"These places are known as 'black sites': you can't get in, you shouldn't expect to get in, and you shouldn't try to get in."
Sterile concrete walls are punctuated only by rows of steel doors and slotted windows, out of which bored, angry, or desperate faces peer hauntingly. The steady buzz of fluorescent lights is pierced by human screams. Welcome to the world of SOLITARY: Inside Red Onion State Prison, Kristi Jacobson's latest documentary, which reveals day-to-day life inside a facility that holds 500 prisoners in 8'x10' solitary confinement cells for 23 hours a day—sometimes for decades.
The situation is indeed dramatic, but the film is notable in its straightforward portrayal of supermax prison life—it neither glamorizes nor overstates the situation. Rather, it conveys both the banality and constant tension of prison life through slow tracking shots, long takes of the environs, and intimately framed conversations with prisoners and corrections officers. It's the matter-of-fact admissions of officers comparing the rush of fighting with prisoners to "scoring a touchdown," or inmates calmly recounting heinous crimes, that make the film even more powerful.
No Film School spoke with Jacobson ahead of her documentary's HBO premiere about how she got access to film in what is usually a "black zone"—off limits to outsiders— and created an affecting film that manages to be nonjudgemental of the people on either side of the rarified conditions it portrays.
“Because these guys had been denied real human interaction and conversation, there was this incredible degree of profoundness when they spoke.”
No Film School: I have to start with the access question. How did you convince the powers-that-be to let you into this supermax prison?
Jacobson: Strangely, the way it unfolded did not require much convincing. When I started working on the film it was in the summer of 2012, there hadn't been a lot of mainstream reporting on this supermax prisons. I was actually sort of researching the subject and talking to a lot of people who had either been inside the supermaxes and now were on the outside, or who were dogged journalists who had been covering the issue since the mid-'80s when we began to lock people up in this way. All of them were like, "These places are known as black sites. You can't get in, you shouldn't expect to get in, you shouldn't try to get in."
Jacobson: But then I started discovering that there were a handful of states that had just began or were in the early stages of recognizing that when you release a person to the streets from the box, it can then pose a danger to society. In Virginia, where Red Onion State Prison is located, they had started implementing Step Down Programs, which are about essentially re-socializing people who have been locked in solitary for months, years, and sometimes decades, so that they can function in general population, before they ultimately are returned to society.
I actually was introduced to the director of the department of corrections through someone who just said, "Would you be willing to talk to this filmmaker about what you're doing?", and he said yes. That yes was the beginning of what was a series of conversations that ultimately led to me asking: "Now that I understand what you're doing and why you're doing it, it would be really great to capture that on film, which would require me coming to the prison to film."
It was a combination of luck and personality and the moment in time that led them to allow me to come for what was a planned three-day shoot.
“As a filmmaker, your currency is connection.”
NFS: So a three-day shoot became a feature?
Jacobson: Yeah. Before I went for the first shoot, I went on a scout by myself to meet the warden and to get a tour of the place in order to plan the shoot. It's like planning to shoot on another planet without having an understanding of what the atmosphere is like, and what the infrastructure is like.
Then, it was about me trying to connect with the people who ran the prison and the people who were locked up inside the prison in a way that allowed them to let me in, both literally and figuratively, over what became a period of a year and a half.
NFS: The inmates don’t have a lot of contact with outsiders and probably, in a lot of ways, don't know how to connect. How did you convince participants to be with you on camera and tell their stories?
Jacobson: As a filmmaker, your currency is connection. That's how you can tell stories: by connecting with other people and listening. The construct of that prison necessarily works against that.
One of the most important things for me to convey to the prisoners was that I'm independent. They're not used to seeing [journalists]. No one's allowed into the prison without permission. Almost everyone who visits the prison is in some way working for the department of corrections, so I think it took some convincing, and me returning over time, for the men who were locked in the prison to really believe that I was independent.
I've learned a lot about filmmaking from my experience working with Barbara Kopple. Central to my approach is to not have an agenda, and to not think I know the story and not try and only film the pieces that will tell that story, but to just be really open and curious. I can't know for sure, but I think my genuine curiosity and openness over time enabled people to trust me to tell their stories.
“Central to my approach is to not have an agenda, and to not think I know the story.”
Because these guys had been denied real human interaction and conversation at the level that I was seeking, you see in the film that there was this incredible degree of profoundness when they speak, and that was something that I didn't expect. My crew would often leave at the end of the day, we would just be like, "Did that just happen? That was so intense!” I think it came from that place of them not having connected with other people like that for so long.
NFS: What kind of crew did you have and what did you shoot with?
Jacobson: We shot with the same crew on all of our visits. It was my DP, Nelson Hume, who I think is an extraordinarily talented cinematographer and also human being. He shot on a Canon C300 with a variety of lenses, depending on what we were doing on the shoots.
We also had a very experienced sound recordist, John Matthew, from Chicago, and assistant camera / second camera / all-around awesome guy named Brian DeContreras, and producer Katie Mitchell. So there were five of us.
