Mass Incarceration

People, Not Stories: Pathways to Accountability in Prison Documentaries

Images courtesy of "What These Walls Won't Hold" film: Under dappled sunlight in a parking lot, a family reunifies with a loved one. Standing a respectful distance away is a photographer wearing a blue puffy jacket.

Throughout my 15 years in jail, quite a few filmmakers and media professionals entered the amenities the place I used to be housed with the intention of telling the tales of the individuals inside. Some hoped to shed gentle into darkish areas that our society has created; others hoped to meet the appetites of mainstream audiences needing the fun of the sensational. Throughout my time inside, I noticed an out of doors movie crew producing a giant price range movie involving incarcerated individuals as their central members. The administrators and producers earned the belief of the incarcerated members by approaching these relationships as friendships and making a promise of representing them in the very best method, and with cautious consideration for the stakes some individuals have been dealing with. However when the movie was completed, and screened inside, many people have been shocked that some characters have been represented as monsters who had dedicated monstrous acts, and never as all of us knew them to be — pillars in our group of incarcerated individuals. 

Considered one of my shut pals, who grew to become one of many central characters within the movie, was represented in such dangerous methods within the movie that he subsequently obtained a 5-year denial at his parole listening to. The movie disproportionately highlighted his crime and its impression on the sufferer’s household, with out mentioning the many years of labor my buddy (who’s now out of jail) had carried out whereas incarcerated to assist therapeutic and restoration for these harmed by violence. The filmmakers advised members that the movie’s producers and funders thought that there wasn’t sufficient “drama” within the story, and that they’d made narrative selections primarily based on this suggestions. Many people felt livid and betrayed.    

What appeared like religion try to inform a narrative concerning the lives of incarcerated individuals resulted in disastrous penalties. This story just isn’t unusual, as outdoors filmmakers all too typically fall again on dominant tropes and stereotypes about prisons and the people who reside inside them. It’s not simply the members of those movies who’re instantly impacted — these tendencies, when left unchecked, can result in immense hurt on a societal scale, as they’ve earlier than. Traditionally, mainstream media representations of criminalized communities have fueled robust on crime voter sentiment, racialized fears about public security, and cemented punitive logic within the nationwide consciousness. This phenomenon was key to the explosion in harsh and racist sentencing legal guidelines that resulted within the mass incarceration of Black and brown communities. So on this present second once we are seeing a surge in movies about prisons, and elevated public urge for food for tales about incarceration, we should be instructed by the teachings of the previous. We must be cautious of defaulting into historic patterns during which we permit individuals who lack lived expertise with the carceral system to dictate the discourse round incarceration and people impacted by it. We should be vigilant of all that’s misplaced, fragmented, and distorted in that course of, and the people who find themselves harmed in consequence. 

The fact is that the majority who’re instantly impacted by incarceration will not be positioned in a method the place we’ve entry to telling our personal tales. They’re most frequently advised by outsiders who lack an understanding of the nuanced however very actual stakes for incarcerated individuals who go public with their tales, missing regard or dedication to their security and liberation, whereas having the ability to place themselves as consultants or impartial translators nonetheless. Their dedication is to the story, to not the individuals.

I discovered filmmaking in 2018 once I bought to San Quentin and finally started main a media venture known as FirstWatch (now ForwardThis Productions). We have been creating brief movies and movies, not solely concerning the realities of jail, but additionally about our boundless interior lives and the communities we have been creating inside and past partitions. The movie gear, which was donated by outdoors organizations and sponsors, allowed us to speak by means of this medium with the skin world, because the movies have been permitted to go away the jail and stay on sure media platforms. Nevertheless, although we have been working and rising as filmmakers inside, producing works for the jail and outdoors organizations, we have been by no means compensated monetarily for our labor. 

At FirstWatch, we have been dedicated to empowering directly-impacted individuals to inform our personal tales authentically as a path to reclaiming media illustration and seeding political change. Since we knew intimately that one big perform of prisons is to make individuals invisible, if individuals might see us the way in which we noticed one another, if we might see ourselves in numerous methods, there was a chance for transformation — each private and political. Although we weren’t compensated or in any other case given the respect {of professional} filmmakers, we might see the impression of our work inside our group, because the movies and movies we created screened in all 36 of California’s prisons. I might recurrently hear from individuals coming to San Quentin from different prisons about how inspiring and therapeutic it was to see incarcerated individuals represented on the display in ways in which they’d by no means seen earlier than. 

All of our work was grounded in group — we understood that every thing that we did flowed from our political commitments with our fellow incarcerated individuals throughout the nation. With an consciousness of the privilege and distinctive platform we had making movies from within a jail, we stood in direct opposition to ideology that claims that Black and Brown communities are inherently violent and must be caged. This dedication to community-based political organizing challenges the institutional energy of the media, which is overrepresented by white media professionals and perpetuates racist, dangerous narratives about communities impacted by incarceration whereas upholding the facility and authority of regulation enforcement establishments. In distinction, narrative restore replaces dangerous tropes of incarcerated individuals with narratives that uplift and encourage impacted-people to withstand, heal, and construct solidarity with one another. By creating new identities primarily based on collective wrestle and care, systems-impacted communities can start to heal the methods they’ve internalized brokenness.

