Jonathan stack – masterclass

Jonathan Stack is a New Yorker and a documentary filmmaker whose career has spanned from a fifteen year project about a prison in Louisiana to his current one about himself having a vasectomy. Along the way, Jonathan has pushed the envelope of documentary, filmed in some of the most dangerous places in the world, and changed the world via his prison docs, which created outrage. He has always wanted to push the boundaries.

The session was hosted by veteran Simon Nasht, who has known Stack for many years and is intimately familiar with his output. And having viewed his trailer on the vasectomy doc, now so are we.

Stack told us that he wanted to go beyond making a film over a year or two, and then having the big moment when it’s broadcast and then it’s over. He said sometimes your film gets nominated for an Award and that’s a thrill, but he wanted more, some additional resonance.

He certainly got it with his series around the Angola Prison in Louisiana which began when Stack was at a conference and he read a book by a person inside the jail. He began to correspond with the inmate, and tried to find a way to film him.

A year on, there was a new warden at Angola who was much more media-friendly. “He asked if I could teach him how to use a camera. So I did.”

A prisoner there was ready to be executed. “We were given this fantastic access to the men trying to save this man, and others trying to have him executed. It was called Final Judgment: The Execution of Antonio James (1996) it was my first film.”

“This was a crazy world. When I saw that world I’ve continued filming over the next 15 years.”

For his next film, The Farm, Jonathan chose six characters, including one that was only 22 years old. He assumed that several would be released, not realizing that at Angola the only way to get out of there was to be executed or die of old age. The prisoners are all convicted of murder, rape, or armed robbery, and in Louisiana a life sentence means exactly that – life in jail. After 20 years served, you get one chance to plead your case for parole, but mostly the prisoners’ appeals are denied.

Of the six characters chose for the film, one was executed, and one died of cancer, but the other four remained.

“We formed a very strong relationship with the prison crew,” he said. “We spent a year filming and then edited it over the next year. The Farm won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and that was a huge boost for my career.”

One of the interesting things about that career is the focus on changing things in the real world. It was clear that the prison population came from a small number of neighbourhoods in Louisiana, and Stack interacted with the people there, showing the film and bringing some people up to meet the characters at the prison.

“I didn’t have any intention or plan or thought to get so sucked into this,” he told us. “But the outreach part was so satisfying.”

Stack described a follow up film about the prisoner Vincent Simmons, who extolled his innocence. He was charged with the rape of two white women who were twins. They filmed his parole hearing where he led compelling evidence against the prosecution case, but parole was denied. Its screening caused a furore which created a movement to free Vincent Simmons.

“We made a follow-up film about his pursuit of justice, which was supported by a British broadcaster,” Jonathan added. “They had one slot for multicultural material and they were interested.” However when the film was made, they never screened it in the UK, as it was perceived as portraying black people in a negative light, Jonathan believes.

Stack became somewhat obsessed with Vincent’s innocence. He talked to the District Attorney who was the same one who prosecuted 25 years earlier.

“I hired a private investigator to track down the surviving jury members. I had a thought about speaking to the white twins who it was alleged were raped. But even though we blurred their faces they knew who they were, and the local community knew who they were. So now I felt an obligation to the women and I spent a year getting their trust as well.”

What ended up happening was that after all this work Jonathan felt that both sides had convincing arguments, Vincent that he was innocent and the two women that he was guilty.

“I decided the real issue was did the State prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.” And there was certainly an issue with that – such as the line up photo produced in court, where Vincent was the only one in the photo in handcuffs.

“The women said he couldn’t lie to us. They decided that they had to heal. So I set up a place where the two women could talk to Vincent in the jail, and filmed it. I made a film out of it and everyone hated it. I was profoundly rejected. I tried to find out why. I did a focus group to find out why I’m so hated.” It turned out that white people thought Vincent was guilty and black people were sure he was innocent.

Stack provided some more interesting anecdotes such as how the prisoners competed in an annual even riding bulls and trying to knock the chit off the animal’s head, which they could sell for a few hundred dollars – which when your maximum earnings are 20 cents an hour represents a fortune.

The film made the governor of Angola jail so well recognized by the people of Louisiana that they wanted to make him the Governor of the State. As a Republican he was a shoe-in for the forthcoming election, and he wanted a film of the campaign as well. Stack was totting up how much he would bring in with this fortuitous circumstance when the news broke that the Governor had been discovered having sex with his secretary. So the election bid was off, and so was the film project.

The series of films changed people’s perceptions about the criminal justice system but he realized no film, no matter how powerful, would alter forever people’s attitudes to inmates.

Jonathan also described how he is currently working a project setting up a television station within the jail, staffed exclusively by the prisoners themselves. They have already begun with programs about sports, and he hopes it will become self-supporting. “One in every hundred Americans is in a jail, and one in thirty is in jail or on parole or probation. So if you can tap into the audience of prisoners around the US and their families, who sit at home convinced of their family member’s innocence, that would be something.”

Stack then told us about his time making films in Liberia. “I got myself involved in doing a TV series on the world’s most dangerous places. I got to Liberia and was following this rebel army and I was blown away. It is one of the most unbelievable places in the world.”

He told us how he met two entrepreneurs from Nigeria via a contact in Washington, and submitted a proposal to make a film about the pair to the Sundance Institute’s program Stories of Change. He felt they might go for an idea based around two black Nigerians instead of a film about a white person trying to improve conditions somewhere in the world. He was right, and he got funding to develop the project.

“I just happened to come at a very interesting time in the development of their business. They were going back to Nigeria to bid on two innovative projects. The project was designed to feature successful ideas becoming reality, so the work of the two entrepreneurs was a good fit.”

He mentioned that Sundance is one of a small number of places where filmmakers from all over the world, including Australia, could apply for funds for the right project. Another one is PBS. It’s a small amount of money but it can trigger further funds.

However he admitted that being an impatient kind of guy, he tends to do films for cable TV, because their response to a proposal is swift.

“I used to think that London was like Mecca where you could ask a commissioning editor for a large chunk of money. That money has kind of dried up now. Now you need to explore alternative funding.”

Which is very much the theme of this conference.

To conclude, Jonathan showed us a clip from his work in progress, a comedy starring himself getting a vasectomy. He began it in January 2010, and it remains in rough form.

“I’m interested in real time filmmaking and to do that I have to be in the film,” he said of the project. “That’s the only way to get that much content and control.”


Screen Hub – AIDC 2010

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