Female inmates collaborate to envision alternatives to prison in documentary film

By: Ariella Pahlke, co-director, Conviction

Walking into a prison armed with magic markers, paint, cameras and musical instruments, it must have looked like we were about to teach an art therapy workshop, not help inmates reimagine society or propose alternatives to prisons. Yet through collaboration and creative expression, that’s exactly what happened — and no one was more shocked than we were.

Of course, my co-directors and I knew we were working with a group of keen, articulate and insightful women while making Conviction, a film airing on the documentary Channel. But we had no idea that they would take our creative exercise so far.

Making a film through collaboration

When we began working on Conviction, we knew we wanted to use a collaborative approach, one that would encourage the women to be active participants in the process, authoring their own stories about their own lives.

We wanted to make a film with them instead of about them.

Longtime prisoners’ rights activist senator Kim Pate was at one of our first sessions at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth, N.S. She stood at the chalkboard in front of 10 incarcerated women and a guard, and posed the question that’s at the core of our film: “What would you have needed in your life to avoid incarceration?”

According to a report from the Office of the Correctional Investigator, almost 70 per cent of women in federal prisons report a history of sexual abuse, and more than 86 per cent report experiencing physical abuse at some point in their lives. Because of this, mental health issues among inmates are common, and these women tend to have a diminished sense of agency and self-worth. Incarceration only intensifies these problems.

Here was a new opportunity for the women to express themselves. We asked them to go full “blue sky,” “magic wand,” no holds barred when responding to Pate’s question — and their answers were fascinating, heartbreaking and remarkably insightful. 

As the women painted, wrote poetry and made short films, what emerged was that they would have needed “someone to listen” and love them “unconditionally” to avoid incarceration. Looking toward the future, they also expressed a need for  “a place to go” after leaving jail.

The women began to envision a place in the community where they could be heard, get the support they’d needed their entire lives and, ultimately, where they could also work and help others. They wrote their own blueprints for a better society through art, and in the process, began their journeys as collaborators in the documentary itself. 

Inmates became filmmakers, documenting their own experiences

The collaborative dynamic evolved over four years of making Conviction. As filmmakers, our relationship with the people in our films is never equal. We represent others and work with their stories to tell a larger story. We have the power to ask questions, to frame shots and to edit. In telling someone’s story, we get to define what has meaning and what doesn’t.

We wanted to minimize this power imbalance, so we gave the women camcorders to film their own experiences. As the women took the cameras outside the prison walls to have us bear witness to their struggles, it became clear that it was often difficult for them to share their most intimate moments on camera, knowing “the world” might see them.

They began to fear that the film would have negative repercussions on future employment, peers or family members. We struggled with the question that plagues any filmmaker who wants to shed light on a difficult social issue by giving voice to vulnerable people: How can we do this without exploiting, arming and further marginalizing them?

Female prisoners create short films to tell their stories
"It wasn’t until I went to prison that I found my voice." Ex-convict talks about her experience

During the lengthy editing process, we involved the women in many of the decisions about what to include or not to include. They challenged us and insisted on sharing many of their most vulnerable moments, which are some of the most compelling in the documentary.

Committed to having the women choose what they wanted to share, we also wanted to stay true to the bigger picture, balancing the women’s personal perspectives with larger questions we wanted our viewers, and society, to be asking. As Pate states in the film, it can be hard for people who have been institutionalized for most of their lives to imagine life differently, beyond the constraints that have continually framed them.

But ultimately, we chose to trust the women and to respect the process and their tenacious desire to contribute. We learned from them — as filmmakers and friends — and watched as they went on to take their creative exercise beyond the film and develop their own idea for an alternative to prison, a community-based project called From the Ground Up.

Conviction’s collaborative approach aims to collapse the concepts of “us” and “them,” the filmmaker and the subject, the viewer and the inmate. At the end of the film, Jules, who took part in creating Conviction’s music and spoken word from inside the Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S., aptly sums up the results of our process: Beyond the fence, we see common ground.”

Watch Conviction on the documentary Channel.

Produced with additional funding from: