Hot Docs 2012: Reimagining the prison flick with “Herman’s House”

The relationship between artist Jackie Sumell (pictured) and jailed convict Herman Wallace becomes an imaginative springboard for exploring the ethics of solitary confinement in Herman's House, a broadcast and interactive documentary by filmmaker Angad Singh Bhalla.
May 2, 2012

How do you make a film that asks viewers to imagine life in prison without ever showing it on screen? That was the creative quandary Angad Singh Bhalla faced when he began shooting the documentary Herman’s House.

A New York City-based filmmaker and social justice advocate originally from Toronto, Bhalla began shooting the film in 2007 after reading a book of correspondence between prisoner Herman Wallace and visual artist Jackie Sumell, his friend and classmate from Stanford University.

Six years earlier, Sumell had struck up a correspondence with Wallace, a New Orleans man that was serving a 25-year sentence in Angola Prison for bank robbery when he was convicted of murdering a prison guard. Though many have expressed the belief that he was wrongfully convicted, Wallace has since served 40 years in solitary confinement, a statistic that prompted Sumell to offer to design and build his dream house for a series of art installations.

Their unlikely creative partnership forms the basis of Bhalla’s equally unlikely documentary, which advocates for scrapping solitary confinement and re-examining Wallace’s case. The film unfolds through a series of eloquent phone interviews with the inmate, who is seen briefly in a single photograph, and animated sequences that recreate the dream house design. Eventually, the project becomes all-consuming for Sumell and she relocates from New York City to New Orleans on a quest to buy land and build the house.

Herman’s House premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and is one of the buzziest films screening at Toronto’s Hot Docs Festival this week. Bhalla is negotiating a U.S. broadcast deal but also hopes to secure a short theatrical run to coincide with the fall launch of an companion interactive doc, Inside Herman’s House, that he’s co-writing and creating with the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and creative director Ted Biggs.

The film received financing from the Ford Foundation, the Ontario Arts Council and the Sundance Institute and Swedish broadcaster SVT, but proved a hard sell for most broadcasters when Bhalla and his producers at Storyline Entertainment and Time of Day Productions made the pitching rounds at the Hot Docs Forum, Good Pitch at Silverdocs and Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Meet Market.

Realscreen caught up with first-time director Bhalla during Hot Docs to talk about the challenges of producing and financing his conceptually tricky film.

You had read a book of correspondence between Herman and Jackie but when did you realize this would make a good story in cinematic form?

I realized that the story would work in a cinematic form right after I spoke to Herman on the phone. I basically knew that they weren’t going to give us access to film Herman – that’s the nature of the prison. They’ve kept him in solitary this long; he’s not someone they want to celebrate or to have other people know about. I knew the only way the film was going to work was through these phone calls, which is obviously a difficult way to make a film. Once I heard his voice and heard the weight [of] his emotion and his character come through I realized this could work and in fact we could use it to our advantage. What better way to illustrate how bad it is in solitary than never seeing them?

What did you like about his character?

He has wisdom and a calmness to him that’s not going to turn people off. There was no bitterness or anger, but he had this ability to project himself outside of his cell and think about the world in a way other people would be able to relate to.

Why did you decide not to show any photos of Herman in the movie?

There’s actually one in the beginning. That was a creative decision that we went back and forth on. The film is largely about imagination and overcoming really difficult obstacles and I thought, what if I ask the audience to imagine what this person looks like in the same way he’s imagining what’s going on the outside? The audience would have to work a little bit. I don’t know still if that’s something audiences like to do but I think it’s a richer experience.

The film explores the way people think about prison so how do you hope people will think differently about prison after seeing it?

We thought, what if we don’t look at prison through this lens we’re used to seeing, which is crime and punishment and these people are the worst of the worst, but rather looking at prison through this lens of space and imagination. There are millions of people in prison in the U.S. and this idea that somehow prisons are a great way of dealing with crime has shown itself as false. Somebody said to me recently, ‘If prison solves crime, America would have the lowest crime rate in the world.’ It has the highest incarceration rate.

