Movies: A Look at an American Prison Tragedy

At the Movies

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(From Left) Intrepid Dalit journalists Shyamkali Devi, Meera Devi, and Suneeta Prajapati attending an event in Kashmir in new film “Writing with Fire.” Photo courtesy of Black Ticket Films

Every year during Oscar season, Academy voters come up with a winning list of five films for the Best Feature Documentary category. Here are two of the five nominees.  

Writing with Fire

Bravery comes in the form of gently smiling women brandishing smartphones in the new documentary “Writing with Fire.” The film shows a fight against great odds: a determined group of female journalists maintain India’s only women-led news outlet, working in a social environment built to marginalize them based on caste and gender. The women of the outlet Khabar Lahariya (‘Waves of News’), all from the Dalit caste (“untouchables”), are shown preparing the transition of their newspaper from print to digital even though many of their reporters don’t even have access to electricity at home (this film is unrated and runs 93 minutes).  

Armed with their smartphones, Chief Reporter Meera Devi (an imposing presence) and her team of dogged investigative journalists take on some of India’s biggest issues–exposing the relentless discrimination against women in their country and magnifying the voices of those who suffer from the oppressive caste system. They also directly confront stodgy government officials and party mouthpieces in their aim to get truthful news stories out in dangerous regions of their increasingly polarized country. They do this serious work partly on the fly but with a wondrous spirit of collaboration and good humor, with giggles spicing their private moments. 

Meera is the veteran, touchstone, and mentor for her team, and in the film she is ably seconded by two younger colleagues,  Shyamkali Devi and crime reporter Suneeta Prajapati. After intensive training with Meera, they and other young women, already more attuned to new technology, are now more imbued with journalistic principles and techniques. 

Indian co-directors Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas worked on the film over five years and pulled off a casting coup in finding its trio of unassuming stars. The filmmakers also prove that they have a great camera’s eye, introducing us to lively and colorful sketches of Indian sites and landscapes. The picture is the first feature-length film by the co-directors who also produced and shot it, while Ghosh also edited it.  

Though released late last year, “Writing with Fire” was seen in only a few US markets, but its Oscar nomination last month has brought it new critical raves and renewed attention, enough for it to be re-released in some parts of the country.  It will be on digital platforms (Vudu) at the beginning of March and later be available on DVD. Its initial discovery came early last year when it won two major awards—the Audience Award and Special Jury Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.  It has also won awards at more than 20 international film festivals and competitions.

If I wanted to characterize this picture with one word (one heard too little these days) I would say “heartening.” A winner. 

Grim aftermath of the assault in the prison yard of the Attica Correctional Facility on September 13, 1971, in “Attica.” Photo courtesy of Showtime Pictures

Attica

Last year marked 50 years since the country’s most infamous and deadly prison uprising, an anniversary recognized by the release of a major documentary of that name. “Attica” was recently chosen as one of the Best Documentary films of 2021 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an amazing re-telling of a landmark event.  The film’s setting is grim, yes, but the historical recounting of this searing event merits discovery by new generations (The film is rated “TVMA” and runs one hour and 56 minutes,  it is now available on Showtime and streaming on YouTube).

Attica had seen unrest for some time before the uprising with inmates protesting horrendous conditions at the facility and systemic racist attitudes omnipresent (the prison population was about two-thirds black and brown.) As one surviving inmate sardonically says in the film: “We had 70 percent brown and black  prisoners and all the guards were white; what could go wrong.” As one oldster from the time recounted: “Inmates were considered like animals.”

A morning incident on September 9, 1971, triggered a sudden lockdown in one section of the Attica with inmates breaking barriers and taking 42 hostages.  In an overcrowded prison of over 2,000 prisoners, more than half took part in the protest, taking over one whole wing of the facility. 

Asked about how the directors, Stanley Nelson and Traci Curry, came up with the film’s footage, Nelson said they had plenty of material, principally because the inmates invited the media in to see their plight. There was no lack of footage from local TV stations and national networks because the story was so singular and stunning.         

Among the most intriguing footage shown, at length, are the negotiations between prison authorities and inmates, which lasted three days, and was fraught with tension and drama between unrelenting sides. 

The impasse broke on the morning of September 13, with the arrival of an assault helicopter and the release of tear gas over one of the prison yards, followed by a full scale assault on the unarmed inmates gathered there. It was no contest and lasted less than 20 minutes before the inmates surrendered and the uprising was over. The result: 33 inmates killed, 10 prison guards, all but four of them dead by police bullets. 

Key to re-telling this appalling story was the decision to include dozens of interviews, many with surviving inmates of the time, now in their 70’s and 80’s, grizzled and regretful, eyewitnesses to the worst prison riot in our history. 

One of those witnesses wryly observed that Attica was, “In many ways, the end of the 1960’s,” if not the end of prison reform.      

Oops! Mistake in Release Date

In the last Hill Rag, I wrote that the musical “Cyrano,” would be released in DC on January 28th.  In truth, the film opened on February 25th. That earlier date had been given to me by a distributor, and I ran with it.  Sorry for the error, but I still urge moviegoers to check out what is a handsome and poignant feature. 

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” www.mikesflix.com