Wednesday, April 17, 2013

HERMAN'S HOUSE: Angad Singh Bhalla's plea to end unending solitary confinement

Another in the parade of examples of injustice triumphant in our southern states (another recent one is West of Memphis), the new documentary, HERMAN'S HOUSE, tells the story of Herman Wallace, an inmate of Louisiana's infamous Angola Prison (also known as The Farm), initially imprisoned for bank robbery and later into permanent solitary confinement for supposedly murdering a prison guard. Although proof of Wallace's guilt is meager, it seems more likely that the man is being punished for being part of the Angola 3, Black Panther prisoners who spoke out against inhumane prison conditions and racial injustice.

Eleven years ago, an artist named Jackie Summell (above) heard about the Angola 3 and began a correspondence with them, which led to her to connect in particular with Mr. Wallace, who by then had been in solitary confinement in a six-foot by 9-foot cell for 30 years. When she asked herself, "What kind of house would someone like this dream about?" plans for that house, the "art installation" they eventually became, and now this rather odd movie were the result.

The producer, director and writer of Heman's House is one, Angad Singh Bhalla, shown at left, a Canadian filmmaker who, according to his bio, is "passionate about using media as a tool for social change." He has concocted a not uninte-resting film about Herman and his house and the artist that made this possible without going very deeply into any of the above. Consequently we learn what is going on via some details, but we almost always want more: more about the artist, about Herman, about their relationship, and especially about the case against Herman -- and what is being done with and about it.

Instead, we get a lot of time spent with Jackie as she searches the New Orleans area for a plot of land on which to build, if I understood things correctly, a real house for Herman. And herself? Together someday? We don't really know, as the movie doesn't go there. Not exactly. What kind of relationship is this? We never know. (And as the artist clearly does not have enough money for this house project, it seems, well, awfully risky.)

Jackie visits Herman in prison, which we are told about and see in some minor recreated (I am guessing) footage. Earlier we've seen the art installation (above) that Jackie created with Herman's input, and it looks interesting enough, although to my eyes less than revelatory in any way. We hear critiques from various prison architects on the 2-D renderings of Herman's house (below and further below). Their remarks are interesting, as is Herman's response to these critiques.

Midway along there's a scene between Jackie and an old black man in the neighborhood in which she's looking for property which is a lulu -- the strongest few moments in the movie. She explains to the man that she is hoping to help overturn the cruel and unusual punishment of never-ending solitary confinement, but the man claims that this is right and proper. He seems like someone caught somewhere between the character Samuel L. Jackson plays in Django Unchained and a tired and fully brainwashed modern U.S. citizen. Their conversation ends in a draw, with the inevitable have-a-good-day sign-off.

The film's occasional use of animation makes it at times impressionistic and artful, and that exhibition of Herman's house eventually goes to London and elsewhere (twelve galleries in five countries, we're told). Herman actually gets a break from his solitary. But then... (We don't learn enough about the reasons for this, either.) So what is the movie. You won't really know until those end credits with their statistics begin to roll. It's a plea for understanding that any very lengthy solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment. Which I think is justified. But I'm not sure this movie is. (At least, not in the state in which it currently exists.)

That's Herman himself, at right, I am guessing, although I don't remember even seeing this shot in the movie. If it was there, it went by awfully briefly and was practically the only time we actually view the man himself. He evidently could not be visited in person by the filmmaker, and though we and the filmmaker visit Herman's sister, there seem to have been few archival photos available to view. We get his voice, at least, which is something.

Herman's House, from First Run Features and lasting 81 minutes, opens this Friday, April 19, in New York City at the Cinema Village, with three other cities on the docket soon. You can check all currently scheduled playdates by clicking here.

No comments: