Centering the Margins: a interview with Brett Story on her debut documentary, THE PRISON IN 12 LANDSCAPES

In The Prison in 12 Landscapes, Canadian filmmaker and 2017 Sundance Art of Nonfiction Fellow, Brett Story utilizes a series of vignettes dividing itself into a dozen snapshots of America’s penchant for confinement. Landscapes isn’t a blistering declaration against the prison state as some may come to anticipate from documentaries centering controversial subject matter, rather its power lies within the patchwork of a well thought out visual essay’s subtle continuum of how the prison system manifests itself within institutions and society and how it eventually disposes of its cancerous remnants across a nation. As Lydia Ogwang  eloquently examines in cléo’s vol. 5, issue 1: soft “There are no racialized bodies in orange suits herded over concrete courts to be found; in fact, Story’s direction avoids any visual shock or sensationalism almost completely”.  The haunting, poetic essay film highlights the diabolical manifestations of the carceral state’s methods of wrapping its tentacles around the American populace and in vol.1 issue.3 :INCARCERATION we seek to examine the “beauty and brutality” of confinement and the women who bring it to screen and there’s no greater example of juxtaposing those two dichotomies than Landscapes.

Days before both attending the True/False film festival in Columbia, Missouri, founding editor, Rooney Elmi spoke to Brett Story about the conceptualization and execution of one of the best documentaries of the decade.

 PICTURED: Brett Story   DESIGN BY: Qaman Omar

PICTURED: Brett Story 

DESIGN BY: Qaman Omar

You were in the middle of completing a Geography Ph.D. program while conceptualizing Landscapes—how did your studies influence the genesis and aesthetics of the doc?

STORY: I went into the Ph.D. program with the aim of making a film even though it was never going to be a formal part of my studies. I tend to make research-intensive work, and I wanted to buy myself time to read and think away from the pressures of the documentary industry, which at that point was not very open to the kind of cinematic work I was interested in making.

I had discovered the field of geography when making an early film about gentrification in Montreal, and without knowing much about how it might influence my cinematic work, I did know that it was a deeply interdisciplinary field, with radical, leftist commitments, and that was intellectually exciting to me. As it turned out, my studies proved to be enormously influential on The Prison in Twelve Landscapes. Geography as a discipline is primarily concerned with how people create the spaces that we inhabit. Those spaces organize, constrain, and express how we relate to each other and how power is distributed among us. It was during my studies that I discovered the work of the carceral geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore (who has also, by the way, influenced other artists working at the nexus of image production and space, such as Trevor Paglen). Her work, among other writings, really invite us to think critically about the prison as a socially produced institution that is deeply intertwined with the organization of our cities, of our rural areas, of the state, of the economy.

I had already known that I wanted to make a different kind of moving image work about prisons; a work that didn’t rely on solely on "humanizing" narratives and cliched imagery of people behind bars. I don’t think those images do much to help us radically rethink the role of prison in society. Gilmore and other prison abolitionists invite us to think about prisons not just as buildings, but as expressions of power relations, and I wanted to explore how that reframing could be actualized visually or expressed cinematically. Not just as an abstract, academic exercise, but as a radical and emotional interruption of the narratives that get reproduced by conventional prison documentaries.

There is a deliberate absence of criminality as a focal point in Landscapes. How important was it for you to tackle the manifestations of the prison state in such a rare way?

STORY: I think ideas of crime and criminality are the traps that the prison system perpetuates, and that too many films about policing and prisons—however critical they claim to be—also end up reproducing. I think it’s important to talk about harm, injury, and safety, but we can often forget how malleable and arbitrary the category of “crime” is, and how much cover it provides for what are often deeply classist and racist ideas about the world. When the Canadian government, for example, decides that defending the land and its resources against corporate pipeline expansion is a felony crime, it is not upholding some primordial law of the universe. It is giving power to the capitalist elites in an ongoing colonial war against Indigenous people and those who would put the well-being of our planet and its inhabitants over profit.

