Films by the Dozen
Prison Nation and Sixty-Six
by Patrick Dunn
From the March, 2016 issue
Perhaps the biggest surprise of Brett Story's film The Prison in Twelve Landscapes--and certainly its biggest stroke of genius--is that a prison is never seen. In the documentary, which will have its world premiere March 17 at the Fifty-Fourth Ann Arbor Film Festival, Canadian filmmaker Story and her team crisscross the U.S., visiting twelve places where prisons and the prison system affect lives directly and indirectly.
The film opens with a few striking but low-key vignettes. In one set in eastern Kentucky, a young representative of the Wheelwright Historical Society explains that an area prison ended up "sustaining the economy" in his town when the coal industry pulled out. Now, he says, the prison has pulled out too, but word is it will reopen and bring jobs back. "I love it," says the young man, who, like most interviewees in the film, goes unidentified.
The film turns more politically charged when it reaches Detroit. The filmmakers stop briefly in a heavily blighted area to chat with a man, fresh off a twenty-seven-year stint in prison, as he watches the cleanup after a house fire. Then there's a jarring cut to Campus Martius for a lengthy--and cocky--guided tour of Quicken Loans headquarters. The jaunty tour guide asserts that Quicken's presence has transformed an area where "you would not have walked through here with an army of soldiers protecting you." The guide adds: "There's a perception, and then there's a reality. You're seeing reality right now."
This segment seems detached from the film's main topic, but the filmmakers' intention becomes clearer when they return to Detroit about halfway through the film. This time, they jump back half a century, piecing together footage from the 1967 Detroit riots and interviews from the same time period. An excerpt from Richard Nixon's 1970 State of the Union speech plays over footage of police rounding up black men: "If there is one area where the word 'war' is appropriate, it is in the fight against
Story's thesis is clear: the American prison system (and, perhaps, its criminal justice system in general) is built to systematically oppress and ostracize already overstressed low-income communities, particularly those of color. But her film is truly remarkable for its demonstration of how far that system reaches.
The filmmakers travel to the Bronx, where a man started a store full of prison-"safe" food and clothing out of frustration after part of a care package he sent to his imprisoned brother was thrown away because it didn't meet stringent and often arbitrary specifications. (He shows off a cassette copy of Kanye West's album Yeezus, one of many created specifically for his business by special arrangement with Universal Music Group because of prison regulations banning CDs.) In another particularly effective segment set in Marin County, California, an unseen member of an inmate firefighting crew narrates over footage of a forest fire. "I think I'm a hero," she says. "I think some of the public does too." The shattering and heartbreaking brilliance of Story's film is in showing just how much average Americans not only accept the prison system but also depend and thrive upon it.
Also notable, in twelve parts
Collage filmmaker Lewis Klahr's Sixty-Six consists of twelve short films made over the past decade and a half, pieced together largely with cutouts from '60s-era comic books, ads, and other illustrations. Some have a loose narrative to them, like the longer closing film "Lethe," which seems to depict a horrifying sci-fi experiment, intended to induce transformation but instead bringing on amnesia and death. Others are looser yet, like "Helen of T," which depicts a bright young woman becoming old and bitter in a decidedly oppressive big city. Others are dark tone poems, like "Lip Print (Venus)," in which the camera haltingly skitters across images of young love that become increasingly foreboding and sexualized. All twelve are fascinating, evocative, and a must-see for lovers of Pop Art or adventurous filmmaking in general.
The film festival runs March 15-20. The Prison in Twelve Landscapes screens March 17 and Sixty-Six screens March 20.
[Originally published in March, 2016.]
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