Herman’s House Observes the Striving of a Life Spent in Solitary Confinement


Life often doesn’t have a third act, and true stories, rather than folding themselves into neat resolutions, are thready, serrated messes. What, then, to make of a documentary whose narrative structure is as open-ended as actual experience? Isn’t the point of art to provide a clearer distillation of what goes on in ambiguous “real life”? You may toy with such questions during Angad Singh Bhalla’s Herman’s House, a doc depicting the poignant relationship between Herman Wallace, the prisoner who has served more time in solitary confinement than anyone else in U.S. history (over 40 years), and Jackie Summell, an artist who has corresponded with Wallace since 2001. In his six-by-nine-foot cell 23 hours a day, Wallace maintains his sanity through Jackie’s art project: He designs a “dream house” that she hopes to erect in his native New Orleans as a home for wayward youths. Those expecting a detail-oriented depiction of Wallace’s incarceration or an improbable, against-the-odds, feel-good story should look elsewhere; the crime Wallace was convicted of (the murder of a prison guard) is not a key focus of the film, and this tale is bereft of the uplifting conclusion oppression-centric docs strive for. Instead, Herman’s House coasts on the strength of its portrait of two systemic outsiders. Wallace is never seen but often heard, and his disembodied persona is movingly revitalized by Summell’s efforts; against the prospect of unhappy endings, the human spirit still strives.