Interview with Brett Story

Director of The Prison in Twelve Landscapes


Nightingale Director, Christy LeMaster caught up with filmmaker, Brett Story at the Ann Arbor Film Festival in March 2016 to discuss her latest movie as it continued a very a successful festival run that included taking a top prize at Hotdocs. A longtime prison activist, Story uses a strong structural device to make visible the many sprawling effects of the contemporary American prison system. From the construction of pocket-parks in Los Angeles designed to keep sex offenders out of the neighborhood to a New York City warehouse that specializes in helping families provide care packages to prisoners, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (2016, HD, 87 min.) deftly eschews the romanticized themes of forgiveness traditional to prison documentaries in exchange for the more consequential web of systemic forces buttressing mass incarceration. Gallery 400 and Run of Life, a project of The Nightingale, presented a preview screening of the movie on June 8, 2016 in conjunction with the exhibition our duty to fight, organized by members of Black Lives Matter Chicago.


CL: You speak about this movie really beautifully and one of the things you said when you screened a short section of it at The Nightingale in Chicago last year was about the problems of prisoners as subjects. Would you talk a little about that?


BS: Sure. So at the same time as we have this phenomena of people being hidden inside prisons, there actually is quite a lot of media production that is meant to reveal what is going on inside. We have these TV shows, we have these films, and I’ve watched a lot of them. Beyond just the aesthetic and the formalist issue with the sameness of them all, the way there is kind of one version of a prison film, I also just think there are some inherent political limitations to the kind of representation we see when it comes to moving image production around prisoners. The standard story is to go inside a prison, a space that many of us are privileged enough to avoid. So it feels like this inaccessible space that we are so privileged to get to see, and the film will bring us inside a prison and do one of two things: one- they bring us up close to a person who is incarcerated and reveal the situation of their injustice. Usually it is an innocence story; so here is a person who has been wrongfully committed and look at what they are being forced to endure while not having actually done the crime that put them there in the first place, so that is one version. The other version is a personal transformation story; so here is a person, maybe they did a bad thing once upon a time, but now they are inside enduring horrible conditions and they have transcended their own worst flaws and redeemed themselves and now it is time to let them out. These are really well intentioned projects that think of themselves as having a transformative effect. They think that’s what is required to get everyone to rethink the project of incarcerating so many people. It assumes too much about the power of compassion. That all we need as a society is more compassion and then these massive structural situations of violence will just come to an end. Which they just won’t and they don’t, right? And I think there is way in which these kinds of projects actually end up reproducing a certain politics- showing us, over and over and over again, in most cases, black men in cages, reinforces the idea that the people who should be in cages are black men. It normalizes that fact, and it normalizes the idea that for the most part people of color, and black men and women in particular, as dangerous subjects, and it undermines the possibility of actual transformation. I made this film very much with that in mind and trying to think through what it would mean to respond to those problems and try to  make a prison film that could operate as a rejoinder to that version of prison reformist image making.


CL: Another thing I thought about as I was watching your movie- so you are a Geography PhD and I keep thinking about how your take on this subject seems to be so material. I am so hungry for social justice movies to look like this. I am so hungry for a project that has a clear politic and communicates detailed ideas of what is wrong, but then also challenges me experimentally. Not every section of your movie operates in the same way. I as a viewer have to come to them from different perspectives. There is the Detroit archive section and I have to reset for that and then there is the Detroit Quicken Loans section where what’s at stake in regards to prison is not telegraphed for the audience as it is some of the other sections. Can you talk about that decision?


BS: This connects to the geography too. I am person who is very interested in the relationship between seeing differently and thinking differently. For me geography is a discipline that emerges from its own sort of radical tradition but one of the simplest things it has done for me is to help me encounter my surroundings differently. If you read a geographer like David Harvey and his arguments about the political economy of urbanization and how cities relate to capitalism- one effect of that is I now read construction cranes in my landscape differently. So if I am walking down the street in a city with a lot of construction cranes that means something very specific to me, that tells me a lot about what is going on with real estate…


CL: It’s material.


BS: Yes, it’s material and it is not just an aesthetic element of space anymore, it is also a clue about the social production of the place I live in. My favorite ways of experiencing a lot of art, but especially moving image, is to feel my universe destabilized a little bit; that is really satisfying. I don’t find it very interesting to move through the world and feel the passivity of things being the way they are- as if they have to be and they always will be. A film that jars me- and this is exactly what is exciting about the avant-garde tradition at its best, is that an experimental form at its best can de-stabilize the formats that render us passive, right? A cut that is weird, an edit that is weird, jolts us out of the moment. A dissonance between the sound and image jolt us out of the moment. And if it is done deliberately, the jolt is an important call for us to re-engage in a different relationship to what we are seeing and that is super exciting. These are good tools for people who are also doing realist work, work about the world in which they are thinking through political issues, social issues, to utilize. The basic thing that I wanted to do was de-stabilize how people think they see the prison, I mean that’s the conceit, right? This is a film about prison in which we are going to find it in these spaces that don’t resemble what we think we are looking at when we see the prisons. So it’s not about barbed wire, it’s not about people in hand-cuffs, it’s not about even the walls. Neither is it about the prison as a metaphor. It’s about how we can re-engage with that miniature park over there so that we don’t accept it as just an ostensible play space for children, but we see it for its actual purpose- which we might not have known or seen before. Those parks are built as a geographic strategy to force people with sex offender status to move from the only secure housing they have next door because of laws that say sex offenders are not allowed to live close to a school or a park. I think when it comes to something as normalized as the prison system there is a passivity that emerges from its over-there-ness. If a prison is just a place over there, rather than a set of relationships, and we see it only as such then there is nothing for us to do. Hopefully if we can just re-see it, not just as that building but in the line-ups going into that municipal court or in the games of chess being played in the park in Manhattan, maybe we can also think a little bit differently about the system as well.


