VICE is exploring America's prison system in the week leading up to our special report with President Obama for HBO. Tune in Sunday, September 27, at 9 PM EST, to see his historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.
Brooklyn-based filmmaker and Dutch immigrant Bas Berkhout is well-known for making bombastic documentaries about artists, films frequently highlighted by the Vimeo staff as notable, and wholly worth your time. A couple of months ago, though, he released a short documentary that was somber, slow-paced, and didn't feature an artist. His subject was a prisoner named José [last name ommitted by request], a 56-year-old man who went to prison for murder at 17 and spent the next four decades behind bars. Surviving without freedom became his creative endeavor. The film's title is straightforward: 40 Years in Prison. It takes place on the day José is being released.
On the surface, José's story isn't entirely unique—VICE on HBO's upcoming investigation into United States prisons reveals the injustices baked into the criminal justice system—however, it is harrowing and emotional. Nine of José's 40 years were spent in solitary confinement (an egregious practice recently found to be cruel and unusual punishment in a court of law), and he was denied parole eight times and forced to live in a violent environment. "He once saw a man get killed over three packs of cigarettes," Berkhout recounts to The Creators Project.
One thing that does make José's story unique, and Berkout's documentary so compelling, is that it has a (relatively) happy ending. After 40 years in a cage, José got to leave in the arms of a woman named Desiree [last name also kept private], the girlfriend who stayed by his side through the whole ordeal, and who married him in the midst of his ambigious 15-years-to-life sentence.
"I was very thankful that they let me capture the moment they met," Berkhout recalls. We see their tearful reunion through shaky footage Berhkout caught from behind a distant car in the Attica Correctional Facility parking lot. He was grateful even for this awkward vantage, since Desiree hadn't confirmed her comfort with his presence until the last minute. "There is nothing more rewarding then someone trusting you like that," he continues. Here's one of the most important lessons the Brooklynite offers from his experience: be worthy of that trust.
Like fixers who facilitate journalists in foreign countries, it helps to have a mutual relationship with someone who can vouch for you. Berkhout's was an ex-con named Lasyah, whom he met while working with a group called Defy Ventures that tries to assuage the stigma against people who have served time. “What if you were only known for the worst thing you’ve ever done in your life?” founder Catherine Hokes asks when she explains the group's mission. In the process of documenting the stories of Hokes' rehabilitation process, Berkhout proves to be decidedly trustworthy. "Lasyah was a friend," Berkhout explains. "José trusted him and so I was trusted. I could easily ask him all the questions I had."
Leading up to José and Desiree's reunion, we mostly see b-roll of the five-hour drive from Brooklyn to Attica and prison's oppressive brick and concrete walls surrounded by bleak snow. The sparsely populated landscape is punctuated by José narrating the wisdom he's picked up after half a lifetime in the big house. "When [you're] young, you don't have a lot in your tool box, so you're not prepared for certain situations, but as a grown man, my toolbox is completely full," José says in the film's opening. "When I came to prison, I had to shut down everything I knew about being free."
"My intention was to take it slow visually in this film," Berkhout explains a second takeaway from making the film. The bare-bones aesthetic, focused on his subject's voice, is appropriate for the subject matter. "40 years is a long time. I had no problem using lengthy, observational, or even boring shots. To me they represent the long length of time José did." Dynamic graphics, a barrage of sound effects, and quick cuts are great when you're talking to someone like frequent VICE photographer Jessica Lehrman or quirky "stuffmaker" Mac Premo. But sometimes it's ok to let the camera sit. Let the viewer think. Avoid distraction.
This moment also illustrates a third lesson in documentary filmmaking: it can be ok to put your rough edges on display. "I left the shaky camera moment in when he got out, because to me it illustrates the beauty and excitement of the moment," Berkhout explains.
The final lesson is learn, both as a filmmaker and a member of society. "Personally, I learned to be more patient. The world looks different from the inside. There are different rules in prison." His experience with José and his time with Defy Ventures has put Berkhout on a path—there will be more lessons to learn and teach from the films he's planning for the future. "There is so much to say about the US prison system. The non-violent convictions, the fact that prisons are privately owned, the lack of rehabilitation, the discrimination. There are so many things to raise questions about."
VICE goes inside America's prison system with President Obama on Sunday, Sept. 27 at 9pm EST, only on HBO.