March 1, 2001

Tales from the Trenches: The Truth Behind Bars

From <em>The Farm: Angola</em>

Editor’s Note: In the world of fiction, places like Yoknapatawpha County and Dublin have afforded a rich mother lode of stories and compelling characters for their respective authors, William Faulkner and James Joyce, to return to over and over again. For filmmaker Jonathan Stack, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is that sort of strangely mystical place that has inspired him to produce no fewer than seven documentaries. Mr. Stack talks about the power of place and time in creating his oeuvre.

 

I have often said that in the real world of documentary filmmaking, stories rarely end, just the funding to make them. And while money can create emotional and physical stress, the harshest obstacle and greatest challenge to filmmaking ultimately is time: the time to get it right; the effort to squeeze time into the hyper-condensed form that a film demands; the time to think and imagine and invent. I prefer returning to the same physical and intellectual terrain, and building a multifaceted portrait over time of a single place. Revisiting characters, witnessing the changes of their lives and chronicling events as they occur offers one a much greater likelihood of being present for critical junctures in people's lives.

So, over the past five years, I've produced seven films that have been shot in Louisiana's prison system, most of them at Angola, America's largest prison. There are times when people have responded, “Oh, not another prison film in Angola.” As though, having made The Farm, a feature documentary that followed six inmates over the course of year, I had said everything that needed to be said. Of course, they don't realize that before The Farm, there were Final Judgement, The Execution Of Antonio James and Shadows Of Doubt, the latter of which explores one scene from The Farm—the parole board. Then came a number of films that I have only produced, including The Wildest Show In The South, a portrait of Angola’s Prison Rodeo, and the latest, Fight To The Max, a feature documentary about Louisiana’s statewide prison boxing championship.

I am a story seeker, and there are few places richer, more dramatic and more complex than prisons, and few prisons that better approximate the magnitude (18,000 acres and over 5,000 inmates), history (a prison since the Civil War and slave plantations before) or human pathos (the longest sentences in the country) than Angola. Of course, there’s also the access that comes with time and trust to truly get to the inside of an otherwise hidden world.

And there is never a shortage of stories. With over two million Americans behind bars, including over one-third of African American males between the ages of 16-35, we have entered the 21st century as the most imprisoned nation in the world. Even worse, it has been proven that the single greatest indicator that one will go to jail is if you are the child of an incarcerated parent. So, with five million children growing up under those circumstances, 60 percent of whom are statistically predicted to follow in their parents’ footsteps, we are sitting on a sociological time bomb.

Having had the opportunity to make prison documentaries, I feel a certain obligation to keep returning, for a documentary is often a prisoner’s only hope to be heard. The fact is, storytelling can be liberating -- literally and figuratively.

In the 1930s, John Lomax went down to Angola with one of the early sound recording devices to regard traditional songs. There he found Leadbelly toiling away in the fields. He recorded one of his songs, a plea for clemency, and Lomax was able to share it with the governor of Louisiana. Before long Leadbelly was out of Angola and on his way to fame, if not fortune.

What has become of the characters from The Farm? Two died during the making of the film—Logan Theriot from cancer, and John Brown who was executed. George Crawford, the young man seen serving the first year of a life sentence, is now represented by one of the most powerful law firms in America. After seeing the film he remarked, "It makes me sad. I never see myself, and the truth is I liked who I am in the movie and know I should have done better then end up here." There are no guarantees, but the inconsistencies in his case are so glaring that there is always hope of a reversal in a higher court.

Eugene "Bishop" Tannehill still awaits the governor's signature on his approved pardon. Nearly 70 years old (he's been in Angola since 1956), he remains optimistic that his time will come. It was Vincent Simmons' parole board scene that had disturbed me most, so I went back and spent a year trying to dig into the past. The result was Shadows Of Doubt, a film that reveals the complexity of justice and the ephemeral nature of truth. Last December he was given a pardon board hearing, but was turned down and remains in solitary confinement.

Against all odds, and a year after The Farm was released, Ashanti Witherspoon was given a chance to present his case before a parole board and was approved. He has celebrated his second Christmas of freedom and is developing a project with the support of the Open Society Foundation to help other released inmates adjust to life after prison.

Today, as I write this article, I am still in a state of joy from the news that I heard over the week regarding Wilbert Rideau. An Angola inmate for the past 40 years, the editor of the prison magazine The Angolite and a survivor of 11 years on death row, he was the co-director on several of our projects. After he fought continuously for a second chance, a Federal Appellate Court has ruled that he deserves a retrial, and if one is not offered in a timely fashion, he must be freed.

And so it is with documentary film: the power of storytelling to transform lives and destinies. For those behind bars, the greatest challenge to freedom is anonymity. For no one to care on the outside, for no one to even know you exist, means it is impossible to generate enough resources to get a lawyer and a second chance. To play a role of such magnitude is not only a creative opportunity; it’s a political responsibility.

 

Jonathan Stack has produced and directed over 30 documentaries during the past decade, including two Academy Award nominations, a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner and two Emmies. Gabriel Films recently produced a 13-part series for Discovery Channel called Casino Diaries.

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