There’s no denying that prison makes a compelling setting for film and television. But viewers who think they’ve learned all about life in the big house through its representation on screen should think again — their understanding is likely as thin as the fabric of an orange jumpsuit.
Fictionalized accounts of incarceration such as The Shawshank Redemption and Orange Is the New Black all too often sacrifice accuracy in order to amplify drama, and even documentaries on prison life can fall prey to the same issues. Another Netflix series, Jailbirds, may strive to be a real-life equivalent to Orange Is the New Black, but its slick reality TV packaging makes it feel like The Real Housewives of Cell Block H.
That’s why it’s so startling to find such vividness and directness — and drama, too — in Conviction, a new documentary by Canadian directors Nance Ackerman, Ariella Pahlke and Teresa MacInnes.
In its depictions of women detained in the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility and the Nova Institution for Women, Conviction cuts to the quick in ways that feel raw, incisive and insightful. But it also strikes an important balance most prison films fail to achieve: in addition to capturing the specificity of individual inmates’ experiences, it also addresses the systemic issues behind the incarceration of women, the fastest growing prison population in Canada.
Most importantly, Conviction succeeds because it engages these inmates as agents in their own rehabilitation. Over the course of the film, the inmates participate in workshops encouraging their artistic expression in poems, songs and paintings, and they are invited to imagine alternatives to their incarceration. The women even get behind the camera to film some scenes of the documentary themselves. Crucially, in Conviction, the women aren’t passive subjects — they’re collaborators.
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As Ackerman and Pahlke put it, the goal was to create a film that “flips the narrative away from pop culture’s voyeuristic lens and hands it to the women who are being victimized, marginalized and criminalized in our society.” The result emphasizes the subjects’ shared hope to — as one participant puts it in a poem in the film’s opening moments — “release me from my shackles and let me prove my worth.”
Of course, there are no easy solutions for any of the women we meet, and rehabilitation proves long and difficult (the film covers a span of almost three years). Nearly all of the subjects speak of the abuse they suffered early in their lives, and the signs of self-harm on many bodies speak to the legacy of that trauma. “No one really helped me,” says Bianca Mercer, one of the film’s most compelling subjects. “I was a lost cause, I guess.” Another inmate, Laura Tony, describes growing up in a Mi’kmaq household with a father who continued the cycle of violence that began for him in residential school. “You think it’s normal,” she says sadly.
Though the film project clearly gives these inmates new confidence, setbacks are common. It’s hard to shake the sight of Treena Smith drunk and despondent in a motel room only hours after leaving prison full of energy. By following inmates on release like this, Conviction makes clear that the struggles facing these women are much the same on the outside as they are inside. Sure enough, Smith is soon back where she started.
Yet Conviction encourages new ways of considering the issues for inmates and viewers alike. There’s even room for hope, especially as we see Mercer and Smith discussing alternatives to prison and imagining what a facility that actually met their needs might look like. They call their dream “From The Ground Up,” and the filmmakers even brought in architects to help the inmates design it. As Smith says in another poem, “I see a place where I’m safe.” For now, though, it remains a dream.
This interview first appeared in the September 2019 issue of Broadview with the title “Finding hope behind bars.” For more of Broadview’s award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.
Clarification: A previous version of this review stated there were two Canadian directors of ‘Conviction.’ In fact, there are three. This article has been updated.