How do you make a documentary about prisoners without showing barbed wire, leg shackles, or prison bars? Ph.D. Candidate Rachel Raimist has a poetic answer.
By Danny LaChance
Photo: Kelly MacWilliams
Ph.D. candidate Rachel Raimist unsettles settled ideas about prisoners
For just a moment, David Doppler looks and acts like the prisoner he is. A white t-shirt two sizes too large hangs off his torso. Slouching in a chair with his arms and legs splayed about, he seems consciously to be occupying as much space as his body and clothes will allow. “I'm the ass kicker," Doppler says to the camera, smirking. “I kick ass."
But the menacing image doesn't last. The ass kicking he's referring to? He pesters guys who haven't submitted poems to the weekly poetry workshop he coordinates at the maximum security prison in Stillwater, Minn.
Two years ago, filmmaker and Ph.D. student Rachel Raimist (gender, women, and sexuality studies) spent eight months filming Doppler and other incarcerated men who meet weekly to read, write, and respond to poetry, often with the collaboration of well-known spoken word artists from the Twin Cities—Reggie Harris, Desdamona, Ed Bok Lee, Emmanuel Ortiz. Now, she's sifting through hours and hours of footage, editing the piece.
From the first day she lugged her camera equipment into the prison, Raimist says, she wrestled with the question of how best to represent her subjects on film. It wasn't that she lacked experience as a documentary filmmaker. She'd completed an M.F.A. in filmmaking from UCLA in 1999, and her master's project, a documentary on female hip hop artists titled Nobody Knows My Name, had gained critical acclaim and was still being shown at conferences and film festivals. But from the beginning, she says, this project felt different.
“This wasn't a space like hip hop, where I live it, I'm part of it, I can theorize it from the inside," she explains. “I was an outsider." And so, she notes, are those who are often responsible for our conceptions of prison life. Prison documentaries, she explains, are typically produced by people who “come into the space, and it feels like they're doing a drive-through, a tour, an exposé—interviewing through bars, filming down on people. They seem to have this entitlement, this claiming." And so she set out to capture the more complex reality of prisoners who were trying to stake their own claim in the world through their poetry.
Just as her previous film captured the side of hip hop that never gets airtime—its progressive politics, its feminist roots—Raimist wanted her depiction of the poetry workshop to unsettle our received ideas about prisons and prisoners. In her documentary, prison isn't a place where time stops or people devolve into animals. It is, rather, a site of growth and change, a place where men find—or fail to find—dignity amid trying conditions.
To document that complex reality, Raimist tried to bridge the physical and psychological distance between filmmaker and subject as much as possible. Along with the other visiting artists, she participated in the workshops, reading her own poems, talking with the men about the joys of being the mother of a fourth-grader, recounting memories of her adolescence in Middletown, New York, her half-shaved head bobbing incessantly to hip hop. To gain the trust necessary for something as intimate as poetry writing to happen meaningfully, she explains, “All of us outsiders had to become part of the circle."
When Raimist did turn on the camera, she was careful about how she was framing the men. She intentionally never shot film in the parts of the prison that looked the most prison-like. There are no bars, no coils of barbed wire in this film. To capture the uniqueness of each participant, she zoomed in on individual faces rather than the cellblocks so frequently seen in film.
The focus, she says, was always on the community within the walls of the prison—not the walls themselves. “I got a lot of close-up shots of hands writing because I thought it was more about that," she says. She sometimes ceded the camera to the inmates, who became, in those moments, the producers as well as the subjects of their own stories.
Those methods make this documentary exceptional, says Louis Mendoza, chair of the Department of Chicano Studies, who has studied the depiction of prisons in literature. “She's capturing questions," he says of Raimist's work. “It's not just simply ‘let's put them on display.' It's about the process, the struggle, the need for clarity, even as there is a willingness to embrace ambiguity or uncertainty about what the outcome is going to be."
That's precisely the effect Raimist hopes to generate. “Many people in that circle didn't get any real education. A lot of them barely had junior high educations," she notes. “Giving them some tools to look critically at their environment, their space, their lives, their background—it's a really powerful, transformative thing."
And while her documentary will inevitably reflect her own biases, Raimist is hoping that it will throw a wrench into the media machinery that keeps cranking out images of prisoners as lost causes. “Prison gets a very skewed, bad rap," she says.
To be sure, she's experienced its darker side. She's been cat-called in the hallways, and in one of her first weeks in the prison, a prisoner reached underneath the table and pinched her. But she's also seen in the Stillwater Poets, as she calls them, glimpses of her brother, her cousins, the guys she used to date in high school.
She's seen and documented guys with their arms defiantly crossed in March sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in August, talking about the children they never see or will never have. She's seen guys carrying each other's poems around in their pockets, talking about masculinity and the American dream.
People came to the workshop with very limited perspectives, she says. “And what they gained was an infinite amount: pockets of hope and spaces of possibility."
To see a working version of Raimist's documentary, go to reach.cla.umn.edu/raimist.