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Incarcerated and In Tune: Some Australian Prisoners Have Made a Musical

It's dark, but not persistently so. It's sometimes funny, but there's nothing laughable about it.
September 13, 2015, 12:00am

This article appears in The Incarceration Issue , a special edition of VICE Australia.

"Anyone could find themselves in this place—it's all about timing, it's all about circumstance, it's all about choice," Max tells the camera, sitting on a bed in Darwin's Berrimah prison. Underneath his voice a drum kit has been softly rattling. He's about to break back into song.

Some Aussie prisoners have made a musical. It's weird, dark but not persistently so, and while it's sometimes funny there's nothing laughable about it.

Of the quarter million or so people living in the Northern Territory, 30 percent identify as Indigenous. Asymmetrically, and depressingly, they make up 85 percent of NT prison inmates—roughly 1,200 people. Of that number, about a dozen are the subjects and performers in 2015's television musical Prison Songs.

Now a juvenile detention centre, at the time of filming Berrimah was probably the most infamous prison in the NT, know for its unsustainable overcrowding and "Dickensian" conditions (think mosquitoes, rats, and unbearable heat).

The songs the inmates sing are originals spun from their own life experiences. Professionally written and recorded, they range from pub rock anthems to rap and gospel.

Necessarily, the inmates give their performances in prison. Jailed men and women lip-sync lyrics into the prison phone; they break out of laundry work and into a choreographed dance; they sing sadly in close-up, eyes on the hot sky of the Australian north.

The songs the inmates sing are originals spun from their own life experiences

It's entertaining, often poignant, and—especially if you think about the labour of producing such a film—it's unexpected.

Talking to director Kelrick Martin, it's clear that a prison musical was both inevitable and by design. "It's not really a new form," he explains. "A couple of people in particular have been dabbling with this documentary-musical sort of blend of genres. The guy who's probably most renowned for it executive-produced our film—Brian Hill."

The precedent to Prison Songs was a 2002 Channel 4 series directed by Hill called Feltham Sings, which saw inmates from Her Majesty's Prison Feltham belt out tunes dealing with their lives and how they ended up behind bars.

Translating that format to Australia might seem simple enough. Songs about regret and redemption, with references to the cyclical damnation of poverty, must apply to most inmates in Western prisons. But translating the format to convey the experience of Australia's imprisoned first peoples, with the historical crimes, continuing cultural misunderstandings, and racial tension those experiences evoke, is complicated—a task for which Kelrick Martin is well suited.

Born to an Aboriginal mother and a white father, Martin began his career in media working for Radio Goolarri in Broome. Moving from radio to film, his work has consistently involved Indigenous perspectives, and included a stint as a commissioning editor for National Indigenous Television (NITV).

Martin's 2008 documentary Mad Morro was his first to deal with the intersection of prison and Aboriginality. But a prison musical? As Martin puts it: if it's different, people will listen. "I thought music would be a way to break through, to allow others to hear Indigenous people in prison in a way they'd never heard them before or heard their stories before, and actually pay attention, I guess."

There were some unique hurdles, some mundane time constraints. The crew shot the whole thing in three weeks, working under the operational hours of the prison and the availability of the guards—who still had their normal duties.

The film crew's freedom is evident in the final cut. The blend between documentary and musical is tight. While detailing a life story in an interview, one or more of the prisoners introduce an idea—like the cycle of domestic violence, or becoming institutionalised—that becomes the premise of a song. Through some clever crosscutting, the song helps explain the story, and the story the song.

One distressing challenge was Berrimah's overcrowding, which was keenly felt when shooting footage in the prison's remand M Block, where the design resembled cages. Originally built to house inmates in family groups and give them access to the outdoors, the section was "so overstuffed with inmates it almost became like a zoo," Martin explains. "Just seeing these guys behind these cages… I don't know if it's fully represented in the scenes we shot, but it was so, so overcrowded and so intimidating. You just kind of wondered why there weren't more acts of aggression and violence there on a daily basis."

The fact that Berrimah wasn't demolished and replaced with community housing (the initial plan) and instead became Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre is indicative of a disturbing trend. Earlier this year Amnesty International released a report outlining how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youths are 24 times more likely to be in detention than non-Indigenous youths.

"There is something intrinsically tying Indigenous people, Indigenous communities to prisons"

It's not just kids. The overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Australia's justice system isn't changing. "There is something intrinsically tying Indigenous people, Indigenous communities to prisons, increasingly more as time goes on," Martin says. "For me, it was about trying to demystify, not just from an Indigenous perspective, but from an audience perspective, the reasons people find themselves in jail."

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Photos courtesy of Kelrick Martin