‘The Prison in Twelve Landscapes’: True/False Review

Prison in 12 Landscapes still - H 2016
Courtesy of Oh Ratface Films
Clear-eyed and eye-opening.

A Canadian filmmaker explores the American prison system from unexpected angles.

Recently there’s been more discourse on the United States’ prison industrial complex than perhaps ever in the nation’s history. But few, if any, politicos, journalists, pundits or storytellers have approached the subject from such wide-ranging and fresh perspectives as Brett Story does in her new feature documentary. Provocative and often fascinating, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes is an unsentimental look at the ways prisons shape life outside their walls, in places as disparate as Appalachia and Midtown Manhattan.

A world premiere selection at Missouri’s True/False Film Fest, it’s an artfully made work, lyrically filmed (by Maya Bankovic) and scored (Olivier Alary), with Simon Gervais’ ambient sound design as crucial an element as Avril Jacobson’s elegant editing. The film is sure to be welcome at other festivals and on small-screen platforms that appreciate craft as well as message in nonfiction filmmaking.

Story, a Canadian filmmaker now based in New York, doesn’t connect the dots with narration or onscreen text, but her dozen chosen subjects and their juxtaposition get the synapses firing, and her direct-cinema approach yields new levels of understanding. The film touches on such familiar aspects of the prison experience as phone messages to incarcerated loved ones. But there are also striking encounters with a street chess player in Greenwich Village, who learned the game while behind bars, and the (unseen) Marin County woman who explains, in vivid detail over footage of a conflagration, that her prison job involves hiking up mountains to put out forest fires.

A different kind of fire figures in the doc’s midpoint chapter, in which Story excerpts archival clips of the 1967 Detroit riots—and audio of LBJ’s response and of Nixon’s later call for a “war against crime.” The sequence lends incisive historical context, especially in light of wry scenes in present-day Detroit, where corporations are scooping up the bankrupt city’s office towers at bargain-basement prices. A tour of one of the buildings owned by Quicken Loans is a lesson in upbeat-casual PR, complete with views of the corporation’s expanding footprint and millennial-friendly additions to the historic downtown district. Back at street level, a sweet-tempered man who “just did 27 years in prison” watches low-rise buildings being demolished to make way for shiny new ones charging twice the rent.

Story’s penetrating looks behind the headlines include a visit to St. Louis County, Missouri, home of the notorious town of Ferguson. She captures the long lines at the Florissant courthouse, where predominantly black motorists pay their fines for traffic violations. Outrage, a sense of absurdity and a world-weary recognition of business as usual characterize the descriptions of unfair arrests. Topping the absurdity scale is the ordeal of a woman who was slapped with a warrant for not having a properly secured trashcan lid.

But Story shows too that in some landscapes, the prison system is an economic engine that people have come to rely on. A couple of residents of Eastern Kentucky — where shuttered prisons were built on reclaimed surface mines — speak of new or reopened penitentiaries as signs of hope.

A particularly fascinating economic angle comes to light at a warehouse in the Bronx. Having learned firsthand, after his brother was incarcerated, that food, clothing, and other articles sent or brought to inmates must meet strict guidelines, a man decided to specialize in such merchandise. His shelves are stacked with items deemed safe by 62 prisons in New York. (Universal Music provides audiotape cassettes without the offending screws.)

Twelve Landscapes, which is framed with a beautifully, moodily shot bus ride to the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, goes beyond the conventional chatter to reveal subtle facets of prison economics and logic (or lack thereof) and their effect on everyday lives. Before they board that bus in Manhattan — a bus that will be filled with women and children visiting prisoners — two women compare notes on the phone charges they face to keep in touch with their incarcerated relatives. They’ll travel by night for hours, arriving in the light of day. By the time the turreted walls rise up from the rural landscape, we’ve come to realize that they’re less impervious than we imagined, and in ways that we'd never considered.

Production companies: Oh Ratface Films
Director: Brett Story
Screenwriter: Brett Story
Producer: Brett Story 
Director of photography: Maya Bankovic
Editor: Avril Jacobson
Composer: Olivier Alary
Sound designer: Simon Gervais 

No rating, 86 minutes