Prison and Third Cinema: a much needed perspective – by Deirdre O’Neill

To make a film about prison, prisoners and the ‘justice system’ in this country presents what can appear to be insurmountable hurdles. Dominant models of filmmaking (and other forms of media) are ideologically problematic reproducing as they do already existing modes of social, cultural and economic power and generally speaking offering no real insight into the workings of the ‘justice’ system or the lives of those that system imprisons.

On the contrary representations of prisoners within the mainstream media consist of a series of fixed, generally negative visual stereotypes that condense many of the attitudes to, and anxieties around ‘criminals’ into an instantly recognizable iconography. These representations often depend on the binary oppositions of good and bad/them and us – categories that exist to demarcate the line between what is socially and morally acceptable and what is not. This is a strategic method utilized in order to simplify complexities and shut down debate as exemplified in David Cameron’s, (the then Prime Minster) definition of the riots that took place in UK cities in 2011 as ‘criminality pure and simple’.

A lack of real analysis

Representations of crime, prisoners and ‘criminals’ consistently fail to provide explanations as to why people commit crimes or why certain behaviors are defined as criminal while others are not. There is no insight into the damage caused by poverty, deprivation, institutionalized child care, violence, bad housing, lack of education and the alcohol and drug abuse that proliferate within our society as coping mechanisms in the struggle to survive. The behavioural responses to these deprivations are by and large decontextualized and presented as a ‘moral’ problem connected to the life choices made by those who commit ‘crimes’.

Generally speaking, people who experience prison are some of the most marginalized and vulnerable members of the working class. Anyone who has spent any time in a prison soon realizes that the people in there are not a ‘random’ group nor are they ‘representative of the community’ as a whole (Bennett 2008:459). Many of the people who find themselves in prison have committed actions defined in law as ‘crimes’, but a critical engagement with the events leading to the prison sentence or an exploration or the environment from which many of the prisoners originate would suggest that these actions should in actuality be defined as “manifestations of some social distress” (Stern 2006:3).

As austerity continues to bite, poverty becomes endemic and levels of inequality increase more people are driven to increasingly desperate measures in order to survive. Therefore it is inevitable that the people who are most affected by the criminalization of social distress are those on whom the brutalities of neo liberalism impact the most, that is the working class, who because of their lack of material resources are most likely to commit acts designated by the state as criminal (Quinney 1980:107). The result of this is that the casualties of capitalism are demonised and warehoused away in prisons out of sight (and mostly out of mind) of ‘law abiding’ citizens.

No understanding possible

The strategic misrecognition involved in representations of prisoners makes comprehension of the justice system almost impossible. In order to bring about a radical transformation within a deeply unfair system that punishes those least able to defend themselves it is no longer possible to ignore the forms of representation fostered in the dominant institutions of the media, politics and education or to believe that they do not have far reaching and harmful consequences. It is important to understand that these forms of representation justify the present obscenely unequal economic system and have dire and long reaching consequences. We don’t simply need alternative representations of prison and prisoners but oppositional ones grounded in the experiences of people who have been through the system so that there is the possibility of replacing the current mainstream representations with authentic and truthful ones.

The dilemma for any radical filmmaker is how to begin to challenge the taken for granted, generally unexamined representations of prisoners and by extension the working class. What role can documentary film play in exploring representations that contribute justifications for the economic organization of neo liberalism? Is it possible to create a radical film practice that can intervene in the current understanding of and discussion around crime and punishment?

What is Third Cinema?

Third cinema is a politically oppositional and, by necessity, always low budget filmmaking practice that emerged in Latin America in the period after the Second World War and was involved in the anti imperialist struggles for decolonization taking place at that time. According to Solanas and Getino whose essay ‘Towards A Third Cinema’ is an attempt to theorise the practice of radical filmmaking Third Cinema is defined in opposition to the limitations of First Cinema, the dominant commercial cinema of Hollywood and Second Cinema essentially an art cinema for a middle-class audience. The transformative potential of a radical film practice such as Third Cinema lies in its ability to begin to prise open areas of life that are systematically concealed, ignored or marginalized and in the process expose the ways in which they are connected to class domination and political control.

One of the aims of Third Cinema is the transformation of consciousness and the initiation of subjectivity not simply aware of injustice but knowledgeable about how the structures responsible for that injustice work. For the Third Cinema filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s awareness alone was not sufficient – change could only come about when a radical decolonization of the mind was linked to agency and agency was only possible if it was connected to the struggles of the poor and dispossessed. This consideration demonstrates how essential it is that any radical film practice opens up a space that allows for the agency of the audience so they can begin to engage critically, in this case, with the disjuncture between the rhetoric of crime and punishment and the reality of the justice system.

This process creates the conditions under which it becomes possible to understand how the criminal justice system functions in order to criminalize actions that are often a direct response to deprivation and poverty. This in turn positions the audience in ways that destabilize that system and open it up to challenge. The ability to link representations of prison and prisoners to wider economic and social structures of oppression and exploitation, to consider the experiences that have led them there and hold to account the powerful who sit in judgment on them, provides an opportunity to fracture the consensus imposed by the mainstream media. As Marx insisted any transformative politics are dependent upon an understanding of power relations.

The way in which working class people in general and prisoners’ in particular are positioned within popular cultural discourse by the hegemonic refusal to deal with the reasons why people commit crimes attest to the power held by elites to influence the way in which we understand the society in which we live.

Other frameworks, other pespectives

Third Cinema breaks down this influence by situating the subjects of its films in relation to the lived experiences of the political and social networks of the contemporary moment and in doing so it makes connections between different spheres of social life. It then become possible to understand how conceptions of crime are linked to powerful ideas of what constitutes a well functioning society –ideas that ignore questions of class, politics and economics.

The continuing significance of Third Cinema and films like ‘Injustice’ is that they represent the perspective of lives that are ignored and in the process they change the parameters and shape of the framework in which representations are understood. This is made possible by including within that framework perspectives and experiences which generally speaking are negated or ignored.

This guest blog was written by Deirdre O’Neill, from Inside Film. Her latest film, The Acting Class, a story of social inequality and how that impacts on the performing arts, will be released soon. This article is part of a series of guest blogs written by Injustice Documentary’s interviewees and other criminal justice reformers. If you are interested in submitting a piece, please contact us.

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