Guest Post by Angad Bhalla
Angad Bhalla is the director of Herman’s House, a documentary film that examines the injustice of solitary confinement by exploring the creative journey and friendship between artist Jackie Sumell and Herman Wallace. Forty-one years ago today, Wallace was placed in solitary confinement following the murder of a corrections officer at Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison. He is believed to have spent more time in solitary than anyone in the history of the American penal system.
Bhalla’s previous projects include U.A.I.L. Go Back, which was used widely as an organizing tool to successfully pressure a multinational corporation to withdraw from a project in rural India that would have exacted a tremendous human and environmental toll on the community, and Writings on the Wall, a short documentary on the lives of Indian street artists. He also contributed to the editing of Families Under Threat, a documentary short produced for the Center For Constitutional Rights, and Tootie’s Last Suit, which was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. He is a 2012 recipient of a Soros Justice Fellowship.
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Someone once told me that the key to a good documentary is access. I somehow decided to make the film Herman’s House with no access to one of my main subjects, Herman Wallace, or to my primary location, his prison cell. Making a film about a man who has spent more than four decades in solitary confinement, I decided that this turn this lack of access into a creative opportunity.
Considering his status as one of the renowned Angola 3, I never expected to get access to film Herman in his solitary confinement cell. Herman Wallace, along with Albert Woodfox and Robert King, were Black Panther activists targeted and framed to quash their dissent. Several great documentaries on the Angola 3 were released before I finished Herman’s House, and none of them had been permitted access to interview Herman or Albert, so when I received my refusal notice arrived, I was not surprised.
But after reading James Ridgeway’s “Fortresses of Solitude,” in the Columbia Journalism Review, I discovered that keeping my camera out of Angola’s isolation unit was far from unique. Given the pattern of keeping journalists away from solitary cells around the country, my experience only confirms a pattern of keeping our country’s torturous policies hidden from public view. What does it mean for our democratic project when filmmakers and other journalists are denied access to the solitary confinement cells that house upwards of 80,000 of our country’s residents?
The prison industrial complex has always functioned to disappear large segments of our population. Solitary confinement cells are often described as prisons within the prison, so disappearing those within them requires more than the standard practice of locating the prison in a rural hinterland away from any population center. As we are seeing, disappearing those in solitary requires full state censorship.
With Herman’s House, I hope to use this censorship to my advantage. I felt that, if done right, not having access to Herman or his cell could only reinforce his confinement and separation from the audience. I also was telling the story of the remarkable expression his struggle found in an unusual project proposed by artist Jackie Sumell–imagining Wallace’s “dream home”–so I had a palette of other visuals to work with.
Only audiences will be able to decide whether my choices of animation and other effects convey the true horror of what spending 23 hours a day in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for years on end might feel like. But of course, to actually end this torturous practice in our prisons, using our imaginations is just the first step in a journey that will require us to stop the state from concealing solitary cells from our view.