I wanted to make a film about prisons that not just challenges specific laws or categories of crime, but also suggests that we can and should think about the function of prisons in our society completely outside of this loaded placeholder of “bad” that we call crime. It was in a way a challenge to myself: is it possible to make a film about prisons that, for the most part, doesn’t talk about crime at all, and when it does, enables us to see the complete absurdity of what gets called a crime? Protesting police brutality in Baltimore or in Detroit, for example, or failing to turn on a turn signal in Ferguson, Missouri? We don’t need to solve crime in order to start liberating people from cages. In fact, liberating people might be the first step to thinking collectively about how we create a society that’s safe and secure for all people.

 Scene from the Ferguson segment of  Landscapes .

Scene from the Ferguson segment of Landscapes.

Piggybacking off the previous question: there’s an unfortunate legacy of exploitation in documenting people behind bars, specifically black and brown people, yet Landscapes deliberately evades that all-too-common approach. Were there any inspirations behind making that directorial decision? (i.e: were there any filmmakers, people, and/or ideologies that you can pinpoint as reference points?)

STORY: I’m very influenced by a wide range of artists, thinkers, and filmmakers, many of whom express their political commitments through abstraction, or conceptual work. I’ve always loved the essay films of Chris Marker, with their humor and digression and strangeness and intelligence. I love the way Chantal Ackerman’s work explores the seemingly quotidian and spends slow time in ordinary places to suggest that the seemingly banal is where everything matters. The filmmaker Harun Farocki, who I also love, has this great line in which he says “Empathy is too good a word to leave to the other side. It should be possible to empathize in such a way that it produces the effect of alienation.” I believe that too. I loathe sentimentality in documentary filmmaking, as well as the dogma that story and character are everything. Sometimes they are not. Sometimes the deepest and most engaged feelings require art that twists everything sideways and upside down, shows us an owl being petted in the middle of a searing critique of the French colonization of Algeria, precisely because format and formula are their own forms of censorship and sometimes we just need to break some rules.

How many films have we all watched in which a person of color behind prison bars elicits our sympathy by being innocent enough—repentant enough? Do those images undo our racist assumptions about who poses a danger to us? Or do they actually, even if inadvertently, reinforce them? I think we need to question what we think we’re offering in our films and videos and dare to do more than “make visible.” We don’t just need to “see" we need to see differently, and that’s a much harder—but also more exciting—challenge for those of us working in moving images.  

Despite the poetic subtlety of the film, there’s a continuous, searing critique of the American prison economy and its attacks on working class people. What are some of the major takeaways you want to relay to audiences?

STORY: In some ways, the takeaways are very basic. I want people to rethink where they encounter the prison system, and in rethinking where they encounter it, I want them to question what it does and what its effects are. I also want the film to act as a reminder that prison isn’t a natural or necessary feature of our landscape. We invented it as a society, and we could uninvent it. The existence of a mass human cage as a system of punishment is terribly modern—barely two centuries old—and it is by no means accomplishing what we’re told it is supposed to do: namely, keep us safe and secure, enact “justice,” and resolve crime.

For many people, the prison system itself is a form of harm. And even for those of us who believe it is keeping us safe, I’d argue that it’s doing the opposite; by quarantining our social problems instead of resolving them (social problems include interpersonal violence, state violence, and economic harms like poverty and exploitation), it keeps us from coming together as a society to find and enact actual solutions. This is by no means a didactic film; its very construction, I hope, invites people to come into their own insights and ask their own questions about the function and consequences of the prison system. But it is deeply informed by and accountable to abolitionist politic and to anti-racist and anti-capitalist movements for equality and justice.

It’s sort of become a SVLLY(wood) tradition to interview documentary filmmakers and ask this question: since you’ve been a part of grassroots-level political engagement, do you think it’s important for filmmakers who engage with political cinema or overtly political themes to be activists themselves?

