Making a prison documentary: Should we film inside?

When we mention that we’re making a prison film, we’re often met with the same response. People easily recall  that “Channel 4/BBC had something on recently… drugs and phones… undercover…”. It’s a good thing that producers at big media corporations have decided to cover the prisons crisis. It’s good that there are occasional articles in The Guardian and other papers.

Naomi showed me some footage from prison documentaries she’d been researching. It was rather galling to watch. The camera is at the top of the stairs in a cell block, people are milling about, perhaps some of the crew, with the odd inmate and guard. Then drama, the necessary drama… something is happening, something significant enough to warrant deep intonation from the narrator.

The camera rushes among the people towards the drama. The narrator reminds us with a sense of urgency that a drama is happening. The drama draws us in as the camera sweeps past the drama, with the narrator explaining that the drama is really happening, despite the camera seeming to disagree. Prison officers surround the drama and it is dramatically ushered away. Drama over, but that’s prison, it’s dramatic.

Filming inside prison

“Fucking arseholes…” was my retort. But at least we’ve got the answer: “we’re NOT going inside prison!” It’s curious how in film making one observation can prompt a decision to a question that had been hanging over us. The expectation of so many we speak to is that we would want to get inside prison, to see for ourselves. Advice is offered and contacts presented by well-wishers.

But the idea that we need to get inside is an assumption. There are some “Third Cinema” films that get inside and show us reality, often in Latin American prisons, but the question has always to be asked – for what purpose?

The use of inside footage usually serves to add drama or emotion. The BBC likes to show a good chase, others a sense of sadness. Either seems to leave the viewer with a binary response: “poor sods” or “serves ‘em right”. Analysis is lacking – the broad “Why?” is absent of constricted. Perhaps the drama serves to show that prisons are “in chaos”, “at crisis point”, “failing” and the like? So then the next question asks: And what sort of response might this elicit?

Well the likely response is structured by the mode of reasoning through which the stimulus is structured. How do we fix the system, or how do we stop the dramatic threats to the functioning of prisons? By opening the question in a particular framework, responses are themselves framed, and a range of reasonable possibilities is presented.

How do we get in?

The presentation of these possibilities is itself framed by the film production process: gaining permission to enter a prison takes a very long time and requires that the film idea – and the film maker – is palatable. This is to say, it is unlikely that a project whose intent is to end prison will be welcomed. Moreover, our position is a rhetorical one too – the mere act of asking permission positions one within a frame of reference that is not of one’s choosing.

The film makers have never asked permission to make their films, and they are not about to start. If, we do choose to use footage from inside prison, we suspect that it will only be footage provided by prisoners themselves, who didn’t ask permission.

2 thoughts on “Making a prison documentary: Should we film inside?

  1. I always say the worst things about prisons are not the things you can see. The smells, the noises, the feelings… all invisible but all essential to the experience. Film makers who get inside often fail to really capture this, mistakenly believing that the shock value of the visual is enough to convey the truth. For that reason, as well as all the others you describe, mainstream films rarely capture much authentic truth. I hope yours will be different.

  2. Precisely. Indeed that results from the motif of liberal journalism – to see with your own eyes. It’s a naive assumption that the senses get it right, let alone understand and interpret. It’s also clear that in the main the inside shots are for shock and sensation. It’s clear and it’s vile. We can’t state enough that prisoners are human beings not animals, though that may be how they are treated.

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