NFS: Was it intentional that you had men with you on the crew, because you're a female filmmaker and you were speaking to all men in the prison?
Jacobson: Nelson and I had collaborated on A Place At The Table, my previous film, and, as I said before, I just think he has an incredible eye, and we speak the same language, and I also felt like the personalities of the people who came with me were almost as important as their competence and skills at their craft. They had to have the ability to be a team member in an environment that is striking and shocking and horrifying at times. It was also really important to me that they not judge the inmates, not judge the people who worked there, but just be present. Gender didn't really factor into the thinking.
"When I met these men, I didn't ask them what they did on the outside. I didn't ask what they did on the inside. I met them, and I began to know them as humans."
NFS: Every doc is about choices, but the choices that you had to make here seemed exceptional, in terms of ethics. For example, how did you choose which parts of the inmate's stories to reveal and not reveal?
Jacobson: The choice that was sort of a driving factor in the selection of the characters was my desire to tell the story of people who were not necessarily seeking exoneration. Stories of exoneration and innocent people locked away are important stories to tell, but that that's not what this film was about, and so it was important for me to spend time with and feature men who had committed crimes.
I think, often in an effort to do good, films will feature the “more empathetic" subjects. That's important, but when you're talking about solitary confinement or segregation or isolation inside our prisons, you're talking about the most forgotten population. If you commit a crime in this country and you go to prison and you're not seeking exoneration, you don't have a lawyer, or rights. You've got no voice. That's it. That was really important for me.
When I met these men, I didn't ask them what they did on the outside. I didn't ask what they did on the inside. I met them, and I began to know them as humans. My goal in the film was for people to get to know them, and then, as I did, discover what they'd done, and, as I did, struggle with how you might feel about them.
NFS: What about choices made in post-production?
Jacobson: I think you, as a filmmaker, know more than a non-filmmaker how critically important the relationship with an editor is, and the role that the editor plays. My editor, Ben Gold, is a master of the craft, and he had to work with a film in which "nothing happens" and we weren't seeking for something to happen. We weren't waiting for a cell entry or a riot. We were actually trying to capture the nothingness, and trying to create a structure and a film that will bring a viewer along was really challenging. That also played into how and when we revealed facts about the characters and their lives.
NFS: The sound design was so powerful and visceral, and it probably wouldn't have been the same film without it. Can you talk about that process?
Jacobson: From that first visit when I went by myself to scout, it was so shocking and different than the audio or sounds that I'd heard before inside prisons, that I recognized it would play a role.
“Of course, you can't escape prison, but you can't ever escape the yelling and the pain of others while there, either.”
It was intentional to capture the cacophony inside the place and recreate, in the sound design and sound mix, the experience that we all had, as observers, in terms of its relentlessness. In this case, all the sounds that you hear from the prison are, in fact, sounds from that prison. Of course, you can't escape prison, but you can't ever escape the yelling and the pain of others while there, either.
NFS: What was your path to distribution with HBO like?
Jacobson: I began making the film independently. Julie Goldman (Weiner, Life Animated) was a part of the team. We shared a sample of the film with some potential funders after we were about halfway through filming. Nancy Abraham, from HBO, was there and immediately wanted to talk to us.
I had really strong feelings about the men I wanted to feature in the film. I didn't want someone to tell me, "You need to find someone who's innocent” or “You need to end on a hopeful note." Once I was inside [the prison], I knew what I needed the film to be in a lot of ways. It became really clear the first time we met with Nancy and Sheila [Nevins, of HBO] that they were like, "We get it. What you're doing is extraordinary. We want you to keep doing it and we want to give you a platform to share it with the world." That was really great.
Jacobson: The funding that had come early was primarily from people who wanted to see the film make a difference. We also made that clear in our early conversations with HBO. Since the film premiered at Tribeca in April, we've had several grassroots community screenings. For example, we had a screening inside a high-security prison in Washington state with prisoners and [Corrections Officers].
When it broadcasts and streams through HBO, many, many, more eyes and hearts will hopefully have an opportunity to experience it.
NFS: This is now your fourth feature, so what advice do you have for filmmakers in terms of sustainability and getting to the next project and the next project?
Jacobson: Making a film requires a Herculean effort. While I made it sound like it was easy to get access to the prison, the groundwork that I laid in terms of my understanding of the issue contributed to that conversation. Making a film is such an all-encompassing experience. It requires a tremendous amount of work, hours, commitment, nights not sleeping. When you finish a film, you can often feel incredibly spent, so I stopped trying to answer the question at the first premiere screening of a current film, "What are you doing next?" with "My next big feature is ..." Because that's impossible.
If you try to climb Mount Everest, get to the top, go back to the bottom, and start climbing it right away again, I think you'll fail. If you try and climb some smaller hills and regain your strength, I think that's a more sustainable way for a filmmaker. I found that kind of alternating the form—for example, working on some short form films that I care about—has made this a sustainable career for me. I think a big part of sustainability is also making sustainability a priority. It doesn't just happen. You have to be really creative in figuring out ways that work for you to survive, both emotionally and financially.