules so prisoners’ loved ones don’t have to.
The twelve vignettes are tied together by a looming music score and studies of smoke, steam and clouds. We’re all under the same sky, we all breathe the same air. Huge credit to Director of Photography Maya Bankovic and Editor Avrïl Jacobson too.
This film manifests the visuals for abolition activism. Prisons are all around us. They emerge from capitalist logic and conform to economic and geographic structures that are both produced by, and the producer of, racism, classicism, social immobility and chauvinism. Prisons are not about solving crime; they are a punishment of people outside white hetero-normativity. Prisons brutalise marginalized communities by further excluding them from opportunity and thereby delegitimizing them; prisons allow for existent power to confirm its prejudices and further its abuses.
Again from Story’s interview with Guernica (which I can’t recommend highly enough) she explains how a narrative knitted through seemingly disparate, seemingly ordinary places reflects the pervasiveness of the problem and also the near invisibility of its (most obvious) infrastructure, the prison building itself.
“I was very cognizant of how difficult it is at this moment to get inside prisons. There are more prisons than ever before, but they are further away and more locked down than ever before. So, I was really interested in the psychic distance created by that geographic distance, and the way in which prisons are spaces of disappearance but also spaces of massive infrastructures, as buildings that hold lots of people, but they’re also disappeared in the landscape.”
Furthermore, on the limits of criminal justice reform conversations, and how those conversations cannot be separate from critiques of economic inequality and labour rights, Story says:
“So long as we are confined to thinking about [prison reform talk] just as a problem of imprisoning the wrong people or punishing people too much, then we don’t actually get at the fundamental relationships that have created the prison build up in the first place. In terms of people on the right and the neoliberal democrats as well, who are all about championing prison reform like the Koch brothers, well they are the biggest union busters in this country.”
“We can’t think about prisons and the problem of mass incarceration outside of the problem of labor. There’s a direct correlation between the stagnation of workers, wages, structural unemployment, especially for African Americans, and union busting. This sort of neoliberalism from the 1970’s onwards maps intimately alongside the rise of the carceral state. In some ways, I want to say who cares if the Koch brothers want to say we’ve locked up too many people and we want to put some money into prison reform. But, let’s not get too excited about that because at the same time they are still undermining worker power and undermining good jobs and good wages at every turn. There’s too close of a relationship between workers and the problem of unemployment, the problem of poverty and mass incarceration in this country.”
The Prison In Twelve Landscapes has already won a raft of accolades including a nomination for Best Feature Length Documentary at the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. Paste had it as one of their best documentaries of 2016. In a glowing review, The New York Times said soberly, “What we see is no less than the draining of hope from one group of citizens to benefit another.” Cinema Politica had it as one of their best political documentaries of the year. It is a film that is impeccably crafted and one that credits its audience with intelligence. It treats the complex issue of mass incarceration in a complex way.
Some of the most infuriating scenes are those from Ferguson, Missouri. Story went there one year after police officer Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown. Story met citizens like Sherie (above) who faced either a $175 fine or jail. What for? For not securing a trash-can lid. Derrick (below) talks of continual harassment, arrest and fines.
“These communities are over-policed,” explains Story, “because the revenue model is generated based primarily on police fining people of color, mostly poor people for incidental violations like traffic violations. So there is already an existing infrastructure that floods these communities with police, and this is part of the story that gave rise to this murder.”
DuVernay’s 13th, and Story’s The Prison In Twelve Landscapes are two quite different films, yet they complement one another and support the arguments of the other. (I wonder what the effect of 12 Landscapes would’ve been had it had the worldwide Netflix distribution that 13th enjoyed?)
13th walks the viewer through a literal historical narrative by means of stats, facts and talking heads. DuVernay illuminates the racist underpinnings to criminal justice and execution of law, drawing the line from slavery, to abolition, to the 13th Amendment, to convict leasing, to Jim Crow, to modern day prisons. DuVernay wants to confront us with the blatant injustice of it all; Story wants to shock us with our complicity in it all.
The two films can be understood as the feedback of one other. DuVernay shows us the injustices of the past, but Story shows us how difficult they are to untangle from the present. We’re caught in a destructive loop. Without a significant reordering of society we are destined to continue the abuse and wastage inherent to mass imprisonment.
The Prison In Twelve Landscapes is a landmark achievement in documentary making. “It’s rare that a film this outraged is also this calm,” said Village Voice. It is a film that is true and true to its form. It is creepy, troubling and near; it is a prism on our society that should deeply unsettle us. It is the best film of 2016 not to win an Oscar.
This is great –> Story’s Five Book Plan: Carceral Geography.
Peep my 2013 article The 20 Best American Prison Documentaries.
Story’s Guernica interview on the whys, whats and hows of her work.
* If 13th is shortlisted, I hope it wins as that could only benefit the ongoing awareness about the racist, classist and abusive functioning of prisons and sentencing. Honestly though, I don’t think 13th will win. It uses a formula template of chronological narrative. 13th is a very important film but it doesn’t experiment enough with the documentary form itself. I think Cameraperson will win.
** Update: 14:00 GMT. Cameraperson wasn’t shortlisted, so my prediction withers. Fire At Sea (Gianfranco Rosi and Donatella Palermo); I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, Rémi Grellety and Hébert Peck); Life, Animated (Roger Ross Williams and Julie Goldman); O.J.: Made In America (Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow); and 13th (Ava DuVernay, Spencer Averick and Howard Barish) were shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature.