Documenting life in prison

How does a person change during 20 years in prison? Does he learn from his sins? Does he realize that with freedom life is worth living? For two inevitable criminals - each the focus of new documentary films from France and the Czech Republic - the answers to these questions are quite complex.
June 15, 2009

In Helena Trestíková’s René and Fabienne’s Godet’s My Greatest Escape, we meet two individuals whose repeatedly failed attempts to live in freedom become their personal rites into benevolence. Of course, just as each film stands alone in story and style, so do their protagonists.

In Godet’s film, we meet former thief Michel Vaujour – romantic, poetic and sympathetic – in the close proximity of Godet’s frame. During a tender and thoughtful interview, Godet draws from Vaujour his philosophies on solitude, life and love. The story he tells is his experience of 27 years in prison and the five great escapes that challenge cinema’s most thrilling action scenes.

Although René Plasil’s cinematic presence is just as intimate as Vaujour’s, the former is a hardened archetype of a prisoner. When he was just 16 years old, René was convicted of stealing what would amount to less than $1000. His sentence was a harsh two and a half years during which he grew accustomed to the regimented routine of prison life, spending his next 20 years in and out of jail – a destiny that is quite common among young offenders, says Trestíková. Considering Plasil’s youth and immaturity, Trestíková believes that the prison system supported only his negative traits.

In 1988, Helena Trestíková met René in a juvenile prison, originally intending to follow his story for four years. Trestíková is known for her observational documentaries that span decades on the production timeline. So whereas we experience Vaujour’s meditations on his experiences in 20 days of edited interviews over one year, in René we watch the protagonist move through his history – growing older, wiser and more manipulative yet somehow more sincere about his self-proclaimed ‘shitty life’ as he both adapts to and challenges the prison system.

To mark time in the outside world, Trestíková cuts into René’s life – both free and imprisoned – with news clips and commentary concerning Czech and international politics; from the Velvet Revolution, presidential elections, to 9/11 and the Czech Republic’s inclusion in the European Union. By observing René’s countless returns to jail after only months on the outside, we begin to understand that reform is an obsolete concept. René Plasil has become a nihilist whose worldview is communicated only through the books he pens from his quiet cell and the brutal moments of honesty he shares with Trestíková’s camera. Though the filmmaker remains entirely off-camera, their relationship bends the formal dynamic between director and subject. Over the years, we hear the voiceover of their written correspondence while we watch René manipulate Helena, steal from her apartment, and confess his love for her. Says Trestíková, ‘René knows that I was trying to help him since the very beginning; our relationship is full of understanding.’ By the end of the film we get the feeling that, though not belonging to society, René most certainly belongs to Trestíková’s film. René Plasil, whether free or incarcerated, is a contradicting desperado who found his purpose as Helena Trestíková’s special subject.

The lives of both Trestíková and Fabienne Godet have changed due to relationships with their documentary subjects. When asked what she learned from Michel Vaujour, Godet said it was to ‘never let yourself be locked into anything, and certainly not into images of yourself. Life is a miracle, you’ve only got one, and this life belongs to you and to no one else.’ It’s with these profound sentiments that the tone of My Greatest Escape is set.

Preferring to live a life of jeopardy, Vaujour continually fought against submission for his personal freedom. Of course he couldn’t always beat the bars, which meant having to face his inner demons and reach self-enlightenment in the most challenging conditions of the penal system – 17 years in solitary confinement. As the result of such isolation, Vaujour has undergone a transformation that is so lyrically expressed to Godet in the quiet comforts of his family home in the French countryside. His wisdom is simply a consequence of his empty desertion. Both Rene and Michel now enjoy lives of freedom, and through their remarkable documentaries, Trestíková and Godet have given us portraits of criminals and philosophers who were more likely escaping themselves than jail or society.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.