Director - Jaque Fisher
Giving something back to the community from which you had taken, is a very difficult thing for a prisoner to do from within the walls of maximum security prison. For a small group of young inmates in The Youth Unit at Port Phillip Prison, that challenge inspired them. They devised a very clever and admirable plan which they took to their Youth Development Officer, Anne Hooker, who's office door is always open. The plan was a program called Stories From The Inside.
I had a call from Mary Macrae at Shark Island Productions about 2 years ago asking if I would be interested in undertaking a unique project. She described it to me, telling me I would be working with young prisoners in a maximum security prison, possibly for up to a year.
The conversation caught me completely by surprise, the prospect was exciting to say the least and I jumped at the opportunity.
Soon after that I met producer Ian Darling to discuss the project further and this was when I learnt that the concept for the documentary came from the prisoners themselves. That blew me away, I was so impressed by such thoughtful initiative.
Ian also made it very clear to me in our first meeting that this film would be made by the prisoners, and we were there to help. This meant they would be guiding and participating in every step of the filmmaking process, that's filming, interviewing, sound recording, editing and every detail down to the DVD cover and website design.
The prisoners had already attempted filming their stories themselves with handycams, but were a little dismayed at the results, so they asked for some help and Shark Island Productions were more than happy to assist.
I was given a copy of these first attempts and whilst the stories were incredibly real and gripping and I replayed them immediately, there were some things I could help them with in telling their stories effectively. I started visiting for a few hours a week across different days.
The first thing I needed to do was train the guys in how to use the cameras. This was good because it gave me some time to get to know the guys before I talked to them about their personal stories on camera. I taught them the basics of composition and exposure, then about focal lengths and depth of field. The guys picked up the concepts within a few days, and sound recording was even quicker. Next we covered two camera interview setups and eyelines (making sure that the interviewee is facing the same direction in both cameras) and within a week or two they were ready to tackle their first interview.
We used two DSLR's, three zoom lenses and a sound recorder. At the time DSLR's were perfect for the job because of their small form factor and the logistics involved with filming in prison, but they also allowed us to keep backgrounds out of focus by using particular focal lengths and apertures, which helped to conceal identities.
It was made clear to us from the beginning that identities were required to be concealed out of respect for and the protection of victims, victim's families and offender's families. Knowing that faces would need to be pixelated, we employed one of the two cameras as "eye cam". Filming an extreme close up of the eyes concealed all other identifiable facial features but it allowed you to see some of the honesty and emotion. It helped to make that person "somebody", it helped put back some of the "human" that the pixelation would take away.
I was very fortunate to be able to spend a lot of time with the guys. I began by spending each day in the unit, sometimes just hanging out and talking about everyday things completely off the topic of the film. It was great, we were getting to know each other really well and after some time a significant level of trust had developed between us, which continued to grow over the year.
It still felt like early days to me, and although the guys were ready to talk about their offences on camera, I wanted to get to know them more first. When I'm meeting someone for the first time or getting to know them, "Tell me all about the bad things you've done." isn't at the top of my list of questions for them, if at all. But obviously for this film, that's an important detail.
So I waited until I felt that I knew each person well enough, and had a certain degree of mutual trust, before I asked them if I could take them through the details of their offence. Although the guys were starting to wonder when they would tell their stories, I think it was a good move and I believe it paid off. They've told people about their offences more than once before. When you tell a story time and time again, sometimes you start to recite it, rather than casting your mind back to the exact moment to recall it along with all the details and emotions which can get lost sometimes.
Each time we interviewed there were no more than three or four people in the cell. Either myself or another prisoner would interview, and usually two prisoners would operate the cameras and sound recorder. The roles were shared between interviews or day to day so that everybody involved could try something different if they wanted to. Keeping the cell door closed and having a small number of people in the cell made it easier for the prisoners to speak openly and honestly in front of the cameras. There were many times when the guys came out of a session knowing more about their fellow inmates than they'd learnt in the time that they had spent living together in such tight spaces. I think it did a lot of good for them, being able to speak openly in front of their fellow inmates, and also having an ongoing project to focus on helps to pass the time in a positive and constructive way.
As my first experience in prison, it was a truly amazing one that won't be forgotten. I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent working with these young men over the past 15 months, largely due to their relentless enthusiasm, devotion and hospitality. I think STORIES FROM THE INSIDE is a powerful initiative, and one which I'm very proud to have been a part of.