Director Brett Story in conversation
Brett Story joined us for a screening of her film The Prison In Twelve Landscapes at Amherst Cinema on February 6th, 2017.
George W. Myers: Please join me in welcoming director Brett Story.
Brett Story: Thank you.
George W. Myers: One thing I love about this film is, while you explore something as concrete as prisons, the film is more ephemeral in some ways. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the approach to the film and what you chose not to say. We were talking statistics beforehand, which are powerful and can be seen as the best tool for arguing a point, but there’s not a single statistic in a film. You manage to discuss a huge problem using an uncommon vernacular.
Brett Story: One of the film’s points was very basic observation. I’ve been doing work around prisons for a long time and thinking about what it would mean to make a film about the US prison system; the extent and scale of the US prison system at this moment, at the same time of its disappearance. It used to be that prisons, despite being places of disappearance, were still institutions where you could get some degree of access. People would encounter them in cities, or academics, journalists, or even filmmakers could get inside. It was controlled, but they could still get some kind of access to the goings-on inside the walls. That’s less true than it’s ever been before, while prisons are bigger than ever.
Thinking about that as something that should be an artist’s dilemma, or a documentarian’s dilemma, and thinking about that as an actual opportunity: this so-called problem of access has actually been an opportunity to see the prison differently. And I mean that in a broad sense. So, we have to point the camera somewhere else; but, also, what would it mean to suggest that, by pointing the camera somewhere else, we could actually see and think through the prison, and its role in our society, differently. I think that sometimes the act of looking straight at something is really powerful, and an important thing to be done. At other times looking straight at something can actually be, in a weird way, sort of distracting. Sometimes projects that are just about describing the awfulness of something can also inadvertently make us feel like nothing else is possible. I was interested in the possibility opened up by looking everywhere except the actual prison as a way to up-end our ideas: not just where else we can find it, but the kind of role it plays, and how it intersects with these other institutions, and these other infrastructures in our lives.
George W. Myers: You’re living in New York now, but it came up a couple times in the film that you were outed as Canadian. I was wondering if while working on the film there were moments when you would say, “Can I film you?” And they would say, “Oh, who are you? A white woman? Oh, from Canada, okay.” Did anything like that play a role in the actual meat of the film making?
Brett Story: I often get this, and I had never thought about it before. One of the reasons that I’d never thought about it is I think, for Americans, there is an assumption that people outside of the US feel very different. My citizenship is Canadian, but, because of the degree to which the influence of American power, and American culture, is so dominating that one doesn’t feel outside of the US — I feel sort of part and parcel of America. Even while there are different histories and different contours, I never felt like an outsider trying to investigate the US prison system. I was interested in focusing on the US partly just because of the scale. But, what I felt I knew about it, and what I encountered, are very similar to what I encounter in Canada, which is a system that warehouses almost entirely poor people, and people of color, and that is used to solve all sorts of social problems with little success.
That said, the fact that I keep getting this question does make me wonder. It’s true that we had that moment where I’m talking to Derrick in Saint Louis, and he’s schooling me a little bit in American racism. I did think a lot about being a white woman, and whiteness as part of the story of the US prison system. But in retrospect, I do wonder if people encountered my whiteness differently, because I introduced myself as a Canadian rather than an American. I don’t know. I’m hesitant to say people were more generous with me as a result, because I think one of the remarkable things about doing this kind of work is that you get to constantly encounter people’s capacity for generosity, and it’s one of the great pleasures for me of making films at all. You go to a place, you feel like you have no right to ask people hard, personal questions about their lives, and then the degree to which if you’re respectful, and transparent, and honest about why and what you’re doing — people open up their lives to you. It’s really humbling, and remarkable, and very generous. I don’t know if people were more generous or intersected with me in a different way when they learned that I was Canadian, but it’s possible.
George W. Myers: I want to open the conversation up to the audience; we have a lot of people here and there’s a lot to discuss. The first question from the audience is how the Quicken Loans bit made it into the film.
Brett Story: When making this film, I was deliberate in thinking about scenes and landscapes in which the connection to the prison system would be really obvious, or there’d be a moment in which it became very clear, and then also having these scenes where the connection is slightly less direct. That was important to me, because this is a project very much about thinking about the prison system outside of just the narrow confines of crime, or law and order, and thinking about prisons in relation to cities, in relation to social protest, in relation to race, and all sorts of ways. The Detroit Quicken Loans scene was definitely a case where sometimes, after a screening, immediately people want to know what I intended.
