Before beginning the journey of making this film, I had never been in a prison. At least not the confined physical prison that those who are incarcerated must make their way through on a daily basis.
Why did I decide, as a male director, who had never been inside a prison, to make a film about women incarcerated in a maximum security facility? What right do I have to tell their story and why would I want to pursue this line of inquiry?
On a very basic level, I don’t believe that I have any right to tell their story. My producing partner came to me with the basics of the film: as a researcher, she had been working with and interviewing women who had been labelled violent offenders, and she hoped to make a film to help people understand who these women are. As I pondered making this film with her, I was intrigued by the basic premise, but wondered if I was the right person to make this film. What would I bring to this exploration?
As you will hear in the film, Terri, one of the women sentenced to life in prison, discusses the question that faces many who find themselves behind bars: why me?
She comes to answer this question with, “Why not me? Do something different. Ask a different question.”
There continues to be many individuals in the world who, for a variety of reasons related to equity and access, have unheard voices. In Pennsylvania’s State Corrections systems, prisoners are not allowed to have their faces shown in the media. As myself and my producing partner sought to be approved to enter, interview, and film these women and share their experiences and stories, we asked that the state reconsider this limitation, as we hoped to present the human face of these offenders so that we could all confront our humanity in the midst of violence and tragedy. While we were eventually approved and granted access to film, despite understanding our reasons, the limitation remained: no faces.
As a filmmaker who makes portraits, this situation presented a frustrating dilemma and a unique creative constraint. I wanted to explore and demonstrate the humanity in people who are often dehumanized. The great creative problem, and the limitation that I would be faced with, is how do you make a portrait of someone when you cannot show their face? I had no desire to make these women anonymous. Nor did I wish to follow the all too common methods that sensationalize their stories, focusing on the crime and drama. However, while I couldn’t show their faces, I could help provide a space and an opportunity for their voices to be heard.
We often say that eyes are the windows to one’s soul. Filmmakers recognize this and seek to show our subjects eyes in sharp focus, as this is what our audience looks to in order to see not only the other person, but also to see themselves in that person. Eventually, I came to the realization that the film would not look upon the women, but instead, look through their eyes. As the women stand before the windows that both limit and allow them to see the world beyond the walls of confinement, the audience too, is invited into the landscape of their experience: initially through the physical windows that make up their daily experience, as we peer over their shoulders, before eventually entering their POV, and the windows through which we can see from their perspective, their experience, and their point of view. Both their external and the internal worlds. Windows allow us to stand on the threshold between worlds, both/neither inside and outside, all at the same time. The women’s world is made up of various experiences that are not confined by time or space, even as they are confronted by their corporeal confinement.
Some people may continue to wonder why I would make a film about people who have been convicted of crimes. Growing up, we would occasionally pass a prison as we drove out in the country, far away from our home. Riding in the car with my grandfather, he would refer to it as a penitentiary. At the time, as a child, I found it a strange and uncommon word to use. Perhaps it still is. However, I find the word very fitting. So many of those I encountered were exactly that: penitent. Isn’t that one of the hopes of a corrections system — to re-form ourselves, and hold out the hope that people can change? Sometimes we change for the worse, but can we also change for the better?
When my producer and I sat down with two larger groups of women to explain what we would be doing, and our hope to make a film with them, eventually, from across the room, a woman who aleardy knew Dr. Whiteley, asked me, directly: “I want to know why you are here. Why do you want to make this film?”
I looked at her and the women around her and answered as simply as I could: “I have a wife and two daughters. When I look around at you, I see them.” I don’t know what will happen in the lives of my loved ones, but these women could be my wife or daughter or sister or mother.
This film is an offering: to listen and consider who we are, who we’ve become, and who we believe we can be, when facing the complexity of our humanity together. Do we truly want to see not only our own faces, but also the faces of those that we so easily consider other? So often we look to the center for hope, when it is often on the margins, and in those that have been marginalized, that we will find ourselves. It is an offering to the women, to say I see you and hear you, and an offering to the audience, which asks, will you see and listen to someone both unlike you, and also like you, and begin to bridge the gaps between us, and mend our hidden wounds?
In many ways, this film is about absence. The deceased scholar, theologian, and poet, John O’Donohue, writes about the theme of absence in his book, Walking in Wonder. O’Donohue describes absence as “the sister of presence.” Absence requires presence. It is in the face of having once been, that one understands what has been lost. Death exists in the absence of life, imprisonment in the absence of freedom, and the known in the face of the unknown. Films are containers for our experience, and speak not only through what is said, but what is left unsaid; what is included within the frame, as well as what is hidden, resting just outside the frame.
In this film, I seek to bring to light, in some small way, those who are often unheard from and unseen. The film seeks to help us see the unseen. While the women’s faces are still absent, their existence and their experience can perhaps paint a portrait of a life and help us understand better what it means to see ourselves and others more fully. In order to help bridge the gaps between what is seen and unseen, I have sought to create an experience that captures the truth of these women. An ecstatic and interpreted truth that requires the audience to listen and open themselves up, while becoming vulnerable to the complexity and possibility of grace. O’Donohue believes that absence fuels imagination, saying:
“Only imagination has the willingness to witness that which is really complex, dark, paradoxical, contradictory and awkward within us, that which doesn’t fit comfortably on the veneer of the social surface. So we depend on the imagination to trawl and retrieve our poignant and wounded complexity which has to remain absent from the social surface. The imagination is really the inspired and uncautious priestess who, against the wishes of all systems and structures, insists on celebrating the liturgy of presence at the banished altars of absence. So the imagination is faithful to the full home of the heart, and all its rooms.”
- John O’Donohue, Walking in Wonder. p.83
Do we have the imagination to see not only what is and what has been, but also what could be?
Nathan Skulstad, director/producer of Until We have faces
“…for the caged bird
sings of freedom.”
Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird” from Shaker, Why Don't You Sing?