It’s rare that a film this outraged is also this calm. In patient, observant vignettes, the scenes serene in their composition and stately in their pacing, director Brett Story and cinematographer Maya Bankovic glance against the edges of one of America’s great shames: mass incarceration. We only see a prison in the film’s last shot, a slow drive-by, but the roads all lead there, just as they do for the men and women we don’t see on account of their being locked up. Story’s film illuminates a void: Here are family members lined up in Manhattan for a bus to the penitentiary, where they’ll visit locked-up loved ones, get nickel-and-dimed buying them phone minutes or care packages, and maybe get sent back home without even getting in — as one woman here describes — if the guards find their clothes not up to code. (No V-necks!) Some of the talk is animated, annoyed. But the prevailing mood is of weary resignation, that sense of stubbed-out acceptance that so often takes over when you’re stuck in a pitiless system.
Ava DuVernay’s 13th indicted America as a machine built to dispense with black men — and to generate profit from this. The Prison in Twelve Landscapes examines the pain that is that machine’s other chief output. We hear phone calls to a Whitesburg, Kentucky, radio station that broadcasts tender messages from back home to inmates, their shout-outs and testimonials of love here scoring images of mountain sunsets, a Hula-Hooping kid in a yard, a fat wafer of a moon. Much of the documentary has a filmed-radio quality: Story layers the voices of her interview subjects over footage of their worlds.
This America is often surprising in its beauty, even when the film turns away from the pain these prisons generate to study — with a controlled distaste — the profit. “It’s recession-proof,” a resident says of a prison that has strengthened the economy of that patch of Kentucky; as the man speaks, Story shows us green mountains and mining-ravaged cliffs.
Story continually finds fresh perspectives on the business of epidemic incarceration. Universal Music Group manufactures cassette tapes just for prisoners, a young man tells us in scenes shot in the Bronx — he shows off a copy of Yeezus. These, along with Goya and Dinty Moore canned goods, can be bought and shipped to penitentiaries. The most chipper vignette is one of the most upsetting: In Detroit, an eager-beaver tour guide shows off for the cameras the extravagant skyscraper compound of Quicken Loans, an urban-renewal project that, he boasts, has its own private security force and has in just one year doubled nearby rents. Story forgoes direct commentary on what all this means, but she later splices in footage from Detroit’s 1967 riots, scored to audio of Richard Nixon declaring a war on crime. Ergo the city as a corporate state protected by militarized police.
Perhaps inevitably, Story ventures to Ferguson, Missouri, where she records another lineup of families, mostly African American. This time, they’re at the courthouse, forced to dole out ridiculous court fees for minor offenses. Here a doc that runs cool boils over, most scaldingly in the story a young woman tells of facing warrants for her arrest over a ticket for having failed to “secure” the lid to her garbage can. She faced this choice, she says: Pay up $175 or serve time. A white official turns up to explain to the camera — so calm, so reasonable — that this courthouse, Florissant, isn’t using the threat of incarceration to bilk its citizenry. After all, it only took in $2.6 million the previous year, while a neighboring court serving an even smaller population sucked up more than three.
The Prison in Twelve Landscapes
Directed by Brett Story
Oh Ratface Films
Opens November 4, Anthology Archives