I’m interested in the different ways in which you can enter that scene. I think you probably have an inkling of what it’s about, and it’s probably right to some degree, or totally right. This is part of making a project: letting it live in other people’s interpretations, and I really celebrate that. I’ll just say that I got interested in prisons through my own work as a housing activist. My very first film was about the gentrification of a neighborhood in Montreal. Doing work around gentrification, and housing, and eviction, you immediately get to the role of the police, and the work that police do in cities to make gentrification possible. That birthed, in some ways, my own trajectory in terms of work around the prison system. It was a theme that I wanted to touch on in this film.
For me the entry point into Quicken Loans was an interest in this multi-billionaire and his reclamation project to invest all sorts of real estate money into revitalizing the city. The question I ask of that is, what is the security apparatus they have to deploy to that end? What is the role of security cameras, what is their relationship to police, and how is that working in aid of the kind of displacement that we’re now seeing in Detroit?
George W. Myers: The next question from the audience was about the choice to use archival footage from Detroit in 1967.
Brett Story: This film didn’t set out to tell a comprehensive history of mass incarceration, but it felt important to have at least one moment where some of the trends that we’ve seen historically are still playing out. This is a moment in which Nixon declares a war on crime and allocates millions if not billions of dollars towards police and criminalization. You also see, and I think this is really resonant for today, the way in which people who are protesting, taking to the streets to protest social injustice, are being categorized as criminals. I was interested in investigating the historical line between how we use criminality as a story that gets told to denounce certain people who are engaged in social unrest.
George W. Myers: The first comment from the audience was to compliment the wonderful cinematography. The cinematographer is Maya Bankovic. I love her work, she’s a really talented cinematographer. The question from the audience was about the financial strain on the families of those caught up in the prison system, as well as clarifying the last shot: that was Attica, correct?
Brett Story: Yes, the last shot was of Attica. The film is also interested in the effect of incarceration on people and communities on the outside. One effect of imprisonment is ripping loved ones from each other, isolating people, and destroying relationships. I took that bus ride to Attica numerous times, and it’s always really remarkable to me. It’s a long journey and it’s expensive. People travel a lot just to get to the street corner where they then catch the bus. They do that because those relationships are important, but it is an amazing resource strain. Just the cost of sending packages to loved ones, the cost of phone calls — it’s a kind of theft, I think.
George W. Myers: The next comment from the audience was about the subject from the Bronx who had started a business around meeting prisoner’s material needs that pass prison standards, which is an extremely complicated and often counterintuitive arrangement.
Brett Story: He actually came to one of my New York screenings, and it was really wonderful to catch up with him. Sure that’s a business, but like you said it recognizes one of the hardships of having loved ones inside, and something you would maybe never think about. The frustration of putting all this work into putting together a care package, only to have it returned. For me, when I encountered him and visited his warehouse, it was just amazing to find out these cassette tapes were being manufactured to meet prison regulations. I would never have guessed that they’re being made. To realize that all of those rules exist, and they don’t seem to exist for any reason. It was also, for me, about why power is deployed, why have all these rules that don’t actually have any point to them just to make things hard for people. And then, the lengths people will go, including this man, to overcome and get around some of those rules.
George W. Myers: The next question from the audience was, how did you find the subjects in the film?
Brett Story: The process was varied. The way I tend to work on a project is to have a lot of research time while also holding a bunch of questions in my brain; in many ways the universe gives you answers. When you’re doing something like exploring the reach of the US prison system, it feels like new answers are constantly forthcoming about the extent to which it reaches into communities. I had a long list of stories, and people, and situations, and places that I was interested in filming for this project, many of which don’t end up in the final film. There was a scene about the Kentucky Derby at one point, and how those horses are raised on a plantation turned prison in Louisiana. There was a scene about giving birthing support to women on the inside. Those just didn’t work out for various reasons.
In terms of encountering the people that are in the film, it varied. Some encounters were accidental. I happened to be playing chess in Union Square in Manhattan; I like to play chess, I’m interested in chess parks. One afternoon, I was playing chess with someone, and he started telling me that the rates were going down because so many guys were getting out and setting up boards. Again, I was already working on this project. I had in my mind this sort of basic question, where else can we see the prison if we know how to look for it? For me, that was a moment where I would never have seen the prison in a chess park, and then as soon as he said that I thought, “This is a prison space.” He said, “You know we all learned how to become chess masters while doing time, while incarcerated. Now, we can’t get jobs in the formal economy, so of course we set up chess boards.” That was just one of those moments. Then, I made arrangements to do an interview with someone.
In other instances, like many people, I was following the aftermath of the killing of Mike Brown, and what was going on in Ferguson. I reached out to a group of lawyers that were doing pro bono work in the area, and putting out some of these reports. I told them about this project, and they said, “We’ll talk to some of our clients, and maybe some of them will speak to you.” I made a trip, and they introduced me to some of their clients, and everyone they introduced me to is in the film. Sheri, who tells the trash can lid story, and Derrick, who takes us on a tour and who was actually at the world premiere of the film, were people I was introduced to.