Images courtesy of "What These Walls Won't Hold" film: A photograph of a young Black man standing in front of a camera on a tripod being interviewed, with the filmmaker's back in the foreground.

After coming house in October of 2020, I got down to direct and produce my first movie, What These Walls Won’t Hold, about my expertise dwelling by means of the COVID-19 pandemic in jail and the intimacies shaped between individuals by means of political organizing. The manufacturing of the movie felt like an essential place to rethink and undo all the unscrupulous practices that I had witnessed from the filmmakers who had extracted tales from inside. All the members within the movie are my pricey pals. It was important to me that the movie be a communal area the place individuals felt like their tales could possibly be expressed precisely, and with care. The members have producer credit and have been additionally compensated for his or her work on the movie, not like my time working as a filmmaker within San Quentin, once we have been by no means paid for our work.

Regardless of all the work I might do to create an equitable atmosphere working throughout jail partitions, I might finally see the restrictions that the jail would placed on these relationships. The space between myself and my family members inside, whom I used to be engaged on the movie with, wasn’t simply bodily, but additionally about standing, entry, privilege, and energy. The second I had walked out of that place and into the free world, I inhabited a totally completely different social place, away from the each day violence, urgency, inhumane circumstances, and high-stakes of jail life. As a lot as I sought to withstand this dynamic, to narrate to my pricey pals in the identical ways in which had introduced us so shut collectively, in work and in private progress, the inequities within the materials circumstances of our existences have been a actuality that I could not keep away from.

So in gentle of those inevitable energy dynamics, how can we work in direction of creating new fashions of moral partnerships in our filmmaking course of? Impressed by the Documentary Accountability Working Group framework and adapting it for the particulars of jail documentaries, listed below are some key tenets I take into account:

  1. Be Accountable: Filmmakers must be accountable to the members of their movies, and cognizant of the intense stakes which might be current for incarcerated individuals once they resolve to share their tales. Their freedom and security is at stake, and there must be a dedication to defending these issues.
  2. Seek the advice of with instantly impacted individuals: It’s crucial to obtain enter from consultants with lived expertise who exist outdoors of the filmmaker-subject relationship. For movie to be helpful for social actions that work in resistance to the Jail Industrial Advanced, they should be led, or in deep collaboration with, impacted individuals and political organizers.
  3. Make use of systems-based storytelling: What is commonly lacking in character-driven storytelling is a crucial evaluation of the buildings that form an individual’s life and selections — in essence, seeing the timber however not the forest. 
  4. Be clear in your relationships: Apply honesty together with your protagonists, supporters and funders and be clear about your intentions for making the movie — there’s a increased normal for transparency in terms of the individuals collaborating in your movie, particularly if they’re incarcerated. Be clear about your decision-making and what guides it (do your members have any say or is all of it yours?). Be clear about who your fundamental viewers is and what sort of impression the movie could have on an individual’s life.
  5. Acknowledge and share energy: You maintain the facility to form and interpret tales — your personal and people of others. A values-based filmmaking follow requires an acknowledgement and deep examination of your lens, preconceptions, and the facility you maintain as a filmmaker. Think about what it’s important to acquire and lose as a filmmaker, and whether or not or not that’s out of steadiness together with your members, and work to shut these gaps. Are you the very best particular person to inform this story/make this movie? 
  6. Respect the dignity and company of the individuals in your movie: Construct knowledgeable consent in your interactions with members, giving individuals company to signify their story in a method that honors them.
  7. Perceive that your viewers additionally consists of impacted communities: with roughly 2 million individuals at present in carceral amenities throughout the US, plus their family members and communities, an outsized inhabitants has a stake in these tales and must be accounted for. Think about the ways in which your work could also be learn, interpreted and skilled by the individuals who have intimate data of the story. Be clear about who your supposed viewers is, and what data you may add to their already established data. Moreover, be accountable concerning the ways in which your movie might set off or traumatize these viewers members who’ve extra expertise with the movie’s content material.

Understanding the difficult energy dynamics of collaboration throughout jail partitions means not solely being in deep relationships with members, but additionally consistently asking the next questions: How can I make this trade reciprocal? How can I align the intentions of the movie with the wants of my members on each a private and political degree? Why am I telling this story?

How do you make a movie concerning the expertise of incarceration? Given the complexities of consent and energy, what are the ethics this work requires? What’s an ethic of narrative reparation? On Thursday, Februrary 9, 2023, at 9:30am PT, be part of filmmaker/activist Adamu Chan and a panel of award-winning filmmakers Brett Story and Jasmín Mara Lopez, and co-host and co-producer of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated podcast “Ear Hustle” Rahsaan Thomas, for an IDA Teach Out: Narrative Justice.

Adamu Chan is a filmmaker, author, and group organizer from the Bay Space who was incarcerated at San Quentin State Jail throughout one of many largest COVID-19 outbreaks within the nation. 


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