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Filming In Prisons - Making Beautiful Sentence

By Suzanne Cohen

Beautiful Sentence is a documentary by DFG Member Suzanne Cohen, about inspirational poet Leah Thorn and her work with female prisoners. Excerpts from the film will be screened at two separate events at the House of Commons in June and July 2011, aimed at decision makers, focusing on prison reform and rehabilitation.

Suzanne filmed Leah’s workshops and one to one sessions with prisoners inside HMP Bronzefield, Middlesex during her two years as writer in residence. The film depicts powerful interactions with the women as they strive to find a voice through creative writing.

Here Suzanne writes about her experiences making the film, gaining access to the prison and working with the prisoners.


 

Beautiful SentenceHow I got access to film in the prison

I met Leah Thorn through a poetry/film workshop we were invited to do together at a summer festival and was impressed by the way she provoked poetic responses from the group, and by the quality of her own poetry and performance.

A couple of months later she started the job of Writer in Residence at HMP Bronzefield, a high security women’s prison in Middlesex. I approached her about making a film. She was keen on the idea and invited me to the prison to meet the women she was working with and to see them perform do a performance.

It was Christmas time and many of the poems were about family and separation, which was incredibly moving. The performance and quality of the writing was excellent, and very well received by a large audience of prisoners.

The thing that most shocked me was how normal everyone was. This experience shattered my stereotypes of women in prison; I thought this would be an important aspect to communicate in the film.

It took over four months to secure the access. This involved writing proposals outlining my intentions, meetings with managers and security checks. I was making the film for my MA at Royal Holloway University, which allowed me to present the project as having educational aims. In the end the prison agreed on the basis that I would run free animation workshops for the women.

The access was for one to two days per week over a three-month period. I was not going to be given an officer to look after me, so would have to stay with Leah at all times - she even had to lock me in when I went to the toilet for my own safety. Every time I entered the building I was searched and my fingerprints were scanned. This often took up to an hour.

What it was like to film in a prison

As soon as I was allowed to film in the prison things took off. I could see that there was no shortage of characters and stories. I thought the prisoners would react negatively to seeing me carrying a camera, but in general this did not happen, and many approached me, showing interest in what I was doing.

I was surprised that so many women agreed to be filmed. I benefited by being associated with Leah who had already gained their trust. She was giving them an opportunity to express themselves creatively whereas my work was potentially giving them a voice beyond the prison.

I tried to film all of the interactions Leah had in the one to one and group sessions. The circumstances dictated my style of filming; I could not easily interact with the women on camera as it did not seem appropriate to interrupt the sessions with questions and there was little time at the end, as they had to return to their cells. This resulted in an unobtrusive observational style.

There were opportunities to do interviews outside of the sessions but I had to film them in a very plain room, as I was not allowed access to the cells or communal areas. This resulted in visually static and uninteresting sequences, which did not feel consistent with the observational material. I ended up just using the audio from these interviews.

I needed footage of people moving through the building to link the scenes, but was not allowed to film group shots without getting permission from everyone beforehand, so I tried to convey this in another way, by showing a close up of different feet walking past a doorway. This also helped to convey the regimented nature of prison life with everyone moving at one time.

I knew that I needed a variety of visual material, so arranged to go around the prison with a guard for a few hours to get some location shots. Again it was tricky because but I was not allowed to film prisoners within these locations without permission. The resulting shots are very severe, which is probably a bit obvious, but I felt they would provide a visual contrast to the intimacy of the workshops.

Depicting Crimes

Some of the women featured disclosed their offences on camera and others did not; this made it difficult to include this information in the film, but as things went on, I did not think it was important. It seemed more relevant to look at the reasons they ended up in prison and to merely hint at what the type of crime they had committed. This worked for me, as I did not want to sensationalise the subject.

Censorship of the final film

The prison management liked the completed film, so I thought I would not have problems getting final permission from them to show it. However ‘Beautiful Sentence’ ended up being banned for a year by the prison authorities following a directive from the Home Office concerning public perceptions of prisons. This resulted from reactions to news stories such as the weekend comedy course at Whitemoor prison, which was shut down by Jack Straw after being leaked to the press.

In the end I showed the film to the Home Office and they liaised with the prison on my behalf to sort things out. Unfortunately I had to make a compromise and blur out the face of one of my main characters due to the seriousness of her offence. This made the footage unusable so I decided to take her out of the film completely and replace her with another character.


 

The film is available to view online. Leah Thorn will also be launching 'Release', a book of poetry by female prisoners, illustrated with stills from the film which is being provided free of charge to women in prison. More here.

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