The prison documentary is a hard one to get right. As charming bumbler Louis Theroux demonstrated perfectly in his 2011 documentary Behind Bars, the incarcerated are among the easiest human subjects in the world to alienate. By merely appearing in the program, Theroux’s documentary immediately presents the prisoner as the other, and try as he might to fight their corner, the whole thing quickly becomes an affair centered on Theroux’s own problems, perceptions, and sentimentalism.
With this in mind, Michel Wenzer’s offering achieves something genuinely magnificent, breaking from the voyeuristic modes usually found in similar endeavors. There are long stretches of this movie where you forget you’re in New Folsom Prison at all, a truly incredible feat for a film where within ten minutes of sitting down you’ve already seen raw CCTV footage of a man getting stabbed to death, and been informed by security that should you be taken hostage whilst on your visit, the state will not exchange your life for an inmates freedom.
You won’t find the Swedish-born Wezner in any of the shots, nor will you hear him asking questions. With the exception of a brief phone call with inmate and poet ‘Spoon’, now over thirty years into a sentence, Wezner is completely absent from the dehumanized, de-centered microcosm he has created. The brutality of the institutional racism inherent in the prisons day-to-day operation, the violence between warring gangs, the moments of terror that perpetuate the boredom and isolation that defines a prisoner’s life, these are issues that speak all too well for themselves. Most heart wrenching of all is the film’s parting message, unveiling just one of the consequences of a global assault on funding for the arts – having spent time following the trials of a particular group of prisoners involved in the ‘Arts in Correction’ program, a group whose members take their life in their hands by merely belonging to it, it is revealed that due to the funding cuts the program has since been cancelled.
In a revealing Q&A session following the screening, Wenzer revealed that the prisoners themselves were yet to see the movie as the entire complex was now on lockdown, following a particularly violent riot which took place last November. It will remain this way until at least May, hindering Wenzer’s desire to find out what his subjects think of the film, and truly measure the success of his endeavor. Certainly from out here