CL: Another thing I adore about your movie is that when there is activism happening, it is activism happening with black people. A thing that makes me bananas about social justice moving image work is how often our image of protest is a young white person and that your portrait of protest captures this vital moment. Being from Chicago I truly feel like the efforts of black youth is the heartbeat of the city right now in a lot of ways. Everything that is fucked up, on so many levels, they are getting at. They are trying really hard to make it systemic, they are not just after the police problems, they are after a myriad of other problems, economics, education, etc. So will you talk about the protest footage? I think using the Detroit archive sequence is part of the same formal move, that when you show conflict on the ground you are showing it with black bodies.


BS: Yeah, again there are so many things I could say but I think there are two things that are important. I am a white filmmaker and I am making a film about the prison system and I have thought a lot about what that means and what my role is. It was very important for me, again, to counter what I described earlier about the quintessential carceral image, which is a black man in a cage,  and I was very conscious not to pretend to represent the black experience of incarceration. The film is not that. The film is very much trying to think through the prison as a set of relationships and a set of relationships that implicate a lot of people who don’t think that they have a) a relationship to the criminal justice system and b) benefit from it in a lot of different ways. So when we are taken on a tour of gentrified Detroit, and the real-estate capitol of downtown Detroit, that scene is meant to implicate white property owners who don’t think that their buying up property bears any relationship to spikes in arrest rates in downtown Detroit. And there is an intimate relationship there. So I was very consciously trying to create a film that wasn’t about representing black experience of incarceration. That is the role of someone else and it’s not my role in this particular endeavor, but that said I also didn’t want to make a film that somehow accidentally alighted black experience and the very particular kinds of relationships that people of color in this country have to the criminal justice system. One of the things I was thinking about in making this film was: okay, so how do prisons produce space? This is the geographer in me talking. How does a prison system not just operate as a space, but how does it produce these spaces? How does the logic of the prison system produce this park meant to thwart sex offenders? And one of the things that the prison system generates, is productive of, which I think is really important, and which you touched on, is that it produces resistance. It produces resistance inside and it produces resistance outside. And when I say the prison system I am including the police system. I include arrest. I include mass criminalization, which is what we are really talking about. I include the murder of young often-black people in this country and people of color by police, not just because individual police are racist but because they are systematically over policing and structural racism is embedded in the role of the police to particular populations. And so I wasn’t sure if I was going to have a protest scene in this film, cause I was trying to make a non-traditional activist film, and there is the way in which protest scenes themselves become a kind of cliché within cinema, which was something I was really trying to resist. But I just couldn’t. This is a moment, this tremendous moment in American history. The Black Lives Matter movement, which shares a lineage to the rebellions of the 60’s, the black power movement, the civil rights movement, is too important and too central to the story I am trying to piece together. It felt very important to both have a couple of moments in the film in which we witness the resistance generated out of the criminal justice system to the vilification and the murder of black people and Latino people in this country and to acknowledge, as you say and thank you for pointing it out, that the resistance is coming from the most affected communities. I mean I’ll go to a protest but I am not generating that protest. It was also really important for me to end with the shot of Attica prison because I don’t tell the story in the film but that rebellion was a revolutionary rebellion that both empowered and was empowered by resistance on the outside. It was generated out of the struggles of people who were most unfree for freedom. And that is what Black Lives Matter is too. It is a freedom struggle by people who in all these different ways most immediately, and noteworthy in the news in this moment, are fighting back. They are fighting what amounts to actual death but there is also the slow death of the prison system, there is the slow death of constantly watching your back because the police are there to harass you all the time, there is the slow death of having to hire a babysitter while you go to the municipal court to pay your $400 fine because you were stopped at a traffic stop. The resistance to slow death, to the myriad of structural un-freedoms, that we witness, is being led by people of color in the United States in the tremendous protests and campaigns of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is really important and something that just had to be in the film.



Brett Story is a writer and independent non-fiction filmmaker based out of Toronto and New York. Her first feature-length documentary, the award-winning Land of Destiny (2010), screened internationally and was broadcast on both Canadian and American television. Her journalism and film criticism have appeared in such outlets as CBC Radio, The Nation Magazine, and Antipode. She was the recipient of the Documentary Organization of Canada Institute’s 2014 New Visions Award and was a nominee for the 2015 Ontario Premier’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts. Brett holds a PhD in geography from the University of Toronto and is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the City University of New York Graduate Center. The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, Brett’s second feature-length documentary, is currently screening at festivals internationally.

Gallery 400s  exhibition our duty to fight is a call to join the rebellion being waged. Organized by Black Lives Matter Chicago (BLMChi) and allied movement organizations and projects, this exhibition both holds space for survivors and families bereft of justice and healing under anti-Black state violence and offers a living testament to the specific and shared struggles that have been at the core of radical, visionary world-making in Chicago organizing.

RUN OF LIFE is a collectively curated experimental documentary and expanded media series held at the Nightingale Cinema and/or other venues roughly once a month. The series pairs a recent feature experimental documentary with a short nonfiction work in any number of mediums – performance, video short, interactive presentation, audio doc, etc. At each event, a post screening Q&A will be moderated by either a local expert engaged in the movie’s subject matter or an artist involved in the making of the work. RUN OF LIFE seeks to join experimental and documentary media audiences while exploring emerging tactics within representations of reality; the empathetic connection that is built through sensory experience rather than factual arguments; and aesthetic shifts in documentary that come with the breakdown of the fourth wall.  RUN OF LIFE is programmed by Jillian Hansen-Lewis, Yana Kunichoff, Christy LeMaster  & Beckie Stocchetti and presented by the Nightingale Cinema.

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