Director Matt Gallagher and producer Cornelia Principe join us to discuss their Hot Docs 2016 official selection How to Prepare for Prison, the story of three individuals awaiting their fate within the court system. They discussed filming subjects within the legal system and the role of activism in documentary.
Hot Docs: You aren't present when the alleged crime takes place, or when the subjects are in prison. You're filming the long, quiet calm before the storm and negotiating all these "what ifs." What was your strategy for synthesizing that struggle and representing it on film?
Matt Gallagher: If you're charged with a non-violent crime in North America, often you are on the outside for a three- or four-month window, which allows us as documentary filmmakers to be with those people.
Cornelia Principe: Deciding what to shoot and what not to shoot is a crap-shoot. You know what certain things will happen in that period in terms of legal benchmarks, but you have to find your subjects quick in this situation because as soon as you meet them, you are just starting to get to know them, and they are facing prison. Finding the right characters is hard and we shot a year longer than we originally anticipated, because it’s hard to find people who want to open their lives in that sensitive way and the stories had to reach their conclusion in the courts. We had an ending but we didn’t know how we would get there.
HD: Did your characters have common motivations for wanting to be on camera?
MG: Each had different motivations. One’s motivation was that their story was highly publicized in the city of Windsor and boiled down in a 90-second news piece. They were social pariahs and their motivation was to get out their side of the story. Another, I think we were just a good ear for her. I was filming a lot of therapeutic sessions, between the subject and her prison consultant. Everyone had different motivations and we had to figure out what those motivations were.
CP: When you witness a trial the information that comes out of it is very structured. No one every gets to tell their full narrative. It’s all very question and answer, and a very stilted way of finding the truth. Newspapers are they same, they go for the headlines. So this was a chance for them to express the full story in context, whether they were guilty or not.
HD: Can you talk about the logistics surrounding filming people in the midst of a legal battle and filming in court. Are there privacy or shooting constraints placed on you?
MG: We filmed one story about a young offender for a long time, but the family decided at the end of the trial they didn’t want to be in the film.
CP: In terms of the stories in the film, there were no restrictions except that one character had reservations talking about details of the crime because it was before she was sentenced. So she didn't address what happened on camera.
MG: In terms of what you can't shoot. One glaring detail in the film is that its so much easier to film in the United States, and Detroit especially. We got full access to the judges, lawyers, clients and courtrooms. In Canada, it’s very hard to get your camera in a courtroom. It’s just beginning in Canada and only for sentencing. In the US its pretty commonplace.
CP: The only thing we couldn’t film in court was the jury. But we interviewed the judge for the film. They wouldn’t talk about the case, but they are elected in some states, so they are like politicians. When would that happen in Canada?
HD: On November 16, TVO is including How to Prepare for Prison as the documentary component of a 360 degree view of Canada's criminal justice and correction systems, along with debate and analysis on The Agenda with Steve Paikin, related articles and videos, and discussions on TVO's social media channels. How did this partnership develop, and how do you think the film will benefit from themed programming with a broadcaster.
CP: We new when they commissioned the film that they wanted to do broadcasting around it. We’re filmmakers and we made a film to tell a story in the most human way possible, but we’re not activists. So the more the film can generation discussion is great, but it’s not our expertise and there are others that can do that better than us. When we made the film it was still under the Harper government and it was pitched in the context of "tough on crime" legislation. These laws haven’t all been repealed, but the current government certainly has a different perspective than the previous one.
MG: You could do How to Prepare for Prison with an activist slant and all it would take was some experts who can chime in on the various characters, but we didn’t want to do that. I wanted to make a character driven doc. It’s a subtle distinction but the end result makes a huge difference.
CP: I think the other thing to keep in mind is that when you try to make a film from an activist point of view it tends to not necessarily make the best films. To connect with people, I think, you just need to make a good film. And let the activists do their thing after the fact. There is a point of view, for sure, but taking it to the next level in terms of changing legislation is for activists. If they want to use the film for that, more power to them.
HD: Did you make any fruitful connections at Hot Docs Deal Maker for the film?
CP: We were looking for US interest. I had one meeting with iChannel that was hugely fruitful, for second window viewing. We needed that second window in order to get Rogers funding. So, it was worth it for that. Overall, it was worth it to meet lots of different people. If you take the long view, every meeting you have can potentially lead to something down the road. I wouldn't miss the Festival.
How to Prepare for Prison airs tonight on TVO at 9pm. It will also air on TVO on Saturday, November 19 at 9 pm and 1:30 am, and Sunday November 20 at 11 pm.
November 16, 2016