When one thinks of American torture tactics, images of men subjected to waterboarding in some faraway Middle Eastern country are more likely to spring to mind than that of an inmate quietly biding time in a prison down south. But the plight of Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and Robert King has been on Amnesty International’s radar for decades. Ever since a prison guard was murdered in 1972, three Black Panthers who’d been vocal about conditions at a Louisiana penitentiary were blamed, and the “Angola 3” were placed in solitary confinement – where Wallace and Woodfox remain to this day, 40 years on.
Enter Jackie Sumell, a white New York artist whose correspondence with Wallace led to an installation entitled “The House That Herman Built,” which toured galleries internationally, and in turn led to the newfound friends’ decision to make the inmate’s dream house a reality. Which is where Canadian filmmaker Angad Singh Bhalla comes in. As he trails Jackie on her quest for land on which to build what will serve as a youth community center – Herman’s omniscient voice heard only in phone calls from beyond prison walls, directing the mission like an unseen ghost – a tale emerges of a quest to create a lasting legacy freer than a cell and sturdier than a house.
I spoke with the film’s director, whose resume includes producing work for Human Rights Watch and The Center for Constitutional Rights as well as for labor unions, about his most unusual, multi-layered debut.
Lauren Wissot: Could you talk a bit about the origin of the film? Which story came to you first – that of Herman Wallace and the struggle of the “Angola 3,” or the artist Jackie Sumell’s fight to free Herman (and bring greater awareness of the plight of prisoners in solitary confinement) through her art?
Angad Singh Bhalla: Jackie and her art project definitely came first. We actually became friends while we painted protest signs against the impending Iraq war during college. When she first explained her collaborative art project with Herman Wallace it seemed interesting. But it was only later when I read a book comprised of letters they’d written over the years, as they went back and forth on what Herman’s dream home should look like, that I discovered that their powerful exhibit “The House That Herman Built” was just the beginning of the story. When I asked her about making a documentary about her and Herman’s collaboration she was open to it because of our friendship, but of course I needed to ask Herman as well before I started.
LW: Since you’re an activist for social change yourself, I assume you have aspirations for your film beyond theatrical play dates. What are your broader goals and what are you doing to achieve them?
ASB: I do believe that films can play an important role as tools for social change, but it takes people to pick up this tool and use it for it to be effective. In that regard, with the support of the Open Society Foundation we are working with Picture Motion as community distributors to get this film into the hands of people who can use it across the United States. We’ve developed strong partnerships with the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture who are hosting screenings across the country in states with active campaigns to reduce the use of solitary confinement in the prison system. We are also working with groups in the arts and architecture space to draw connections between their fields and the prison industrial complex. On July 8 the film will also be broadcast on the acclaimed PBS series POV, who will be bringing the film to community centers and libraries throughout the country. While the primary goal of the film is to bring attention to the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, I’d also like to see Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and all other political prisoners freed. Amnesty International and other groups have been pushing for this for years, and hopefully the film can build awareness about Herman and Albert’s situation.
LW: One of the biggest problems I have with “activist docs” is that too many preach issues in lieu of following flesh-and-blood characters. Are you conscious of not stumbling into this easy trap during production – or is it just not a pitfall for Canadian filmmakers? (Unfortunately, we in the U.S. seem to be addicted to our talking heads.)
ASB: I actually think there is a role for all types of “activists docs” as you call them. With our media controlled by a few large corporations which serve as mouthpieces for the political and economic elite, a film that questions this paradigm even with an over-reliance on talking heads is infinitely better than not questioning at all. I personally am simply not excited by making a purely issue-driven film, and as a rule decided not to include self-described “experts” in “Herman’s House.” Working as a community organizer, I have other outlets and methods to get out my political views, and for me filmmaking is a modest effort to help reframe a debate. I think the prevalence of the issue-driven doc in the U.S. may actually be in part a reflection of funding constraints more than anything else. Currently, America does not offer alternative arts and culture very much public support (Canada is moving in that direction, too, in its efforts to appease the ruling financial class) so filmmakers often have to rely on issue-driven foundation funding to get their film made. In addition to support from Canada through the Ontario Arts Council, “Herman’s House” received invaluable support from the Ford Foundation and Sundance Institute, which also happen to be two of the U.S.-based foundations that are not only interested in broadening political discourse, but in pushing the art of filmmaking forward.
LW: I’ll admit I felt a bit squeamish watching a white, Long Island liberal become so invested (obsessed?) in the cause of three southern Black Panthers. But to your credit you don’t shy away from delving a bit into Jackie’s motivations, which in the end become irrelevant. (I mean, who really cares if she’s trying to fill a void in her life, or is using Herman’s plight to give her own life direction, if a greater good is realized?) Were you at all skeptical of Jackie when you first got involved?
ASB: As I mentioned earlier, Jackie and I were friends when I got involved, so I did have some understanding of her motivations prior to starting to film. That being said, I was skeptical of Jackie’s intentions, as I hope people watching “Herman’s House” will be skeptical of my intentions. I think skepticism in general is a hugely underrated value in society. The more time I spent with Jackie, the more I realized that her motivations, like most people’s, are complex. In the film I wanted to highlight that complexity, and not shy away from it at all, because I think that makes the story more interesting. Films are, in the end, about individuals and I don’t think it’s fair for filmmakers to paint any of our subjects in black or white absolutes.
LW: I remember hearing Werner Herzog speak after a screening of “Into the Abyss,” and he divulged that as a Bavarian he didn’t really feel it was his business to tell the U.S. what to do with regards to our death penalty. Did you ever feel conflicted as an “outsider” documenting an American travesty?
ASB: First let me say that I am a huge fan of Werner Herzog, and was fortunate enough to work with his brilliant editor Joe Bini as a story consultant on our film. I do, however, disagree with him on this point. Perhaps it’s because I feel I am less of an outsider, as my wife is American, and being born to Punjabi immigrants in Canada, I’ve never felt like an insider anywhere. But I fundamentally disagree with this idea, because whether we are American citizens or not, we live under an American empire and people around the world are impacted greatly by American domestic policies. We are seeing it now as the financial capital that devoured America’s real economy looks to privatize the social safety net in other parts of the world, and the way America treats those it imprisons has a similar global impact. Ask any activist around the world, and they will tell you that it’s infinitely harder for them to call out their governments for torturing people using solitary confinement as long as it’s an accepted practice in America.
LW: I read in the press notes that though this is your debut feature, your film “U.A.I.L. Go Back” catalyzed the Canadian company Alcan to back out of a controversial project in India – and you’ve also highlighted Indian street artists in another (award-winning) short. What other social issues do you feel passionate about addressing through your lens?
ASB: Right now I am working through my production collective Time of Day Media to produce short, web-based campaign videos for several American labor unions, including the Communication Workers of America and the Service Employees International Union. I think wealth and power has grown so concentrated amongst the financial elite that organizing working people will be a key to resolving many of the issues we face. I am also in the very early stages of developing a documentary looking at the role of optimism in American society.