Hopefully this film will start deconstructing this idea of prison as a place that’s housing the worst of the worst and solving issues of crime when what’s really going on is the warehousing of people and keeping them hidden from the public rather than rehabilitation or reformation.

How do you intend to champion that point of view beyond a television broadcast?

We are doing a fully interactive version of the film with the National Film Board of Canada [NFB] that’s currently in production. In that film, you’ll be able to experience what it’s like to be in solitary even more than in the film because you’ll be able to interact with Herman’s cell and his dream home. By seeing the interactive version you can understand something deeper about the film. We’re hoping to use both to cross-promote and raise awareness about the issues.

We’re also working with groups in the U.S. to do a full national outreach campaign strategy to bring this issue of solitary confinement to the forefront.  We’ve been in touch with several civil rights and prisoners’ rights groups in the U.S. like the ACLU, Amnesty International and The Sentencing Project through production and now that the film is done we’re strategizing how to use it to bring awareness to this growing use of solitary confinement. We received support for the production largely from the Ford Foundation, which wants this film be used as a tool – as do we – and we’ve received support from the Soros Foundation to help us do that outreach.

What’s your approach to the narrative of the interactive version?

In the broadcast version, Jackie is your guide to experiencing what Herman experiences. In the interactive version, Jackie plays a role in the intervention through the dream house, but it’s largely the user who’ll get to interact directly with Herman. The story in terms of the structure is largely the same but the user will be able to choose where and when they want to learn about different aspects of the story.

The other thing that I think is unique is we’re creating 3D interactive spaces online that you’ll be able to explore, such as his cell and his dream bedroom, and you’ll be able to learn a lot more about Herman through his space: what he has in his space, what he doesn’t have in his space and a lot more about why he made certain choices in designing his house by clicking on those elements. There will be a lot of ways you can go deeper into a certain subject if that’s what you want to do.

What were the main production challenges?

The main challenge played out both during the shoot and in post-production, which is that we don’t see Herman. When we were shooting, we knew we’d need to have visuals that we could use when Herman was talking that not only didn’t distract from his voice, but also added another dimension to what he was saying.

Then in post-production we started cutting the film and we realized it sometimes made sense for Herman to be talking and us walking along with Jackie or driving along with Jackie. Sometimes you really wanted to just be in Herman’s space and not outside but we also didn’t want to use images of the prison because we wanted people to imagine it.

We found the right artist and animator [to do the VFX and animation sequences] in Nicolas Brault. He’s an NFB animator and he was amazing. It was a challenging process to find someone who could create the images we wanted to create, which were images that didn’t necessarily reflect exactly what Herman was talking about but were more abstract; images that allowed Herman’s voice to be at the forefront but gave a hint of something people could use as a basis from which to imagine.

What was the financing process like?

This was definitely a difficult project to fund. When pitching it, I would say [to broadcasters] that it’s a film about prison but you’re never going to see a prison. I said it’s a film about this relationship but you’re never going to see the characters together or one of the characters of all. It’s a film about a dream house but the dream may never be realized. It was all about things that were not going to happen so it was a difficult film to pitch but had a lot of support. People eventually saw [those elements] as things that would make the film unique and different, but it was a long process.

What was it about Herman’s story that resonated with you personally and compelled you to make the film?

I don’t have a friend or uncle in prison, but before I was filmmaker I worked as a community organizer trying to get folks interested in issues of inequity and justice. I was always looking for stories that would reach out to a different kind of audience to broaden the circle.

Another thing that attracted me to Jackie’s art project and the story was that nobody wants to see a super depressing film about prison. That film has been made and our role in the arts is to find newer and more creative ways to talk about the issues and problems we’ve been talking about for generations. Herman’s House provided that. Making a prison film without showing a prison, having art be the way you access the world and talking about the imagination as opposed to incarceration was something I hadn’t seen in a film before. If we tried it, maybe it would reach a broader audience. I don’t think the stories are changing but the approaches of telling them need to.

Herman’s House screens at Hot Docs on Wednesday, May 2 at 9:15 pm at the ROM Theatre and Sunday, May 6 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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