‘Separate Sentences’ filmmakers on agency, representation and the crisis of U.S. incarceration.
Amie Dowling offers this ‘think piece’
Well Contested Sites and Separate Sentences, sought to bring attention to the issue of mass incarceration in the US. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others at the hands of police and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the conversation amongst my collaborators — Reggie Daniels, Austin Forbord- and I have turned from the issue itself to questions concerning equity, representation, and agency. In particular, the very nature of intervention: who is intervening, on whose behalf, and on what subject, has come to dominate our reflection on the work. We moved from a place where the act of intervention meant simply to shine a light on what we consider to be the most significant social justice issue that we face, to a far more nuanced debate about the implications of our own engagement: who tells the story, whose story is being told, who is directly or indirectly impacted by its creation? These are not settled questions. Our conversation continues and we want to share some of its evolution with you.
We made Well Contested Sites in 2012 and Separate Sentences in 2016 to shine a light on what we consider one of the most important social issues of our day- the systematic imprisonment of people of color. And the implication and disaster it has wrought in marginalized communities.
The films were made to tenderize people who were distanced from the issue- as a means to create an opportunity for dialogue. The title of the first film, Well Contested Sites, refers to the individuals imprisoned body as the site of carceral control where one is subjected to an elaborate choreography of containment and segregation. Behind prison walls, regimented rituals of eating, cleaning, labor and leisure curtail individual freedom of movement in the service of “orderly” systems, notating where and how one moves through space and time, shaping relations between objects, spaces, bodies.
From the Federal Bureau of Prisons- Inmate Information Handbook:
Movement throughout the institution will be regulated by a procedure called controlled movement. The purpose of controlled movement is to ensure that the movement of inmates is orderly. Controlled movements will begin five minutes before the hour and extend for five minutes after the hour. The beginning and end of each move will be announced over the loudspeaker. During the ten-minute period of controlled movement, inmates may move from one area of the institution to another.
On many levels, the films have succeeded within our original notion of artistic intervention. They have allowed us to create dialogue, educate and illuminate the issue. They have served as tools for social justice on macro & micro levels. The films have created community between individuals, conversation and interaction. They have been screened in both dance screen and traditional film festivals throughout the US, Canada and the world. We held screenings and live presentations at schools, libraries, museums and community centers throughout the US and Europe. Columbia University assigned Well Contested Sites as a text for their freshman writing seminar, creating a computer program allowing every student to annotate the film in the context of their reflections. Relevant literature concerning mass incarceration was also made part of the curriculum. Two years later, following protests from the student body, the University announced that it would divest from all US private prison corporations. If our film had any part in encouraging this sort of reflection and action on behalf of a more just society, we are humbled and thankful.
Today, the ever present issue of racism in the US, has risen to the surface. The last five years has seen increased visibility of the deaths of people of color at the hands of police, the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement, the flourishing of the alt right, and the election of the first ‘white president’ to borrow from Ta-Nehisi Coates. The phrase NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US has developed into an important critique of art and literature that revolves around issues most significant to communities of color.
It is within this context, and particularly since making our second film, Separate Sentence, that we are grappling with our roles in the art making at a more nuanced level. Our discussions have shifted dramatically, as this reflection encounters a more complicated sense of what equity means in art making when its subject concerns communities of color.
We have moved from conversations about the significance of the issue, the representation of people of color, and the films’ authenticity, to the core of what equity really means. We are now struggling with what each of our roles should be — who possess the right to make these films, tell these stories and share them with the world. In the course of doing the work there were issues that we were not addressing.
How do the people in the films participate in the making, decisions, vision, aesthetic? how do they feel empowered? How do they have agency and self representation? In reflection, some projects we have engaged in these questions to a greater or lesser extent- with our theater piece: ManAlive, created in 2010, the effort for a more genuine type of collaboration and inclusion of voices was relatively successful, as is the work being done inside San Quentin Prison by the Artistic Ensemble. The Ensemble, comprised of 16 member who are currently incarcerated and 5 who are not, ask questions that frame the process and product of work: How does the process of creating not replicate the oppression of the system? How can people on the outside engage with those in prisons and jails as thinkers and makers? How can the subversive role as artists ask more radical questions about the uses of locking people away in the first place?
But our films perhaps have not been as successful as ‘socio- artistic interventions.’ We continue to be challenged by what our role can/should be- Who is the producer, editor, DP, director or choreographer? If we are aiming to cause an intervention into racial issues, the people most directly impacted — people of color/people who are directly impacted by Prison Industrial Complex — need to be at the center of the artistic process, they should be making the decisions.
The “USA Dance on Screen” programme streams at 7pm (SAST) on 29 August, and again at 7pm (SAST) on 6 September. Visit http://www.jomba.ukzn.ac.za for details.