Sometimes there is a different story for each scene, but it’s also about being open. When I went to Kentucky I knew that prisons were being built on top of coal mines, but I didn’t know who I’d meet, or who I’d talk to. I just hung out, I just spent time with people, I just chatted with locals. The moment where the woman is singing to us under the umbrella — I drove my car into a ditch accidentally in the middle of an interview, and she and her husband stopped their car, and helped us out, and we got talking. My way of working in these situations is just to be interested in people, and open to whoever wants to talk to me.
George W. Myers: It’s unfortunate how close the prison industrial complex always is to you, and that you don’t actually have to look far. Especially if you’re in communities of people of color, or poor people. The next question from the audience generally is, how can you start to witness seemingly common spaces as spaces that have been part of the prison industrial complex, how does that open up things for you?
Brett Story: In general I make political films, but I’m kind of allergic to the usual aesthetics of activist films and activist documentaries. I’m particularly allergic to protest footage, because I actually think it’s disempowering rather than empowering. I was making this film just as the Black Lives Matter Movement was really taking off, and I was like, this is about ordinary space, this is about lineups, and waiting, and all of these things, and I don’t need a protest scene. But as that movement really started to develop it became inescapable for me, the sort of realization that if I was genuinely asking what is the effect of prisons on our lives, how do prisons produce spaces?
One answer is they produce an incredible amount of resilience, and some of that resilience takes the form of two women on a long bus ride giving each other tips for what to wear, so that they don’t get turned back by the prison guard. One form is people taking to the streets in Baltimore to protest more black death. Yeah, it felt important to honor and pay tribute cinematically to the way in which people are unbelievably generous, and kind. And I think we’re seeing this right now, and willing to work together in the face of institutions of violence that seek to divide us.
George W. Myers: This question is about the racial makeup of your audiences at your other screenings, and how that has affected conversations.
Brett Story: I’d say most of the screenings have been audiences that were mostly white, with a couple of exceptions. We screened in a prison in Ontario recently. But because it screened so much at festivals and campuses, it has been a particular demographic. I don’t know exactly, but probably more middle class as well as more white. That said, there’s been a sort of diversity of kinds of screenings. When I screened it in the prison, what was difficult for me was that I didn’t make this film thinking, this is a film that seeks to represent the experience of life under the carceral system. Or to tell people who are affected by the carceral system anything that they don’t know already. In many ways this is a film for people who think that their lives are unaffected by the prison system, and who might even benefit from some of the processes. Like in the scenes of the gentrification of Detroit. The film attempts to suggest that the prison isn’t just a building over there, it’s not a system over there that just affects other people, but that we can find ourselves implicated, or involved, or affected in various ways, and therefor bare responsibility for it.
George W. Myers: This question is, prior to the election there had been some progress on mandatory minimum sentences, drug laws, there was even a rollback of the private prisons; what has your experience been traveling with the film since the election, and what do you maybe see in the future?
Brett Story: Yeah, that’s a big, hard question. My general answer is that I think it’s important — and I think this was true before the recent election as much as it is now — to recognize that the liberation of people inside these particular buildings is not separate from other kinds of social justice. And I maintained quite a bit of skepticism around some of the prison reform movement precisely because it seeked to change, to sort of fiddle with some aspects of the criminal justice system without changing the fact that labor movements are being quashed. And that wages are going down, and that there’s no social pension for housing anymore. I think, for me, these struggles are inter-related: people took to the streets in the 60s in Detroit to protest racism and discrimination, but also disinvestment from public institutions and public infrastructure. That struggle continues, and the really important work under Trump to fight White Supremacy and racism is also and always is a struggle for living wages, and good housing and healthcare for all. That’s a big grand thing to say, but that’s what I feel about it.
George W. Myers: I wanted to hear your feelings about the moments in the film where you were talking about building these prisons and how the individuals — who are almost all white — see a prison as a job. Did you struggle with that at all? Wanting to get these people’s feelings on camera but not being able to explain the racist architecture of prisons?
Brett Story: Yeah, I have to say, in terms of moments during the making of the film where I was most worried about how we would be received, it was going into Kentucky. For a few reasons: one, that’s a part of the country — Eastern Kentucky, Appalachia — that’s been photographed, and photographed, and photographed, mostly to the disadvantage of local people. One has to be conscious about being a person from the outside going into a place with a camera, and conversing with people, and proving to them that you’re not there just to show them in a certain light. It was interesting. I did get some hostility — it wasn’t even hostility; most of the skepticism I encountered was really an anxiety on the part of folks there that I was there to make an anti-coal film. That I was there to tell them that they were wrong for wanting coal mines to be open, and to want coal jobs. Really, my approach, I make films for the most part — maybe Quicken Loans is an exception — in which I’m interested in where people are at. I went to that community genuinely interested in how people were imagining their lives getting better, and why they were imagining prisons would be the way that their lives would be made better.
