The first thing I remember of Michael O’Brien were his words spoken on the panel at the Cardiff screening of Injustice: “I wasn’t an angel.” He was describing himself before he was set up to take the hit for a murder he didn’t do. (Article continues after video, with thanks to Jailhouse Tours)
For Michael the point was clear, it took little mental effort on his part to realise what most people don’t – those around us aren’t either pure and perfect or tainted and evil, regardless of how an individual might see the world beyond their own beautiful reflection.
He didn’t have to be innocent of everything to be innocent of a murder.
Meeting a titan
I knew bits and bobs about Michael. I’d heard some of his story, and after the screening as we chain smoked cigarettes together. I looked at my fag regretfully “court… I started in court”, he shot back “I want to sue the ministry of justice, it was prison that got me hooked on this”.
I can’t really describe the emotions I felt and still feel toward Michael. By now I knew he’d lost 11 years of his life, his baby daughter, his wife, his home and his future as a result of a wrongful conviction.
One’s tempted to feel pity, yet that feels condescending in his case. Rather, I admire him not for what he went through, but really his strength of character and sense of judiciousness. He’s not one.
Like Alice’s White Rabbit, he’s too busy to dwell on his misfortune. While I’m sure there’s anger, it seems to be a distraction from what’s important.
He carries that air of the convict. His toes touched the burning floor of hell, and now nothing can really faze him. Ruination toughens you up, one presumes like the army does. It sets you apart, both in a negative sense, but also in the sense that you become hardened and resilient. People can’t really touch you anymore.
Like flies, people buzz around, getting in your way, their dark humanity making proclamations from on high, delving ever deeper into contradiction and hypocrisy, fussing and fighting about trifling things. Michael’s friends when they were told he was bad. They returned to him when 11 years later they were told he was good after all. Realising the fickleness of the herd, he didn’t return to them.
Michael struck me as a titan.
As if his loss wasn’t enough, in the years after his release he lost another child, Dylan. This time it was in part failings in the NHS that saw the demise of a second child. But there he was in front of me. No self-pity, oozing concern for others above himself. We talked briefly about not being able to find work, and our appreciation for architecture, and then I left.
How to represent an injustice?
I left Michael wanting to film his story, as a means of capturing not just the narrative but also his remarkable character.
A few weeks ago I received a message from Claire Melville to ask if I might be able to meet at Shepton Mallet prison to film him. My children were visiting so I dragged them along, left them with my Mum and went to surprise Michael, with Claire Melville and George Herbert.
I did what I always do – with no planning or idea of what would happen, I followed and listened carefully to what he wanted to speak about. That is, as with Injustice, I filmed without a plan.
Toward the end of the day we set ourselves aside to conduct a more formal interview based on the themes that had been discussed and discerned. Michael’s not a book to be judged by his cover, neither as a victim of injustice, nor in respect of his actual background.
In fact, outside the binary worldview of the ideologically driven narcissist, nobody and nothing is simple or basic.
Preferring contradiction to cliché.
In the early days of Injustice I’d decided not to film inside. Having watched a TV documentary about prison, with all the drama, dehumanisation and lack of nuance that makes audiences go “oooo”, I felt a bit sick, not just because of the fact of its production but also by the base desire of human beings to see that prison porn.
I’d also decided not to look at miscarriages of justice in Injustice, though I’d met briefly with one person involved in such issues to understand the delineation is between “carriage” and “miscarriage”. But the whole point of Injustice is that the delineation is rarely concrete.
The anatomy of an injustice isn’t unfamiliar to a reasonable, thoughtful and perceptive mind. It happens every day. Riven with assumptions and false information, and bound by the glue of hermetically sealed worldview or ideology, research, knowledge and analysis are deemed unnecessary by those who seek to prove a point.
The notion of undertaking forthright and uncomfortable investigations into a complex reality is alien to those who must bend the world to meet with their preconceptions in order to feel self-satisfied or satisfy those around them.
On the other side of the same coin miscarriage of justice films often do what prison films do. They paint a simple picture to carry the emotion of the audience in a way that aligns them with the intent of the issue the film is to mediate.
Injustice has no such intent, hence the involvement of my good friend Tommy: “I had a fuckin good time” he declares of his time in prison. “I don’t get it, what are we supposed to think?” I was asked so many times. The response is that there’s nothing in particular to think, just think!
The standard miscarriage of justice story has an arc: Happy person, things going okay, simple life. Innocent. Poor person, caught, it’s sad. Their Mum cried, they cried. People helped. Look at the good lawyer and his or her friends. They helped. They fought. Lively music, increasing pace, a thriller….what next? Something goes wrong, but they overcome the adversity, dramatic music and…they’re released. Yours sincerely, Happily Ever After.
It. Is. So. Dull. But people love it because they can understand it. It’s easy. Simple things for simple minds.
The films show that people are innocent. They’re not like the bad ones. The light of the moon serves to show the darkness of the sky. It is akin to the newspaper in which comment and opinion leads people to believe the rest of it is fact. The miscarriage of justice film makes people paradoxically instils faith in the system – this is a miscarriage the rest is carriage! The other cases are clear-cut and simple.
The problem of judging a book by its cover
“Cry then”, I thought, as Michael was describing the death of his daughter and the subsequent breakdown of his family…and life”. He didn’t. “Get angry then!” I thought, as he described his abandonment.
The thing is he, like others who’ve been inside, doesn’t exist for an audience. He’s not a performing monkey to be pulled out when its beneficial and dumped by the abandoned sofa when it is no longer convenient or satisfying. His feeling are his.
Despite all the clichés perpetuated by interested parties, things are rarely as one might expect. Here, as with Injustice, contradictions animate the complexity. When Tommy describes the poor young lad who burns his dick, the audience chuckles, before Tommy snaps “but it ain’t funny”.
I included that for a reason – I wanted people to laugh at the horror of the situation, because it reflects the dehumanisation that most people inflict on those with convictions. It draws out the instinct before reason closes it down with feelings of guilt.
You can’t laugh, however, as Michael describes his feeling the need to cut himself to make the pain go away. But why doesn’t he cry?!
He spoke of the guards who hurt him. They’re the bad ones, surely. But they’re also the ones who believed him. How can that be? What is one supposed to think? Who is one to condemn for all this? Where’s the binary? Who’s the bad guy? Who’s the good guy?
The good thing about having only two mornings and an afternoon to make the film, before getting back to the drudgery of the day job, is that there’s little time to be convoluted. As with Injustice it’s stitched together is rushed intuition, leaving the words of the subject to make the connections.
A happy ending?
And then of course there’s the resolution. Oh how happy that Michael got out! How wonderful that everything is now okay. But Michael makes the point that things are not okay.
Michael being Michael, that colossus of moral coherence set in a world of hypocrisy and contradiction, he minds us that it doesn’t matter if one is innocent or not, the damage is the damage.
Even though he was sentenced for something he didn’t do, and even though that conviction was wrong and was overturned, he has to carry his trauma for life – it cannot be undone.
Life after conviction still stutters. He still had to watch his other child die. He still has to try to find work and fend for himself. The repercussions of everything will still bounce around his future and his past, as it does for all those.
I hope the end of the film hurts people or at least drags them out of their presumptuous comfort zone. It syncs with what Penelope Gibbs says in Injustice about a conviction being a life sentence.
In these media saturated days of limited attention spans while excitable furores are whipped up to generate revenue for some and social and political capital for others, I hope Michael’s story can help people understand the difference between Hollywood and reality, to understand he’s a person not a meme, to know that after the media condemn or celebrate, life, or living death, goes on.