In The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, Brett Story strips the documentary form to the essentials, reemphasizing its potential for empathetic tactility. The title isn’t figurative, as Story films several landscapes across the country, slowing our rushed biorhythms and inspiring us to home in on hypnotically prolonged details. The film’s surpassingly horizontal compositions are often comprised of football fields, skylines, street scenes, or, say, a large supermarket, though there are also evocative close-ups of faces, as individuals talk either directly or obliquely of their experience with imprisonment.
What Story doesn’t do is more notable: refraining from chopping her film up into an impersonal array of talking heads, narration, reenactments, and stock footage, refusing to fashion The Prison in Twelve Landscapes into a medley of taken-for-granted film grammar that effectively deadens the immediacy of her subject. Story both strips the modern documentary of varnish and resists the urge to preach, which is remarkable considering the urgency of the subject matter: the singling out of African-Americans for legal prosecution in this country, a dressed-up version of Jim Crow laws that thrives as a business model. As someone says in eastern Kentucky, the locals are waiting for a prison to open so as to compensate for the closing of the coal mines.
Story equates traditional documentary grammar with our country’s racism as textures one becomes insidiously inoculated to as “the way life works.” Her hushed, enraptured methods render racism shocking again, especially for Caucasians in the audience, such as this critic, who may voice the right liberal pieties at parties but who live in rarefied cocoons in which they fail to viscerally feel institutionalized, racially oriented violation. The plaintive plain-spokenness of Story’s interviewees, the way they matter-of-factly speak of atrocity, is transcendent and intensely haunting.
The way the documentary’s interviewees matter-of-factly speak of atrocity is transcendent and intensely haunting.
In Washington Square Park, Story films men playing chess, as an aging African-American ex-con speaks of how he learned chess in prison, encountering a master player inside who “humbled” him before teaching him the ropes. In this context, it’s impossible not to interpret chess as a metaphor for the man’s brush with the penal system at large, and for how the experience forged him into the everyday poet who now inhabits this playground, teaching others the nuances of intellectual gamesmanship. Story cuts to a close-up of the man’s face behind his glasses, and we sense that there’s an entire film, or book, in those wounded, sensitive eyes.
Story vividly captures, through interviewee oration, the ways in which law enforcement quietly strips people of their dignity, controlling and conditioning them to hand over their money while surrendering their will. In Ferguson, a woman outlines in detail how a ticket for an open trashcan led to three days in a jail cell covered in vomit and feces, since she wouldn’t pay the ticket because the officer who issued it couldn’t be bothered to confirm that she had actually received it. (Also, the ticket’s amount was characteristically draconian in relationship to the offense.) She didn’t eat for three days because the food was inedible, and this detail rhymes with another episode in which a man shows us the goods that he sells prisons, which unsurprisingly favor inexpensive canned items shipped in vast quantities. Every movement in this film grows contextually, retrospectively symbolic. The fires in the California wilderness, fought partially by incarcerated firefighters, feel in The Prison in Twelve Landscapes like a national fire of malignant sociality.
Story never tells us her subjects’ names, and this decision bolsters The Prison in Twelve Landscapes’s bracing allergy to clutter, resonating as an affirmation, rather than a squelching, of humanity. These people are shown to be elements of a human tapestry, and certain peripheral moments double down on this impression, hitting us on the rebound. Story’s crew speaks with one ex-con in passing, a young-looking, attractive guy who casually mentions that he did nearly 30 years in the pen. When the filmmakers tell the man that they’re shooting a documentary, he regards them with an unforgettable gesture of respect: a facial inflection that reveals awe over a prosperous white-collar world of which he’s never directly known.