Film: The Prison In Twelve Landscapes
Director: Brett Story
Screen Date: 3/17/16
Editor’s Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity
You split time between NYC and Toronto. Canadian citizen or dual citizenship?
Director Brett Story: I’m a Canadian citizen, but much of my graduate research and now the academic post-doctoral fellowship I hold bring me to New York for periods of time.
The first striking thing I noticed about your new film is the cinematography/mise en scene. First the Washington Square Park scenes followed by a rural town (Wheelwright, Eastern Kentucky). Who are some directors/cinematographers you are inspired by?
Many of the filmmakers that I love are also cinematographers, or vice versa. So Peter Mettler is in that category, as is Haskell Wexler and Jem Cohen–these are people that are very attentive to what is seen and how it is seen. So the cinematography is as much about what we glimpse or choose to gaze at as it is composition, framing.
Did you go to film school? You seem to have a keen eye for a shot: lighting, milieu, etc. Are you well-versed in the technical side of film-making or do you rely on others for this sort of thing?
I didn’t go to film school, no! I debated it and in the end decided I’d rather study critical theory and social science, that everything else could be learned through practice. I began as a photographer and then worked in radio documentary, which is still something I love doing. And I’m terrible at the technical side of things. I do think that’s sometimes an excuse people have to dismiss someone as a film director – especially if they are a woman; just because you haven’t kept up on this or that camera, you’re considered unserious, which is obviously such bullshit.
You chose Detroit as one of the 12 landscapes, this will resound with the Ann Arbor audience. Tell us about the Detroit shoot and the Quicken Loans experience. Who was that dapper huckster who gave you the QL tour?
Detroit, I think, is one of the more obscure scenes in the film, one that takes more work to figure out. I felt it was important to make the connection between privatization of public space, the mortgage crisis, gentrification of downtowns, and the prison system. That connection is security – how many cops and private security guards and cameras you have to put into a given area to make it profitable to capital. The guy who gives us the tour is Bruce Schwartz, the ‘ambassador’ for Quicken Loans and its sprawling empire in downtown Detroit. I was first interested in focusing a segment on them because I’d read about a room in which they have hundreds of security monitors connected to thousands of surveillance cameras around their properties all over the country.
This film essentially works as an examination of the American narrative. Discuss this.
I made this film very much wanting to contest the given narratives of the US prison system. We’re told prisons keep us safe, that they exist because there’s so much crime, and that the black and brown bodies in prison are the main threats to our safety. I wanted to make a very different film about the role of prisons in our everyday lives; one that would upend our very ideas about what it is that prisons do.
While you have a part-time residence in New York, any sense of being a voyeur of some of these tragic American tales? Would you care to make any comparisons between Canada and the U.S.?
I think the US gets thought of as a global exception, but all the same trends are present in Canada as well – growing inequality, massive racial segregation, especially of our indigenous population, rampant exploitation of natural resources, and now also an expansion of the state’s powers to arrest and incarcerate. I don’t feel like a voyeur. The US is a global presence, it is very much a part of my culture and reality as well.