STORY: I guess my answer depends on what is meant by activism. I know far too many real activists—organizers who do on-the-ground mobilizing to build movements and create social change—to use that word lightly. I’ve certainly spent time and continue to spend time in activist groups and organize where and when I can. But I think that work is very specific, and some people are better at it than others. I might wish we were all activists or that I myself was a better activist, but I don’t think that’s the only role to be played in the long struggle for social change. Nor do I think that if you’re not going to be an activist, you shouldn’t do anything at all.

Art affects the body and consciousness in a different way than organizing. Its impact is hard to measure, and that’s its strength I think. Politics is about power, and to challenge power our senses need to be awake, we need to be alive to the world, and we need to know, at some level, that it’s okay—even logical—to feel alienated. Aesthetics is just another way of knowing, a way of knowing through the senses, and the senses are important because they connect us to ourselves and to each other.

I do think it’s the responsibility of people making political art to be socially engaged and accountable to movements. There’s a lot of art posing as politically radical that is empty of actual politics. Intention is often not enough, and documentary history is replete with good intentions attached to work that, once in the world, had a very different effect than its authors intended. So, it is our responsibility to get things right and to check in on what our work will mean once it’s out in the world.

It’s been about a year and a half since Landscapes’ initial release; has there been any vital lessons you’ve learned from the people you’ve met along your travels that you’ll take into your future endeavors?

STORY: Of course. So many. I think the very act of making films and then showing films is an exercise in relationship building. I like to make films because I’m looking for a pretext to encounter people, to have my ideas challenged, and to bring people together. Remember, I’m a geographer, and so I think about space a lot, including what kinds of spaces are created by cinema. For me, the joy of sharing space with a group of people, often strangers, experiencing a film screening—perhaps very differently—is a particular reward for both watching and making films.

The Prison in Twelve Landscapes has screened in a hugely diverse set of spaces and situations: film festivals, televisions, prisons, churches, classrooms, theaters. And so audiences have been diverse enough to point out different things or find new interpretations of things in the film that I didn’t even know were in there. So I guess one vital lesson is that a work never solely belongs to its maker(s). As it goes on to live in the world, it belongs to those who encounter it, and they will encounter it on their own terms, forming an understanding of it from their own experiences. For me, that is the gift and the privilege of making art.

Without going into too much detail, what sort of projects are you currently developing?

STORY: I’m in the edit on a new film. It's loosely about the emotional life of climate change, and about dread and late capitalism. It’s called The Hottest August, and, like The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, it uses an essayistic form to investigate a set of questions about how we live with the state of things. It borrows its form from a Chris Marker film I’ve been very influenced by, Le Joli Mai (1963), in that we shot the film entirely in one city over the span of one month, with the idea being to create a kind of porthole into the collective consciousness of a historical moment.

Le Joli Mai is a portrait of Paris and Parisians during May 1962. Inspired Story’s upcoming doc, THE HOTTEST AUGUST.

Sounds fascinating can’t wait to watch it! To close off the interview, let’s circle back to issue.3: INCARCERATION’s mission statement which is all about uncovering the multifaceted politics behind imprisoned women on screen and the creatives behind it. How do you envision the future of this subgenre?

STORY: That’s a hard question to answer. I think that as more and more filmmakers feel alienated by the rules and conventions set by cinematic gatekeepers and funders, specifically, hopefully more of us will jump ship altogether and invent new forms and conventions for creative exploration. What that means for prison documentaries, I’m not sure. But I do hope more filmmakers resist the temptation to rely on the lowest hanging fruit—redemption stories, stories of innocence—not only because they make for formulaic films, but because those stories end up preserving the current system, and that’s a profound failure.

WORKS CITED

Ogwang, Lydia. “Mapping State Violence Through Aesthetics of Nonviolence in The Prison in Twelve Landscapes.” Cléo, 10 May 2017, cleojournal.com/2017/04/21/mapping-state-violence-through-aesthetics-of-nonviolence-in-the-prison-in-twelve-landscapes/.