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Human Rights in America’s Prisons | Two Films at Cucalorus

Two Films Address Human Rights Issues at Cucalorus

Up the Ridge and The Dhamma Brothers Screen

Hope Behind Bars: Two Cucalorus films highlight human rights in American prisons

by Emily Rea

This article was published on the Encore Archives Blog on November 12, 2008cucalorus

Amidst the comedies and shorts, dramas and workshops at the 2008
Cucalorus Film Festival, two documentaries will emerge in the unwritten
sub-category of “humanitarian,” each attempting to shed a little light
on the dark and often misunderstood existence of inmates behind prison

In the minds of many, prison is a place where people go to be
forgotten, where they are defined by their crimes and left to suffer
the consequences, no longer rendered as citizens of humanity. “They are
past redemption,” the public might say, sometimes followed behind, “It
serves them right.” But there are two films at this year’s festival
that bravely charter uncomfortable territory, asking such unspoken
questions as, “Does a life really become good for nothing once it
passes through prison doors?” or “Is there any hope for a person
capable of committing a horrendous crime?” and “Is it even worth a

The questions run deep, but Director Jenny Phillips, for one, was unafraid to dig them up and grant them public exposure.

The Dhamma Brothers
Director: Jenny Phillips

In her film The Dhamma Brothers, the story Phillips weaves
together onscreen is factual, making it all the more captivating—if not
uneasy—for audiences to watch. The cameras go behind the exterior of an
overcrowded maximum-security prison in Alabama: Donaldson Correctional
Facility, which houses 1,500 of the most dangerous and unmanageable
criminals in the state. However, it is also the first maximum-security
prison in America to have been introduced to an extended Vipassana
retreat, a 10-day course of silent meditation for inmates that is both
emotionally and physically demanding.

“The inmates were receptive toward the possibility that the program
could benefit them in their quest for peace,” Phillips tells. “The
process of change involved their having [a] safe space and the skills
to take a deep journey inside, and to look squarely at their selves in
the deepest and most fundamental way.”

Phillips first visited Donaldson back in 1999 and had the
opportunity to get to the prisoners now known as The Dhamma Brothers.
“What they told me about their lives in prison was deeply stirring and
unforgettable,” Phillips recalls. “From that first visit, I became
committed to these men, their stories, and their dreams of finding
inner peace and redemption.”

Recognizing that the inmates themselves had a desire to change,
Phillips got cameras rolling to document the immense dhamma brotherspotential for
human transformation and spiritual development that the program could
provide—as well as to turn the perspective on those in the “free world”
on its ear.

“In the 1980s, we strayed from seeing incarceration as a way to
rehabilitate people and moved toward the view that ‘nothing works’—that
we need to lock people away for as long as possible, only hoping they
will never return to the streets,” Phillips explains. “In fact, the
research that said that nothing works was faulty. Prisoners are often
highly motivated toward change. I wanted to show this reality in a
powerful way, and that is why I decided to make a film.”

Following 36 prison inmates at Donaldson, focusing on four main
characters, the film, as Phillips says, “shines a spotlight upon
society’s outcasts and untouchables as they emerge from their journey
with a collective sense of peace and purpose.”

But the question on the minds of many may remain: Why? What’s the point?

“First of all most prisoners do return to society, so it is clearly
a public safety issue,” Phillips offers. “But for those who are not
going to be able to return, which is about 3 percent, they are still
alive and affecting those around them. Someone like Grady, whom you
learn [about] in the film, is never going to leave prison [but] has the
capacity to be a positive contributor to the Earth from living a
healthy, peaceful life. And this was what Grady was looking for!”

As for those of us on the other side of the screen, she goes on to
note, “I really don’t think there is fundamentally much difference
between the spiritual development of a prisoner and that of a person in
the ‘free world.’ The real difference is that prisoners are unhappy and
yearning to construct meaning in their lives. They have none of the
distractions we have, and are in that way a ‘captive audience’ for
spiritual development … The prisoners are elevated souls from whom we
can learn important things about our own spiritual development.”

It is a point that Phillips hopes audience members will reap the
benefits of through the viewing of this film; although, she is not
remiss to mention another, perhaps most poignant, benefit for the
inmates themselves. “They were very attracted to the concept that their
stories would be heard and useful,” she says. “Prisoners’ greatest fear
is that they will be forgotten, and the film helped them believe that
they would not be forgotten.”

Narrowing her film down to single sentiment, Phillips says simply,
“Where there is life, there is hope. And often those members of society
whom we are least likely to listen to have the most important things to

The Dhamma Brothers will be showing at Jengo’s Playhouse on Thursday, November 13th, from 9:45-11pm; 815 Princess Street downtown.

Up the Ridge
Director: Nick Szuberla
Up the Ridge
For the filmmakers of Up the Ridge,
rather than seeking out a story within an issue about which they were
passionate, this film is the result of a human-rights crisis that
practically landed right in their laps—one they could not ignore.

“When we received hundreds of letters from prisoners at Wallens
Ridge describing human-rights abuses, we knew, as artists who serve our
community, that we had to respond,” hip-hop radio deejay and filmmaker
Nick Szuberla says. “We began by producing a radio program that brought
hundreds of prisoner family members’ voices to the airwaves and then
began shooting a documentary.”

The shocking discoveries that followed were disclosed through
hundreds of letters from inside the walls of Wallens Ridge, the
region’s newest prison that was built in order to prop up the local
shrinking coal economy. The letters revealed stories of the inmates
living there who faced human-rights violations and racial tension
between themselves and staff on a daily basis. The fact that thousands
of inner-city minority offenders had been moved to distant rural
outposts was only the start of what filmmakers hoped to reveal, as the
film seeks to examine the state of U.S. prison-industrial complexes.

“Reports of human-rights abuses in your local community should get
everyone, including documentary filmmakers, on up the ridgetheir feet,” Szuberla

Especially shocking to Szuberla was the number of non-violent
prisoners serving long sentences in prisons across America and the fact
that the state of Virginia has no parole, creating a harsher prison
system to make up for the lack of hope.

“Open and honest dialogue about the system that moves beyond the
fear mongering or simplistic notions [can initiate change],” he
observes. “An active community dialogue that challenges the notion that
over-incarceration of our population is a way to make our communities
safer [is another way].”

The making of the film wasn’t always easy-going, however, as not
everyone approved of his point-of-view. “Officials from the Virginia
Department of Corrections never let us inside the prison, promising us
once but changing their minds the day of the shoot,” he says. “The
reactions from their officials, at the time, were threats of legal
action or just plain threats.”

But several screenings of Up the Ridge were done in the
community where the prison is located, and the outside response,
according to Szuberla, was “overwhelmingly positive.” Since the release
of this powerful documentary, he has seen a ripple effect of change.

“Along with a grassroots effort by prisoner friends and family
members to create change, we have seen the Department of Corrections
reduce the use of practices universally deemed human-rights
violations,” he reports.

In fact, a project known as Thousand Kites—an interactive arts
project focused on the U.S. criminal justice system—was also birthed
during this time, resulting from the idea to use radio, video, theater
and [the] Web to spark a national dialogue about the U.S. criminal
justice system. “The film started us on what has been a very long and
rewarding artistic journey into working for positive change,” Szuberla
notes. “We all have a stake in how we address crime, what happens in
our nation’s prisons and how people are treated before they are
released,” Szuberla maintains.