One of the most remarkable things is I assumed, there’s the whole building spree of prisons in this area that would go hand in hand with really racist ideas about who belongs in prison, and attachments to law and order. In fact, I would have conversations with people where they were overtly critical of mass incarceration, or would be like the guy in the library who tells the basketball story and be really sympathetic to people on the inside, or would understand we lock too many people up. I’d hear that over and over again, and then you ask them, do you want a prison to be built in their town, and they say, yes. That speaks volumes about the deep despair people have, and the deep desire to feel like there’s a future for one’s self. You can’t begrudge that. We all want a future, and we want a future for the places we want to live. When you’re given no other option than for the future to be a prison future, then of course you’re going to attach all your hopes to that. I think there’s an opportunity there to make common cause with people in some of these de-industrialized prison towns.
Question from Audience: When I was watching the film, one of the things that I kept thinking about was the stereotypes of black men, and so I’m curious: while you were directing this, was it something that you had in mind? Because if this is going to be shown to audiences where most of the people are not black, there’s this idea of what black men are, and the idea of black men being in prison, and being incarcerated is such a strong stereotype. When you were filming this, was that something that you had in mind? And what did you do to inform how your audience is going to be affected by this? Because I can’t tell as a black female, but how did you approach that idea?
Brett Story: This is a great question, thank you. The question is about the kind of stereotypes that exist around black men, and their dangerousness, and their supposed criminality, and whether during this project I was thinking about those stereotypes, or maybe trying to avoid them. It’s a great question for a lot of reasons, but especially because I was thinking about this at the very beginning of the project, and I was thinking about it in relation to the very conceit of the project. What I said before about access is true, it’s very difficult to get access to prison spaces. But I was also very uninterested in doing that. I feel like we’ve all probably seen prison documentaries, or fiction prison films, or television shows. Even the ones that are progressive and liberal tend to follow a particular formula, which is that they go inside a prison, and then tell a story of an incarcerated person, usually a black man, and you see that black man in a prison cell, and you find out maybe that person is innocent. Maybe that person was sentenced for too long, or maybe that person has redeemed himself.
I think that some of those films can be really powerful, and emotionally moving, and maybe they successfully do what the filmmakers intend, which is to humanize people who are stereotyped a lot. But I’ve also been thinking a lot about the work that those images do. Thinking a lot about the way in which criminality has really become racialized, and people of color have been signified as dangerous. There’s a part of me that wonders if seeing those images, even when they’re sympathetic, actually contributes to that stereotype, and contributes to a sense. How many times have we watched on bad television, or good documentaries, people of color being arrested and put behind bars? What does seeing those images over and over again do?
I think it’s an open question, but there’s a part of me that wonders if it in fact contributes to rather than undermines those stereotypes. And I was really interested in producing a different kind of imagery. Again, that doesn’t profess to represent the experience of being black in America, or being incarcerated in this country, but rather brings into the conversation these kinds of spaces, and social processes, and institutions that implicate a wider swath of people.
Question from Audience: I would just like to say that I think one of the strengths of the film is that, it is the camera, and the subject, and there’s no other mediator. Or we hear your voice occasionally, but it’s our view of the subject.
Brett Story: I think my approach reflects the kinds of films that I like to watch, and they’re often films — not just films, books that I like to read, and music I like to listen to — they’re art forms that invite me into owning my own experience of it, and bringing into it my own life instead of ideas, and forming a relationship to its content. That relationship might be different than the filmmaker intends. I had lots of preoccupations, and thoughts, and obsessions, and ideas making this film, but now it exists in your minds, and in your conversations. For me the gift of having made this film is that it gets to be this bridge through which I forge a relationship with other people, and that has to include allowing it to be interpreted differently, or have it’s meaning change in the minds of other people. That’s exciting to me. That requires a certain amount of openness which is built into the project. Thank you for that comment.
George W. Myers: The last question from the audience is, what is the future of the film, and do you want to plug anything?
Brett Story: Usually it’s sort of a depressing answer, because it’s so hard to get films out there, except in wonderful cinemas like this. But I am very happy to say that the film is going to be screening broadcast on PBS. [applause from the audience] That’s nice of you. It is a slightly shorter version of the film, and you can find out more information at the website Prisonlandscapes.com. It has a list of screenings. Right now it’s doing a lot of community and campus screenings before it gets shown on television. That’s also where you can go to learn how you can purchase the film, as well.
George W. Myers: Brett, thank you so much for joining us.
Brett Story: Thank you so much.
To learn more about Brett and the film visit: https://www.prisonlandscapes.com/
To learn more about Bellwether: https://amherstcinema.org/series/bellwether