Open City Documentary Film Festival: The Prison in 12 Landscapes – Review

When you see the word prison in a film’s title, it automatically brings to mind images of violent criminals, claustrophobic cells and monotone colour palettes. Documentarian Brett Story’s latest film, however, eschews all the traditional notions of what one might expect from a prison movie, in favour of an expansive look at the modern day American justice system.

The film takes us across America in twelve distinct segments (the landscapes of the title) and captures both the intrinsic beauty and ugliness the country contains. Through visits to landmark cities such as New York, Detroit and Los Angeles, we see the effect that prison and the modern justice system has had on individuals, their families and their communities.

Visually the film is stunning. Vibrant vistas bursting with colour sear the screen, in one segment involving prison fire crews, nearly very literally. Bustling cityscapes sit alongside these expansive exteriors, helping to ensure that the film remains visually stimulating throughout, even in it’s more sombre, upsetting moments.

The film deals with very emotive, hot button topics, and it does so in a restrained but sympathetic way. The film takes it’s time, initially delivering a series of elegiac visual moments, before building to a much more direct style as we begin to see just how badly the justice system is affecting people.

The film does seem somewhat conflicted in it’s views on prison, however. Overall it paints a picture of a justice system riddled with institutionalised racism and a police force that oozes corruption, but it also shows some positive things to come from time in the clink.

One of the first ex cons we are introduced tells how, through learning to master chess during his sentence, he managed to learn strength of mind and keep himself on the straight and narrow, and residents in particularly gorgeous looking rural Kentucky extol the virtues of a local prison and the jobs it brings to the community.

As the film unfolds though, these positives do begin to be replaced with a depressingly familiar picture of a modern justice system that lacks logic and integrity, one where African-Americans are routinely exploited and heavy handed tactics are used to disperse protests.

The slow pacing does sometimes work to it’s detriment, and certain segments feel unnecessary. An early trip to Detroit focusing on a modern corporation redeveloping the city’s down town area is interesting, but  feels out of place in the wider context of the film, even when compared with another segment showing the race riots of the city in the 60s.

Overall however, the film paints a vivid picture of a modern day America full of both beauty and cruelty. It’s slow pace and somewhat abstract visual style may put some people off, but it is a film that demands to be seen, both for it’s beautiful cinematography and it’s powerful, despairing view of a inherently unfair justice system.


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