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Prisons without Crime: Brett Story on Her Genre-Subverting Doc on Mass Incarceration, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes

The Prison in Twelve Landscapes

Brett Story’s The Prison in Twelve Landscapes screens this Sunday at the Art of the Real showcase at the Film Society at Lincoln Center. Given the growing consciousness about police violence and the awe-inspiring momentum of the movement for black lives, the film couldn’t be more timely, though it eschews the hot-button approach. Story has crafted a profound and political film that, while not sensational, is quietly shocking — even if you are already steeped in the project’s central theme. By taking an innovative and unexpected approach to the subject of mass incarceration, Story reveals just how deeply entrenched the problem of over-policing is. The United States has more people in cages than any other country in the world, and by the end of The Prison in Twelve Landscapes it is apparent that institutions designed to discipline and punish impact every aspect of our lives, even when those institutions are completely out of sight.

The Prison in Twelve Landscapes is an impressive, genre-subverting work, and one that deserves to be seen on the big screen. It is neither an art film or an advocacy film, or perhaps it is both. It is intellectual and abstract, yet emotional and engaging. Shot by Maya Bankovic in a restrained and mediative style, Story studiously avoids the obvious in favor of the associative. You don’t see an actual prison until the film’s final fleeting shot, and yet you have felt its presence throughout.

Filmmaker: My first question for you is the obvious one. How did you come to this topic, which feels so timely right now? I know you’ve been working on it for years.

Story: The genesis of this project really has its roots in two problems I’ve been mulling over for a long time. One is just that prisons are really hard to get inside of. This moment is one in which more people are inside prisons than ever before, and yet prisons are actually more difficult for media and scholars to get inside than they’ve ever been before. And they’re also just further away. They’re built in increasingly isolated, rural landscapes, and they’re inaccessible on all sorts of levels. I was interested in taking on this methodological challenge as an opportunity to approach the problem of prisons and their disappearance differently. Prisons by definition operate as spaces of disappearance, right? They disappear the people inside them, and they are themselves increasingly disappeared from the dense spaces where many of us live. I’m really interested in the relationship between that geographic disappearance and the space prisons occupy in the public imagination.

Then, on the other hand, we’re flooded by all sorts of imagery of prisons in mass media — on our screens, in cinema and in television. And it seems to me that in these images there’s the reproduction of the same thing over and over again — perhaps especially in progressive, liberal media production and non-fiction cinema. Liberal prison documentaries are almost always documentaries in which you go inside a prison and some sort of injustice is exposed. The injustice might be that someone is wrongfully committed, or the injustice might be that the person is being punished too harshly for what their crime was, or that prisons are wild spaces of all sorts of violence. The political impact of these films is then tethered to the sympathy that they might or might not generate from an audience. And I’ve just been thinking a lot about what that does and what that doesn’t do, especially as far as enabling a different way of both seeing and thinking about prisons.

I’m a geographer at my other life, so I think a lot about space, and so at some point it occurred to me that there might be an opportunity in the prison’s geographic disappearance to make a film that would resituate where we think we can find the prison, and therefore maybe, reframe how we think about prisons and the work that they do. So the idea was to get away from the idea that prisons are just these buildings over there, that are ostensibly about keeping people safe from crime, and to suggest instead that the prison constitutes a broader system, one that is actually implicated and bears a relationship to or is borne out of all of dynamics that take place in these ordinary spaces all around us. The hope was that by cinematically returning, so to speak, the prison to all of these outside spaces, the film might invite a very different way of thinking about prisons altogether.

Filmmaker: I think you did a brilliant job of rising to the conceptual challenge you gave yourself, because you convey very well both the disappearance and ubiquity of prisons. And the film does it without falling into what I would say are two common documentary traps. Online, in particular, there are all of data-heavy, infographicy little things, and on the other hand, then there are these short docs that are very human and that totally stay away from the systemic. They are just these this sort of individual portraits that provide an emotional connection and catharsis in five minutes, or whatever. And you avoid both of those to create something else that’s on a different register. It’s analytical and abstract without being cold or losing sight of people.

