Obscure film review: Shakespeare Behind Bars

Shakespeare Behind BarsHank Rogerson, USA / UK, 2005
Viewed on DVD, July 21

My former committee chair is still paying me for some research, and my latest project was to watch three films for her and report on them. She helpfully suggested that this might produce material for my blog a well! So far, I’ve just watched this documentary, and while trying to psych myself up to watch these cheesy-looking horror flicks, I thought I would go ahead and provide a much-modified version of the report I made to her.

This documentary covers a program by the same name, in which an oddball, long-haired guy who has been visiting this medium-security prison in Tennessee for the last few years (and continues to do so). While there, he good-nautredly cajoles the inmates, who are (surprisingly?) committed to the whole thing, to produce a passable production. The filmmakers draw their interviews and rehearsal footage from four or five key days out of a year in which The Tempest was the chosen play. The proceedings are captured on some not-so-high-quality video, perhaps more with an eye for television than for its minor theatrical release.

The rehearsals are interesting, and the director seems to have some reasonably solid methods for coaxing the best possible performances out of the inmate actors (he even seems a bit harsh at times). A few days before I watched this, I attended an amateur performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which the director had seemingly allowed most of his young cast to repeat everything in a jarring sing-song tone, and I thought the prisoners’ efforts at least compared favorably to that attempt. I was, however, a bit disappointed when almost none of the final performance made it into the film! Rather then hear their lines, we get brief snippets which have been compiled into a musical-montage, an unfortunate choice in my opinion. There are, however, several clips from the performance amongst the extensive “special features” section of the DVD. I have to admit that I didn’t actually watch them;  I suppose my attention span was already maxed out by the time the film ended.

This skittishness about actually showing us their play led me to question whether the documentary is even really about Shakespeare. The director encourages the inamtes to find parallels between their life experiences and their characters, and he heavily pushes the theme of “forgiveness,” which, I suppose isn’t exactly a stretch or a distortion of The Tempest. Even when speaking directly to the audience (on his way to the prison in one scene), he still takes the idea of Shakespeare as “mirror  up to [human] nature” very literally, which does seem a bit conventional; of course, I had to remind myself that it wouldn’t serve the inmates, or even most of the audience for this film, for him to be more “literary critic” with his analysis.

Of course, the inmates are very responsive to this theme, particularly because most of them seem to be coming up on parole soon (with one exception, we only learn the results of these hearings in captions following the film, while additional updates provided on the DVD automatically load after the film proper concludes). The inmates are generally interesting personalities,  committed to their work and enthusiastic about it (their greatest challenge comes when they try to inspire a new participant to the same committment). They are also all guilty of some heinous crimes (some more heinous than others), most of which might seem to be isolated instances, were it not for the fact that the inmates we meet also tend to be repeat offenders. The “least severe” crime you get is a revenge killing; these are not the guys who got put in jail solely for “victimless crimes” such as drug use.

In telling their stories, the director generally prefers to gather sympathy for them before revealing what they’ve done. Of course, they probably were reticent to explain the latter to their interviewer, but obviously the filmmakers still had full freedom when it comes to editing. This does seem to point to an agenda for the film (one I am not wholly unsympathetic to, as I am highly skeptical of how our prison system works), but ultimately this seems to overtake questions about the program itself. There is some talk about how the Shakespeare program brought focus and discipline to some inmates, but the idea of “forgiveness’ receives much greater emphasis in the film. In general, the filmmakers are unable or unwilling to make a case for any kind of structural reform, or at least for non-punitive, recuperatory corrections (like this program). Instead, they mostly attempt to create personal connection between us and the film’s characters, as if to say to the viewer, “hey, you like these guys, right? Don’t you think that you (the oft-mentioned “society,” an entity that perhaps only the prisoner has a right to speak of as distinct from himself) should forgive them?”

Ultimately, the film Shakespeare Behind Bars sells the titular program short by disconnecting the appeal for a change (and what would the change be exactly?) from its effectiveness, and by making the need for change contingent on this personal appeal. What if we meet an inmate who is thoroughly unlikeable, but also more fit for release? Have the filmmakers carefully managed the interviews to prevent their subjects from becoming unlikeable? (okay, there are one or two, but still) These questions lead me to conclude that director Hank Rogerson has merely provided the viewer with some interesting food for thought, but he has not succeeded in making the cogent argument he believed that he has made.

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