Film as a radical weapon

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Inside Film's Deirdre O'Neill spoke to Sally Campbell about the project that enables prisoners to challenge stereotypes about their lives

What is the Inside Film project?
We work with prisoners and ex-prisoners and those on parole, enabling them to make their own films and providing them with a practical and theoretical grounding.

Why did you choose to work with prisoners and ex-prisoners?
When I had the idea for the project seven years ago I was working part time in Wandsworth prison teaching key skills through film studies. It was a really popular course but we were limited in what we could do because it was geared towards getting the qualification.

The guys who did the course were always asking me why they couldn’t make their own films. We would talk about what they would do if we could get the equipment, but it was never going to happen as part of the education department curriculum.

Then an organisation called Unltd, which I don’t think exists any more, made some money available for “social entrepreneurs” and there was some ring-fenced money for prison projects, so I applied and got £5,000. That meant we could buy two small handheld cameras, two laptops and Final Cut Pro software.

I chose to work in a prison because the factories in which the working class congregated and could organise are, in this country anyway, gone. One of the places where the working class do congregate is prisons. The UK imprisons more of its citizens than any other European country.

When Tony Blair was in power New Labour created an astonishing 3,600 new criminal offences and during their time in office the prison population rose by 41 percent. Most of those offences were designed to criminalise responses to poverty.

The ConDems — I am loathe to call them a government as they were not legitimately elected — have carried on. We can see this in the response to the 2011 riots when people were imprisoned for long terms for stealing bottles of water. Yet the MPs who have defrauded the taxpayer of millions in expenses are getting away scot-free.

The privatisation of the prison sector is increasing and so is the imprisonment of people with no investment in the status quo. The ruling class is using imprisonment as the solution to social problems that are directly related to neoliberalism, such as illiteracy, homelessness, unemployment, addiction and mental health conditions.

They are also increasingly using prison as a weapon against those who would resist the neoliberal onslaught.

Why do you work with film rather than other media?
If you study any aspect of the mainstream media — film, TV, radio — it does not take long to realise that the working class has been effectively silenced. Very few people from working class backgrounds get to talk about their own experiences; it is mostly middle class people speaking on their behalf.

No matter how well-meaning they might be, they do not have the experiences that the working class person has had; they have never lived on a council estate, never gone to bed hungry, never been so poor you don’t know what you are going to do and “crime” is the only option open to you.

The idea behind the project was that the working class should have the opportunity to represent themselves — to tell their own stories in their own voices. Film is something the prisoners are familiar with — they all watch films and know a lot about them. As Ken Loach says, there is no great mystery to making a film — anyone can do it.

We look at film less in terms of the end product or technological achievements and more as a social and political intervention. Film can record and analyse and it can provide evidence.

It can also be used, particularly in relation to mainstream films, to consider the ways in which visual representations condense many of the negative attitudes to the working class into stereotypes. And a lack of alternative perspectives means these representations come to be accepted as the reality of working class life.

Most representations of the working class in general and prisoners in particular have little or no understanding of the incredible damage caused by poverty, institutionalised care, violence, bad housing, and the drug and alcohol abuse that proliferate as ways of dealing with the struggle to survive. The films made by our students have consistently exposed the one-dimensional and hackneyed versions of their lives produced by the media.

What kinds of films do the students make?
It is interesting how, given the opportunity and exposure to different kinds of filmmaking, the students are really receptive to doing things differently.

One academic came in and ran a workshop on Third Cinema, a radical film movement that emerged in Latin America in the 1960s, seeing filmmaking as a collective revolutionary intervention. The students were so impressed that they too wanted to make a radical film about their situation.

They want to talk about their own experiences, but often within the wider context of what is happening in society now. We have had a few documentaries, a sci fi, a fictional account of the consequences of a murder…

Do the films get seen?
Both times we have run the project in the prisons we have had a film festival where the guys could invite their friends and family in one case, and their friends from the wings in the other.

The Calder Bookshop in London put on a screening where we showed quite a few of them, one film was shown on Venezuelan TV, and we have shown some of them at the Marxism Festival in London. It’s difficult though, and they are mostly shown at academic conferences.

What effect does making the films have on the participants?
That’s a difficult question and one I struggle with — one everyone who works with Inside Film struggles with. On the one hand there is a real sense of achievement from making the films, and participants have told us how great it is to be treated as equals and to have their experiences validated and considered worthy.

On the other hand there is nothing in place to carry on the work we started. One of our students did go on to a degree course, and some others are trying to set up their own production company.
Others have gone back into prison. One of the guys, Anthony, is dead — shot a couple of Christmases ago over a drug deal. We try to stay in touch but people live very chaotic lives.

What barriers do you face with the project?
There is almost no funding, and this is exacerbated by the cuts. But there are other barriers beyond the economic. Some prisons won’t let us in because they think our equipment is a security risk, others because we don’t — won’t — offer a recognised qualification. But it would defeat the purpose of what we are doing if we geared it towards educational qualifications.

What have you learned from the experience yourself?
What I have learned is that film alone cannot change society, but if it is aligned to a radical pedagogy it can in no small measure contribute to creating conditions to bring about change. The ability to function radically depends on a flexible approach to difference and the willingness to adapt to different people with specific needs in particular situations.

A radical pedagogy must start from recognising the ways in which education within a capitalist society reproduces hierarchal relations and reinforces class divisions. Therefore working in a prison we needed to take on board the conditions of the people in the prison, their experiences and life histories.

The misrepresentation of the working class results in the misrepresentation of the true nature of capitalism. The challenge is to make working class experience visible. This can only be done when working class people can produce their own representations.

If working on this project has taught me nothing else it has confirmed that working class people are quite capable of speaking for themselves. I knew that already — as Friedrich Engels put it, “The bourgeoisie has little to hope and much to fear from the education of the working class.”

For more go to Inside Film.