Story: That was very deliberate, and also, a gamble. I mean, you know the doc world as much as I do, and there’s a kind of truism within the documentary world, which is that “human stories” are what draw people. And that what constitutes a human story is, you follow a person around and you find out their entire life trajectory and you learn about their childhood and you watch them cry and you are in their bedroom with them. I’ve always really resented that kind of supposition about what it means to offer human intimacy in film. I actually think that some of my most poignant and moving social encounters happen in the briefness of a subway journey or a conversation at the bodega, and this kind of intimacy has a place in film.

So it was very important to me to make a film that got away from that cliché, so dominant in prison films in particular, and that could get at the structures and spaces and institutions within which human experience happens, without, as you say, leaving us cold or numbed by infographics. I still wanted the film to be moving, to “quicken the heart.” As I said, I think we can have moving human experiences without having to do intensive character studies. You can go to a place and have a conversation with someone that might make it into two minutes of the film, but they might tell you something really honest about their life, or express something about their aspirations, and whatever is devastating or true or important about that encounter will be communicated. And I think it’s often more powerful when the narrative of the film itself showcases the ways that people are always embedded in a context, and always embedded in these structures, and that this person’s hopes, say, to use an example from the film, for a future in Appalachia can’t be separated from the ways coal gets extracted from that landscape, or from the political economy of that extraction.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about the 12 landscapes, which are basically 12 vignettes. There are some that seem necessary to make fundamental structural observations or political points. For example, the Appalachian scene seemed important to put up top because it brought in the uncomfortable reality that prisons are often welcomed as a job-creating boon for struggling communities. Were there some points you felt you had to hit going into the film and others that surprised you? How did you navigate that?

Story: Yeah, definitely. And then, there’s points that I didn’t hit, you know? There’s so many landscapes or themes that I was really interested in that didn’t make it into the film for various reasons. So yeah, one of the operating questions was, how do prisons produce outside space, and how are these outside spaces productive of the prison system? So for example, I knew from the work that I do, that so many of us do, that prisons are increasingly being built in rural, economically devastated places. And one of the reasons is that land is often cheap there, but also because people are so desperate for a new economy to replace whatever industry has left town. So I knew I would have a scene about a place where residents were harnessing their aspirations for futurity to the promise of a prison economy. A friend of mine was doing research in the Appalachian coal fields of Eastern Kentucky, and what is remarkable about the landscape there is that prisons are being built literally on top of closed-down coal mines, on land flattened by mountain-top removal. So you have this very direct exchange of one dirty industry for another, and the exact same physical space is being swapped out — coal mines for cages.

I knew that I really wanted to have a scene in which we sort of talked about prisons or got at the idea of prisons as a job creation strategy (or a pretend job creation strategy, because in lots of places, they don’t actually create jobs). But I didn’t want to do it in a way that would demonize the people that want a prison in their town. Across the different landscapes of the film I wanted to explore how we’re all struggling to feel a sense of futurity for ourselves. So there’s something both deeply fucked up but also understandable in this devastating way about why someone who’s really poor, in an impoverished community that they love and call home, would hold so tightly to the idea that a new prison might bring prosperity.

It was also very important for me in this project to divorce the issue of crime from the issue of prisons, to showcase the ways that prisons do all this, what we might call productive work (which isn’t to say good work) that doesn’t actually have to do with resolving crime or keeping us safe. And so thinking about showing prisons as a economic beacon, however illusory, is really interesting to me, because it also helps us try and think alternatively. If prisons are being built in a town as a way to create economic development or jobs, we could come up with some pretty good alternative ideas.

Similarly, in St. Louis, where the infrastructure of tax revenue collection is built on over-policing and over-fining mostly poor black residents, we can think of other ways that revenue might be generated. And so showcasing the work that the prison system does in these ways I hope helps us think differently and better about the possibilities of a world without prisons.

Filmmaker: You raise another good point, which is the absence of criminality as a focus, because you’re right — so many films are about innocence, non-innocence, wrongful convictions, excessive punishment. In other words, about finding this line of who is deserving of forgiveness and who is deserving of retaliation. Your film, however, sidesteps that whole conversation, a conversation that traps us in a paradigm that accepts some degree of incarceration as legitimate. You try to push beyond the question of who should be punished and who shouldn’t be and how much or how little to get people thinking about the whole system and its broader impact. Do you feel like you successfully managed to shift the frame?

