The Prisoner: A Short Film About Imprisonment

17 Nov

Ria Fay-Berquist is a by-product of late 1970’s San Francisco, a narrative and documentary filmmaker, and a former media literacy teacher for young women in the Chicago public schools. She holds a BFA in Film, Video, and New Media from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and now makes Los Angeles her home.  She was interviewed by Sherifa C. Fuller.

THE PRISONER is a short film about imprisonment.  It is currently in its final hours of a campaign to raise festivals funds on IndieGoGo.  

The film follows a female visitor as she reenters a prison to see an inmate she met during her work as a corrections officer. Its genesis came during a non-contact visit between the filmmaker, Ria Fay-Berquist, her sister, and a family friend incarcerated in Pelican Bay State Prison in 2008. During the visit, a riot broke out.  The signs and implications that were so obvious to the inmates on one side of the glass were lost on the visitors.  As they were escorted off the grounds so prison personnel could respond to the situation, there was no evidence of what was happening beyond the walls.

The film highlights the stark contrast between different people involved in the prison system and how they experience it.  It aims to humanize the prison experience by examining how imprisonment can be psychological as well as physical.

SCF:            The Prisoner is a very open film that doesn’t clearly promote or condemn any of the parties.  Why did you choose to make it this way?

RFB:            I wanted to create a space for people to insert themselves in the story, or inject their own experiences.  Also, rather than making characters that fit into a good and evil binary, I wanted to show people as contradictory and complex, battling with their roles and innate desires.  People’s impulses can get subverted within a system, be it government, school, work, or prison, but people will revert to type in unguarded moments.

SCF:            Did the actors engage in any special training to get ready for the parts?

RFB:            Yes.  The rehearsal process was drawn from Stanford Prison Experiment, a landmark study at Stanford University 40 years ago.  Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a professor of psychology, ran an experiment on power where a dozen Stanford student volunteers were randomly assigned roles as inmates and corrections officers in a mock prison on Stanford’s campus.  The experiment was stopped after six days because students had so completely absorbed their roles that violence had erupted within the ‘prison administration’ and those selected as inmates began to believe they were truly incarcerated.    This incident was at the top of my mind as I read up on creating power dynamics between people.  I set up one big rehearsal for the cast with inmates, officers, and visitors.

On the day of the rehearsal, I told those playing officers that they could set all the rules for the inmates – how they should behave and what movements they could make.  I had had rehearsals with just the officer players previously, and we had taken a trip to San Quentin State Prison to prepare. I knew them to be very warmhearted, kind people, so I was amazed at the really powerful boundaries they created after consulting privately amongst themselves in rehearsal.  When they came back, they told the inmate players to remove their shoelaces, turn over their cell phones, watches, any sharp objects… they had even decided when inmates were allowed to talk and who they were allowed to talk to.  Those playing officers had basically stripped the inmate actors of any ability to protect themselves or communicate with others.  It was really powerful to watch.

The effect was really remarkable.  Those playing inmates complied without any real resistance, and you could see them begin to slouch and draw into themselves while the corrections officer actors seemed to grow bigger and stand taller.  Those playing visitors, whom I had told could stand around the sides and watch but weren’t allowed to interfere, began interacting less and less.  It was a very memorable experience to witness.

SCF:             Do you personally deal with walls and barriers in your life, or are you an outsider telling the story?

RFB:            Everyone encounters walls and barriers.  I think it’s interesting how we internalize barriers whether, whether they are physically concrete, or are belief systems we’ve inherited from family and community.  Many of our most debilitating limitations are mental, in terms of what we believe is possible. Unless we change our mindset, we can never break out of that mold.  It’s interesting how we hold ourselves back in these ways.  This is not to say that there aren’t real barriers in life that are exclusionary in a very real way.  I’ve experienced both.  But our perception is an enemy we cannot fight if we don’t see it hovering.

SCF:            What do you hope people take away from the film?

RFB:            I hope relationships between characters will interest them.  I ultimately hope that they understand the implicit riddle which is who, of the many characters in the film, are the true prisoners.

SCF:            Where can THE PRISONER be found?

RFB:            Coming soon to festivals, we hope.  In the interim, there are a lot of ways that people can follow and support the film.  First, they can check out our IndieGoGo site.  They can also:

➢    Like THE PRISONER on Facebook

➢    Follow the film on Twitter

➢    Tweet about the film (@prizefightfilms)

➢    Share the campaign with the IGG widget in an email, or on their blog or website

➢    Tell their friends!

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