Radical documentary and prison: a film making challenge

Life is different as a convict. It’s never always and immediately apparent how and why, but it is. Dropping a cigarette butt, for instance. There’s never a panic, but always the wry thought. “imagine, being sent to prison for dropping a fag”. Stranger things have happened.

It takes a conviction to turn the film maker’s attention to the issue of crime and prison. But as a convict one is all too aware of the different circumstances one is under. We took a stroll to Bristol prison to get a few shots of the outside. We’ve decided not to comply with a system that requires disclosure and compliance to get inside prison – the sensationalist crap of the mainstream is not what we do.

Radical documentary?

So ES made a few suggestions for locations to get the best shot. I found myself with some trepidation. Can I get arrested for this? Has ES got anything on him that he shouldn’t? Are their cameras looking in or out? I’m pretty sure I’ve not followed a single rule in film making. Shoot anywhere, argue with the security guards, sneak into parliament. But never with institutional backup, just without a conviction.

Now I’m not sure whether it should be different. Should I be cowed by circumstance, back off, run away? Well it’s not an option. We went round the back, hung out the front, went to the school next door. So far, so good. ES, who’s not formally one of the crew, I hasten to add, clocked the scaffolding caging the house nearby: “Get up there and you’ll be able to see right inside”. “If I go up there and film, then I’ll be inside, fuck’s sake”. “I’ll do it then”, he replied.

The challenge

I decided that, in keeping with our commitment not to comply with the authorities, and with our ethics of care toward prisoners, we ought not. At the very least it’s an invasion of the little privacy prisoners have. They are still people after all.

So circumstances have changed and it becomes clear that the rules of radical film making are, to use a phrase of fashion, privileged. Nicking equipment, nabbing found footage, playing with commercial material, filming illegally and general rule breaking are now riskier than before. That’s the mention the precariousness of some of the interviewees. But what to do? To tell the story or to turn away and hide?

Well, the film needs to be made, there is no real choice. Imagine that: man jailed for making a film about jail.

One thought on “Radical documentary and prison: a film making challenge

  1. I Always think it’s a good idea to make documentaries and films on this subject. It’s worrying times for prisoners and their families.
    Good Luck.

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