Story: Well, I think that’s a good question. I mean, the film has only shown in a couple of festivals so far, and I’m really, really curious about how it’s landing. It’s not a film with an easy narrative or set of answers, and I’ve given audiences a lot of space to find their own way into the politics of the film, which are not easy. I think that a lot of investment in these innocence narratives in traditional documentaries, or these excessive punishment narratives, is very strategic — like, well, “We have to get at audiences somehow. And we can start with the innocent people then that’ll help them rethink the prison for everybody.” But I think these narratives can end up having the opposite effect. As you say it sort of ends up reinforcing the idea that there are a set of people who deserve punishment — maybe even deserve more punishment. That’s why it was important to me, actually, to have a scene, however brief, which takes place in this pocket park in Los Angeles that was built as a strategy for evicting registered sex offenders. The city counselor basically measured out the neighborhood and then built a series of miniature parks, totally as a technical strategy of forcing people with registered sex offender status from living in a nearby halfway house. Because in California, like many other states, you’re not allowed to be within 2,000 feet of a school or park. So they just built this park as a way to move these sex offenders out.

The sex offender is totally a category of people who are incarcerated or criminalized that nobody wanted to touch, right? It’s sort of an indefensible category of bad. So even at this moment of so called prison reform, we’re seeing, okay, there’s too many people that are inside for drug offenses, but let’s actually make things harsher for sex offenders or so called violent offenders. And yet these are also totally socially constructed and complicated categories, and moral panics and banishment strategies don’t actually make us safe. And so it was important for me to go there in the film, at least a little bit.

Filmmaker: Right. And you raise the question, implicitly, of how to deal with actions we find morally abominable. Is punishment the best way to deal with something that could be conceived as mental illness or might have really deep, complex, social or personal roots?

That sequence is also one of the more formal ones in your film, because it’s just still images and audio from a talk radio show about the sex offender and parks issue. Can you speak a bit about the different approaches you used to convey the landscapes? On the one hand you have a unifying aesthetic, but then each scene has its own formal twist, based on the content. How did that come together? The sequence about fire fighting in Marin County California stands out because it’s stock footage of forest fires blazing overlaid with a moving personal testimony by a woman prisoner turned fire fighter. Is that a voice actor reading something by someone else?

Story: I have an appreciation for formalist and aesthetic techniques, but I am not interested in being a purist about form. Then I think it just become format. So some of the variation between the scenes just has to do with just finding the appropriate form for the content in that section. And so, yes, the fire sequence is interesting because it was the only scene for which I hired an actor, which is not something I really do. But in this case, I didn’t have access to people who could give me a clean audio interview. I had transcripts from interviews with people in the fire camps. And so, I decided to use a transcript and write a narrative and get a voice actor to do it, which is again, a departure from the rest of the film.

I wanted to be able to create a kind of visual scene in which we just kind of get lulled through this sound design into this intense, beautiful, strange, perfect footage of these wild fires, and then create a context in which we can just sort of, like, get into the voice that we’re hearing. In this case, it wasn’t just about the reveal that, “oh, this firefighter is actually a prison firefighter,” but the things that she tells us about how much she loves to be on top of a mountain and watch the embers come down, or the way in which she’s got all these skills as a firefighter, but she comes out with a felony status and can’t get an actual job as a firefighter, and some of the tensions and contradictions of her experience. So while the prison fire camp is on the one hand a situation of exploited labor, yes, if you talk to any prisoner in California they want to go to the fire camps. They get to be outside. They get to do something productive. They get to feel like a hero. There’s that juxtaposition between one of the most exalted figures in our society, the firefighter, and perhaps the most denigrated, the criminal, and this woman embodies that in her experience on these mountains.

But back to your question, it’s hard when you’re already making a film that’s got an associative structure with lots of different characters and lots of different places. And then, to have different kinds and styles of footage. But it was important for me for there to be a relationship between the content and form at all times. So in St. Louis, we do formal interviews. We’re sitting in a house. Someone’s telling us their story. It’s not like, abstract and tricky. It just is what it is. But that was appropriate for the scene, you know? And that felt really important to me.

Filmmaker: The scene from Missouri is totally different, and more direct. For the vignettes or landscapes where you took a more traditional documentary approach, how did you engage in a location? How did you reach out to people? How much time did you spend somewhere?

