It was back in 2013 that I first interviewed filmmaker Angad Singh Bhalla for this site. At the time Bhalla was trying to spread the word about his debut feature doc “Herman’s House,” which told the harrowing tale of Herman Wallace – better known as one of the “Angola 3” inmates who’d spent four decades in solitary confinement – through the eyes of Jackie Sumell, a NYC artist. Sumell’s correspondence with Wallace had led to the creation of “The House That Herman Built,” an art installation that toured internationally and, in turn, led to Sumell’s quest to build Wallace’s dream house full-scale.
Though we never see Wallace in “Herman’s House,” his powerful voice – recorded from prison phone conversations – nevertheless serves as our guide. Now Bhalla has teamed up with veteran digital media producer Ted Biggs to create “The Deeper They Bury Me: A Call from Herman Wallace,” a stunning “interactive encounter” with Wallace (who died in October 2013, a few days after his release) and his caged world that takes place in the span of 20 minutes, the time allotted for a single prison call. I was fortunate enough to again speak with Bhalla about this latest activist endeavor, which – fortunate for you – is available to be experienced here for free online.
Lauren Wissot: It’s sad to realize that when I last spoke with you in April 2013 Herman was still alive and fighting for release. When did you decide to produce an interactive piece around his life and plight? In many ways, the work seems a lovely heartfelt tribute to this incredibly dignified man, who refused to relinquish his humanity to an inhumane system.
Angad Singh Bhalla: Well, in a way, this interactive project around Herman’s life chose me more than I chose it. In 2010, I approached the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) looking for their support to help produce the film, and the NFB, a leader in interactive development, proposed the idea of an interactive piece. Once I learned more about interactive storytelling, I thought this could be a perfect platform for Herman’s story.
Having over 50 hours of unheard audio recordings from such an important figure in American history made me want to do something with such rich content. While I considered a digital archive, a transmedia project made a lot of sense because it might actually engage a wide range of audiences as opposed to being just for researchers. Further, Herman’s story is so relevant to today’s young activists that I wanted to try to tell it in a form that is also more relevant to young people, who communicate so much now online. It is very much a tribute to Herman, who more than anything else wanted his life to educate and inspire change in others. I hope this website helps further his legacy.
LW: Though the piece does include images of Jackie’s art installation it’s not a transmedia “sequel” in any way. Was this a conscious decision to create a standalone work, separate from the earlier doc and Jackie’s story? Were you always focused on the 20-minute prison call as a jumping off point?
ASB: Yes. I always wanted the “Deeper They Bury Me” interactive project to stand alone from “Herman’s House” the film and Jackie’s art project. As I do for all my projects, I wanted this interactive piece to reach new audiences. But at the same time, I did not want it to seem boring or redundant to people who have seen my film or are familiar with Herman’s story in some way.
Pretty early on we decided on using the 20-minute phone call as a device to bring people into Herman’s story. In many ways it mimicked my experience working with Herman, whom I could only talk to for the 15 or 20 minutes allotted to him for phone calls. The operator recordings that interrupt you during the interactive experience are real. I wanted people to at least get some small idea of the frustration faced by the millions of Americans who have a loved one in prison. Your access to that loved one is very limited, whether it’s an in-person visit to a prison deliberately located far from population centers or a phone call that is both limited in duration and frequency as well as exorbitantly expensive.
LW: Since you’re platform agnostic, could you discuss the greatest differences, including challenges faced, between working in interactive media versus the traditional documentary format?
ASB: Well, I would not go so far as to say that I’m platform agnostic. I still feel much more comfortable within a traditional linear documentary format, but at the same time I am definitely excited by the possibilities that interactive platforms offer, especially to bring social justice stories to new audiences. The greatest difference for me was in figuring out how to construct a narrative arc for the interactive piece. The reality is people like stories with classic beginnings, middles, and ends. Obviously, part of the interactive platform’s potential lies in its ability to upend and redefine this structure. But I would not want to throw it out altogether.
We spent a great deal of time thinking about the degree of freedom users would have to access Herman’s stories in whatever order they wanted versus how much we would predetermine an order. A user could be overwhelmed if they’re offered all the content in the site at once, but at the same time the experience would not be engaging unless the user felt like they were in control of their experience. We tried to strike a balance between maintaining an arc, so to speak, but to also allowing the user some freedom.
The 20-minute limit we imposed was an additional challenge, as some of Herman’s most compelling stories were reserved until late in the experience, which means that if users spend more time exploring the beginning, they will get cut off before they see that material. Cutting your viewer off before they see some of the most compelling scenes is obviously a hard decision for a traditional linear storyteller to make, but we also wanted to ensure that those people who moved through the site quickly were rewarded.
Finally, we faced several technological challenges that put a great deal of pressure on the pre-production stage of the project. Unlike a film, where you can get to the rough-cut stage and see what works, once you begin the programming stage it is nearly impossible to go back and make changes. So we really needed to hope that users experienced the site the way we intended.
LW: Can you let us in on your outreach plans for the piece? Will you follow the same strategy as you did with your earlier work – or is it a different game plan with an interactive project?
ASB: As with the outreach on a film, strong partnerships with the groups on the ground that are fighting for change is essential. Luckily, many of the partners who helped us with outreach for the film, like the ACLU, Amnesty International, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and the International Coalition to Free The Angola 3, are excited to be working with us on the interactive. But at the same time, outreach on an interactive is different, as we really need to get the word out on the online space, and have partnered with the amazing group Sankofa.org, who have that digital reach and strategically bring celebrities into their social justice work.
There is also the issue that interactive projects are still relatively novel, especially in the social justice space, so we need to conceive of new ways to use them as tools for change. Groups are somewhat familiar with screening a film and then having a discussion about how those issues relate to the change campaign they are working on, but that event is not entirely replicable for an interactive project. We are right now conceiving of ways that local groups can recreate small-scale versions of the interactive performances, like what we staged at the New York Film Festival, so that activists can have a real event for people to congregate around.
LW: Lately, prison reform has been a hot topic in the US. As a Canadian, do you see hope in moves like NYC banning solitary confinement for inmates under 21-years old at Rikers? Or do we still have a long way to go?
ASB: Well, I actually both see hope in the recent reforms around solitary confinement and the prison industrial complex, and believe we still have a long way to go. One of the biggest differences I’ve seen between the launch of this interactive versus the launch of the documentary almost three years ago is the degree to which the prison industrial complex and solitary confinement are part of the national discourse. This is a testament to the amazing work activists on the ground have been doing to bring attention to these issues as being part of the pattern of dehumanizing black people in America. But I think we have a long way to go in terms of getting at the root of these problems. It is one thing to recognize that it is wrong to lock up our brothers and sisters in cages for 23 hours a day, but another thing to understand what got us here.
I hope that through Herman’s experience viewers begin to understand that history is present. There is a reason that, in the United States, people of color account for nearly 60% of the imprisoned while making up only 30% of the population. There is a reason that black Americans are six times more likely to be imprisoned than white Americans. These reasons are not simple, and go back to the founding myths of this country, which is why there are more black men under some form of correctional supervision (imprisoned, on parole, or on probation) than were enslaved in 1850. Herman’s story of resistance and punishment for that resistance is crucial for understanding what we need to do to ensure the important reforms around solitary are steps towards abolishing the prison industrial complex in its entirety.
Photo by sean hobson, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license