Story: That’s a situation in which I had done a lot of research and I met people by reaching out to an organization that was doing work there, a group called Arch City Defenders. Ferguson was in the news, obviously, and I’d read the reports detailing the underlying infrastructure of revenue generation through over-policing. But I began by reaching out to this group of defenders that was doing legal support and really kind of blowing the whistle on the situation there alongside other activist organizations.

When I first imagined this scene, I actually thought it would take place entirely inside one of these municipal courts, and that it would just be a long static shot of the proceedings: one person after another after another going through and paying their fines. And then, I couldn’t get access. So in many of the scenes that we see in films, this one came out of what couldn’t happen as much as what I envisioned in the first place. When I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to get access, I was really devastated and was like, “oh, I’m not going to be able to film the scene.” And then, I was talking to these lawyers, and they described this one court where there’s so many people that they can’t even fit inside. They have to turn the local middle school into a makeshift court because their municipal court is too small to hold everybody. And not only that, but the people who are there to pay off their fines — who are predominently poor and predominantly Black — have to line up in a line that goes all the way through the parking lot. As an image, this seemed to sum up so much of what’s going on in this area. And so my visit to St. Louis County began with the plan to spend time at these lineups.

The line up was also interesting to me in the same way that the night bus, which opens up the film, is. I was really interested in messing with our sense of the ordinary and the familiar. Lining up and taking a long bus journey are very familiar, universal experiences. And yet this lineup expresses something very particular about the racist contours of municipal financing in communities themselves created out of racist housing policies. With the bus scene, I really wanted to conjure that feeling that we’ve maybe all had, of being on a night bus in a liminal landscape of nowhere and everywhere at the same time. But then, upsetting that experience with the realization that no, this is not the bus that many of us have been on. This is a very particular bus, made familiar to some people only by the violence of the prison system.

Filmmaker: How about being a sort of intellectual person and then translating into the cinematic, visual mode. Does your brain effortlessly go there, or do you have to reorient?

Story: The hardest thing for sure is just being able to step outside of what’s in my brain because my brain is overly immersed in not only a subject but a particular kind of analysis of that subject area. So there was a worry that the film would come across as cold or abstract because the sort of intentions behind it come very much out of like being steeped in particular academic scene, one in which you can say things like, “The prison isn’t just a building, it’s a set of relationships and social relations.” While that can seem like a pretty academic thing to say, it also expresses a politics that’s concrete and urgent, and one that I really wanted to try translate into cinema. This felt exciting and important, but also challenging.

I think that moving between academia and art is also about having perspective on what cinema conveys on its own terms and what its unique powers are. I see a lot of art where the explanation on the wall does way more than the work of art does on its own. And I end up resenting that a little bit. I didn’t want to make something that was cold, that was just an intellectual exercise. I wanted to harness the capacity of film to produce emotions and affects and sensations, as well as ideas and memories and questions, and have those together be the terms in which it engages audiences.

Filmmaker: Yeah, and I think for me, as someone who’s always been interested in illustrating or expanding intellectual concepts or analyses through cinema, illustration isn’t the right word. It’s not just like, “Oh, here’s a conceptual framework and now here’s the illustration of it.” I think there’s a way that intellectual categories or intellectual frameworks can be given a fuller meaning by exploring them through a different medium. Nonetheless, there are still so few documentaries that try to rise to that challenge, which seems like a good point for a conversation between two nerdy lady filmmakers to end on.

Story: Well, I was just going to say, and I know you encounter this too, that in the documentary world — on the industry side, anyway — there’s, I think, a real resistance to smart films. And I think it’s rooted in an underestimation of audiences. There’s a resistance to the idea that audiences will go see documentaries that are subtle and ambiguous and interested in complicated ideas. One encounters this especially in existing funding structures, this idea that audiences don’t want or won’t get intelligent cinema. And I just think that that’s not true. I also think films that are intelligent and that are about ideas, don’t, as you say, have to be without heart. It’s actually most interesting to encounter ideas via the social stakes that make them matter. Rooting issues in real social landscapes and relationships doesn’t mean that those ideas have to be downplayed and the contradictions of living within complex systems can’t also be explored. I think in fact the opposite is true. The prison is a complex system that is inextricable from property relations, resource extraction, wage-labor, state-making, race….. And within that system people dream of better lives and play chess and put care packages together and protest and stand in line and ride buses.

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